How Can I Help My Child Cope With Back-to-School Anxiety?
John Piacentini, PhD
Question: My son is anxious about going back to school, and the closer we get to the first day back, the worse it gets. He’s been acting out and throwing tantrums, saying he refuses to go. What can I do?
Going back to school can be such a stressful time for kids and their families. Starting a new school year can make kids nervous, especially if there will be changes from the previous year, like a new school, new teachers, or new classmates.
When kids feel anxious about going back, it’s important to talk with them about the transition. Find a time to talk when your child is relatively calm. (Avoid times like when your child is upset or getting ready for school.) Here are some things you can say:
“Let’s think of some ways I can help make going back to school easier for you.” Start by suggesting a few simple things, like packing a special snack or walking your child to the classroom on the first few days. But make it clear that
staying home from school just because your child wants to isn’t an option.
“What do you like about school?” Talk about good memories from previous school years. Highlight these positive moments and
use them as a reminder that school can be rewarding and fun.
“Is there anything in particular about this school year that’s worrying you?” Is your child anxious about keeping up? Getting along with teachers? Making friends? Getting bullied? These are common fears among kids, especially if they’ve struggled in school in the past. Talking about your child’s specific concerns can help you find specific solutions.
If your child throws a tantrum about going back to school, try to stay calm and avoid getting angry or upset. This can be really hard to do. But keep in mind that
tantrums are an attention-seeking behavior. So do your best to ignore the tantrum, and praise your child when you see calmer behavior. Then ask when would be a good time to talk about why your child was upset.
The best way to cope with back-to-school anxiety is by easing the transition. Here are some steps that can help both of you feel less anxious:
Project a sense of confidence and understanding. It may seem like a small thing. But when kids know that you know what they’re going through, it can make a big difference: “I see that you’re anxious about the new school year. But I believe in you and will help you get through it.”
Practice morning and evening routines. A few weeks before school starts, start the transition to your school-year schedule. That includes school wake-up times, bedtimes, and mealtimes.
Plan extra time to get out the door in the morning. This is especially important for the first few days of school. It gives you extra time to deal with tantrums or other avoidance tactics without your child being late for class. Having extra time can also reduce your stress, which makes you better equipped to help your child.
Get everything in order ahead of time. Gather needed school supplies well before the first day of school, and work on
organizing your child’s backpack. Get to know the class schedule. You can even go to school together before the first day and find your child’s classrooms and (for older kids)
Give your child choices. Letting kids choose what clothes to wear or breakfast to have can provide a sense of control and excitement about school. You can pick out a few options, then let your child choose a favorite.
Reach out to others for support. Try to set up a playdate for your child and a classmate before school starts. It’s a good opportunity for you, too. Talking to other families about their own back-to-school struggles and successes is a good reminder that you’re not alone.
It’s very common for kids to worry and feel anxious about going back to school. But it’s also possible that other things could be concerning your child. Here are a few questions to consider:
Has anything else happened recently that could be contributing to the anxiety? This could include the loss or illness of a family member or a fight with a close friend.
Is your child getting enough sleep and eating well?
Talking to your child and taking steps to ease concerns can smooth the transition back to school. But if these strategies don’t help and the tantrums continue or get worse, keep an eye on what you’re seeing. You can use an
anxiety log to take notes. The notes will come in handy if you decide to reach out to someone, like a health care professional, for help.