Back-to-School Anxiety in Kids: What to Watch Out For This Year
The Understood Team
At a Glance
Many kids are anxious about going back to school this year.
Some are afraid that they or family members will get sick. Others worry they’ve fallen behind and won’t catch up.
Anxiety can make it harder for kids to use coping skills they’ve learned in the past.
In a typical year, you might expect your child to have the jitters about going back to school. But this year, back-to-school is anything but typical. Many kids are going back feeling more than a little nervous, especially if they’re returning to a physical school. They might be feeling anxiety or a sense of dread.
Even kids who usually look forward to school might be anxious. For kids who struggle with learning or making friends, it can be even harder.
If your child is anxious about going back to school, how do you know if it’s a passing situation or a larger problem? Find out more about anxiety in kids as they head back to school.
Why Kids Feel Anxious Going Back This Year
Some of this year’s back-to-school concerns are new and come just from the pandemic. But for kids who already struggled, these worries build on ones that already existed.
Here are some of the things kids may feel anxious about:
Being behind and not being able to catch up
Seeing other kids and fitting in after being away so long
Following safety rules (or other kids not following them)
Getting sick or family members getting sick
Not being prepared for changes or not knowing what to expect
Having to talk about things that have happened in their family, like illness, death, or the loss of a job
COVID-19 isn’t the only thing causing emotional stress this back-to-school season, either. “I teach mostly Black and brown poor high school students, and my own children are biracial,” says Julian Saavedra, a teacher at Belmont Charter High School in Philadelphia. “The stress of COVID has been coupled with the stress of protests, riots, and the national conversation on race.”
When Anxiety Becomes a Problem
Most people experience feeling anxious at some time. That’s true of kids and adults. They might have sweaty palms, an increased heart rate, and minor stomachaches. But in most cases, those symptoms are temporary.
Anticipating an event often causes more worry than the actual event. “Once you get into the situation that you’ve been nervous about, those feelings may start to go away,” says Kristin Carothers, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta. “You might notice you’re able to move forward and even enjoy yourself.“
But not all kids will feel like they have control over the situation once they get in it. Severe anxiety can come from what’s called toxic stress. It’s when anxiety becomes intense and doesn’t go away that it becomes a problem.
“The feelings are so difficult that you might have panic symptoms like trouble breathing and want to escape the situation,” adds Carothers. And when kids can’t get away from the thing that bothers them, they might act in ways that aren’t appropriate. They might hit or use bad language, which can get them in trouble. Some kids who are very anxious may even refuse school.
What to Do If Your Child Is Experiencing Anxiety
If your child feels anxious about going back to school, you may not know what to do. (It’s especially hard if you feel anxious, too.) Let your child know that lots of people are anxious about going back to work and school, like teachers and other kids at school. Tell your child it’s OK to feel that way, and that you’re always there to talk and listen.
Keep track of signs of anxiety you’re seeing, and when you notice them. This can help you identify patterns in your child’s behavior. The signs may be:
Physical, like having headaches, stomachaches, or trouble sleeping
Emotional, like crying, being afraid, or constantly worrying
Behavioral, like constantly asking “what if,” having tantrums, or refusing to go to school
Jotting down what you’re seeing makes it easier to explain what’s happening to people who can help, like teachers and mental health professionals.
This year, it’s especially important to communicate with your child’s teacher. Many teachers are learning strategies to help reduce anxiety in students. So look for communication from the principal or teacher about how they’re handling this. Talk about your child’s specific fears and coping strategies to try at home.
When school starts, stay connected with the teacher about how your child is doing. Together you can keep an eye on your child’s anxiety, how your child is managing it, and if it’s pointing to deeper struggles that require more support.