Facing Back-to-School Anxiety
As summer comes to an end and parents and kids head to the store to buy new backpacks, pencils, and fresh pink erasers, the reality that we are heading “back to school” starts to sink in.
For many children, the thought of returning to school brings a wave of anxiety and worry. Whether a child is heading off to Kindergarten for the first time or facing the first day of middle school, that first day back can be a bit scary for all grade levels and can fill little hearts with stress and doubts. “No matter what age you are, the first day of school is a transition,” says Dr. Donna Burrowes, a clinical psychologist for Bridgewater Psychiatry in Gulfport. “Transition equals change, and change is hard for most.” Some of that back-to-school anxiety for kids is rooted in having to separate from those who are closest to them. Separation anxiety is common for new students, according to Gerald Cross, School Liaison Officer at Keesler Air Force Base, Biloxi. Cross explained the child will be leaving his or her comfort of parents, home, siblings and pets and “entering a world of unknowns for the first time.” Another aspect is the fear of social situations in which they may feel judged or paranoid that they’ll make a mistake at school and embarrass themselves.
“Some children have fears of not fitting in, or having difficulties making new friends,” explained Cross. Dr. Burrowes points out that children are often anxious about what a new teacher and classmates will be like.
“They worry about whether they will make friends and be able to understand and handle the workload and academic challenges,” she said. “Most of [the fear and anxiety] is related to apprehension of the unknown.” When transitioning up to middle school or to high school, the older student will face a whole new range of experiences, environments, and structures.
“Pre-teens and older teens have the added stress and worries of peer pressure, rotating classes, lockers, and increased academic and social demands,” says Burrowes. “Worries about being accepted and liked by peers are more prevalent with older children and adolescents.”
Dr. Burrowes said pre-adolescents start to compare themselves to their peers more and may be concerned with differences in academic performance, which can lower confidence. Fear and anxiety is not contained solely in the classroom, either. Many children suffer equally on the playground, in the lunchroom, or on the bus.
“The time spent outside of the classroom is a very important part of our children’s school day,” explained Cross. “Often times, this is where our children learn their level of acceptance with other children. They are learning about their social skills, and how to ‘fit in’ with others.” While most kids enjoy the playground, for example, for those who have experienced teasing or bullying, “the playground can bring out some fears,” says Burrowes, as this is often where bullying occurs. “What should be a ‘fun’ part of the day becomes very stressful for some of our children because of [bullying],” adds Cross. Dr. Burrowes said there are also worries associated with just sitting on a bus, including stress about choosing a seat or about whether the bus driver will be nice.
As parents, how might we help our children face back-to-school concerns?
“Anxiety is maintained through avoidance and escape,” describes Dr. Burrowes. “When we avoid situations that bring about anxiety, our minds treat it as if it is dangerous.”
When kids instead face fears and worries head-on — and are able to “successfully get through the transitions” in life — then they “figure out coping strategies to manage their feelings and learn that they don’t have to be afraid,” says Dr. Burrowes. Below are some specific strategies that Dr. Burrowes suggests for parents to try with anxious school-age children:
- Preview upcoming (school-related) events and describe to your child what will be occurring.
- Attend school Open House or Orientation prior to the first day of school. If none are available, visit the school a couple of days before classes begin so your child can see and become comfortable with the surroundings. Tour the campus; meet the teacher, if possible.
- Try to normalize anxiety by explaining that all people experience it and that it will not harm them.
- Do not encourage children to skip or avoid experiences that may be scary or challenging. Rather, gently encourage your child to use strategies to calm down, to challenge their negative thoughts, and to try things that may seem scary (provided they are safe).
- Get children back on a normal sleep schedule and routine at least one week before the first day of school. Being well rested — and feeling somewhat organized and prepared — are essential for combating stress and anxiety.
According to Cross, “effective communication is the key to helping with most situations.” He advises parents to reassure children that feelings of fear and anxiety are real.
“Talking with our children about how they feel about starting school, or returning to school, is key,” he says. “Talk to them daily on how their school day went.” Furthermore, Cross added, “ask open-ended questions to help keep the conversation going.” Second, Cross suggests being involved with your child’s education by communicating often with his or her teacher(s).
“You can do this through email, text message, school folder, lunch visits, volunteer opportunities or PTA/PTO,” he said. “It is also important for parents to acknowledge and manage their own anxieties,” Burrowes concluded. “It is natural for parents to worry, but children pick up on this and sometimes that can create more anxiety and worry for them. Parents can model [their own] calming strategies and positive self-talk for their children.” Parents, if you lovingly help your children face these fears that are all-too-normal, then they’ll transition well into the 2017-2018 school year. Best of luck!
Tracy D. DeStazio is a freelance writer and editor living in Biloxi. She has been married to her high school sweetheart for 23 years and they have three children. One of her earliest memories of back-to-school anxiety occurred on her first day of Kindergarten when she was worried that her Mom might forget to pick her up at the end of the day (which, of course, she didn’t!).