How Parents Can Help With Kids' Back to School Anxiety

Author: Leslie Toldo

You may notice your child has a little anxiety about the new school year, but that should not worry you.

“It is perfectly normal for most people to get a bit nervous over upcoming large life changes. For children, returning to school is a big change,” assures Dr. Molly Gabriel-Champine, Behavioral Health Academic Program Director of McLaren Flint’s internal medicine residency program.

An anxious child may tell you they don’t want to go to school, however the signs of anxiety are often not that obvious in children.

“Depending on a child's age, they may not have the language to be able to identify for themselves or others that they are experiencing anxiety. “

The symptoms of back-to-school jitters may be physical.  Kids may suffer head or stomach aches or fatigue.

“Parents can help by normalizing these physical symptoms for their children and teaching them how to recognize that they are actually experiencing emotions, rather than being ill,” Dr. Gabriel-Champine said. “Something like, ‘I know your tummy is a bit upset this morning.  I think that's because you're starting a new school year and you may be a bit nervous.  Feeling nervous can make our tummies feel funny sometimes.’”

A child with anxiety may also have trouble sleeping or become irritable or angry, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  If these symptoms do not seem to be fading or they interfere with school, home, or play, it may be time to get help.

“If children are still experiencing significant anxiety after a few weeks, or shorter if children are having extreme reactions, parents and their children may benefit from seeking out a therapist to help the child learn to cope with their anxiety,” Gabriel-Champine said.

Like adults, children can develop anxiety disorders.  The CDC lists several types:

  • Separation anxiety: Being very afraid when away from parents.
  • Phobias: Extreme fear about a thing or situation, like going to school.
  • Social anxiety: Being afraid of being around people.
  • General anxiety: Being worried about the future and/or bad things happening.
  • Panic disorder: Episodes of sudden, intense fear that some with difficulty breathing, dizziness, and rapid heart rate.

Because children often keep their anxiety bottled up and the symptoms can be mistaken for other issues, childhood anxiety can be easily missed.  The United States Preventive Services Task Force now recommends anxiety screening for children and adolescents.  The National Survey of Children’s Health revealed nearly eight percent of kids aged 3 to 17 suffer from anxiety disorders.  Children with these disorders are at increased risk of experiencing them as adults, too.

You can help your child handle stressful life changes by setting a routine, like regular bedtimes.  Dr. Gabriel-Champine says it is also vital to talk to your child about upcoming transitions and keep that conversation going.

“Start talking about their new teacher and classroom, and what they can expect a few weeks prior to school resuming.  This can help children prepare and feel less powerless in the moment,” Dr. Gabriel-Champine said.  

If you think your child may have a problem with anxiety, depression, or any other mental health issue, follow this link to get in touch with a specialist at McLaren Outpatient Behavioral Health Services.