Back to School Anxiety in Kids

Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Entering the school year can be exciting for many children, who are delighted to see their friends and teachers again. But some children find themselves suffering back-to-school anxiety.

5 ways to help your child with back-to-school anxiety

How can you help your child cope with back to school anxiety?

1. Bring back routine and organisation early.

Before school starts, ease back to routine, suggests the NHS. This means things like waking up early again, and having meal times according to the school timetable. Organise and dedicate space for school bags and lunch boxes. With smaller children, you can also do practice runs to the school so the first day rush seems less intimidating.

2. Help them connect.

Encourage connections with peers before school starts. You can organise playdates, reintroduce them to their groups, or encourage your teen to connect with their school friends if they haven’t been in touch over the break.

3. Give them opportunities to reflect on their days.

Once school does start, give your kids your undivided attention when they want to tell you about their day. According to children's charity Barnardo’s, reflecting on possible difficulties and celebrating joyful events and successes can ease back-to-school anxiety.

4. Introduce coping strategies.

You cannot make stress disappear from your child’s life, but you can teach them how to cope better when it does hit.

The UK's Young Minds charity suggests things such as breathing techniques, mindfulness, and journaling. And spend some time outside, engaging in outdoor play or sports, which can also fill your child’s cup with positive coping energies.

5. Provide reassurance.

Make sure that your child knows you are always there for them, no matter what. Be open and responsive to them.

If they have started to shut down to you and other family members when experiencing problems, see if they would like to speak to a family friend or school counsellor.

Or consider a child psychologist or therapist who can create a safe space for them to share.

Back to school anxiety - normal, or something to worry about?

Life transitions naturally come with some anxiety. And that feeling of nervousness can actually be helpful. According to an article in the Journal of Physiology, a certain level of stress can help problem solving and sharpen our senses.

Of course we need to know the different between stress and clinical levels of anxiety.

How to spot anxiety red flags in your kids

If the chaos of the first few weeks of school ends and your child is still experiencing ongoing changes to their behaviour, that are staying steady or worsening? It could be clinical anxiety.

The NHS discusses common signs of anxiety in young children as:

  • irritability or tearfulness
  • becoming more clingy
  • disrupted sleep
  • wetting the bed, bad dreams
  • problems with eating.

Older children might experience:

Separation anxiety

Separation anxiety is normal in our toddlers. But if a school-age child continues to show issues with being separated from you, it is worth learning about separation anxiety disorder.

Separation Anxiety Disorder, according to this article in the Journal of Paediatric Health Care, is one of the most common mental health problems amongst younger school-aged children. The article explains how the somatic symptoms (such as stomach ache, difficulty in sleeping, or changes to eating) can mean it is easier overlooked as something else.

Once diagnosed, there are various treatment options that include cognitive behavioural therapy and play therapy, as well as working on family dynamics.

Academic and social pressure

In older kids academic and social pressure can be behind a lot of anxiety.

Small amounts of academic and exam stress can motivate students to study. But a Chinese study connects academic stress to symptoms of anxiety and depression. They found that getting sufficient sleep and regular physical exercise can lessen this impact, so ensure your older children have a balance between study and a healthy lifestyle.

As for social lives, while some children find lifelong friends, peer pressure and bullying are still all too prevalent in British schools. According to this review, peer victimisation can cause significant distress, social avoidance, and isolation.

Parents need to be hyper aware as to how easily bullying can now also happen on social media platforms.

What should I do if my child is suffering school anxiety?

Keep the channels of communication open between you and your child. If their anxiety is out of control and affecting their ability to cope, they might benefit from speaking to a child therapist.

Is your anxiety behind your child's struggles?

If your own anxiety might be behind your child's anxiety, judging yourself is unhelpful. It's far better to reach out for support and help. A counsellor or psychotherapist understands that parenting can be overwhelming, and creates a safe space for you to be honest about your struggles and find new ways forward.

Does you or your child need some extra support? Use our easy booking tool to find an understanding therapist that perfectly matches your needs and stop struggling alone.

Liz Szalai is a freelance writer and a mother with an MA in psychology.

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