Managing Back-to-School Anxiety

School supply sales, summer reading lists and pre-season sports practices are all reminders that your vacation is over. For students of all ages, transitioning back to school can be associated with a host of emotions ranging from anticipation and discomfort to anxiety and worry. In our practice, we are often talking to families about how to manage this back-to-school period. The following is a list of strategies that we have found to be most helpful in this process.

  1. Schedules and Structure at Home : It is essential to maintain structure and routine before and after school. Planning a regular after-school schedule with input from your child will support his or her ability to manage their homework and downtime effectively.

  2. Sleep Hygiene: We know that sleep is crucial to healthy emotional and physical development. Regardless of workload, sleep should be prioritized. Ensure that your child or teen has consistent and age-appropriate bedtime and wake-up times even over the weekends. Screens should be outside of their bedrooms during specified hours.

  3. Screen Time: Screens are an inevitable part of your child’s academic and social life. Discussions about responsible use of social media, limits for screen time use and the level of parent supervision should be a continuous and expected conversation throughout the year.

  4. Managing Anxiety about School: It’s hard to see our children experiencing unpleasant emotions, but we must remember that discomfort, and at times worry, is a normal part of life. Children and teens experience anxiety about the uncertainty associated with the beginning of the school year, such as not knowing who their teachers are going to be, if their friends are going to be in their class or how to navigate their new school building. They may also experience stress due to the increased demands of homework, sports practices and an unfamiliar social environment. Avoidance is often a strategy utilized to cope in the short-term by both children and parents. Although this strategy provides relief in the short term, we know that avoidance often contributes to an increase in anxiety in the long term. It is important that we convey confidence in our child’s ability to manage the typical ups and downs of the beginning of the school year by allowing them to independently negotiate obstacles as they arise.

  5. Clear Expectations: It is essential to be clear about expectations. No matter the extent of your children’s anxiety, how tired they are because they didn’t get enough sleep or whether they didn’t complete their homework, they are expected to attend school every day, on time. Starting with clear expectations at the beginning of the school year communicates that school is the child or teen’s responsibility and, while at times it may be difficult to go, we know he or she can work through the challenging moments.

Often we get asked how to distinguish typical levels of anxiety from anxiety that warrants professional attention. Anxiety can manifest in a number of ways, such as physical complaints, difficulty sleeping and an increase in irritability. While some of this is to be expected, if you begin to see drastic changes in your child or teen’s functioning in school, at home and with friends, we recommend contacting your school guidance counselor, your pediatrician or a mental health professional in your community for further assessment.

It is important to remember that children and teens are naturally resilient and are more equipped than we often realize. Navigating the daily hassles associated with the beginning of the school year is yet another opportunity to build self-esteem and stronger coping strategies.