Parents Can Have Back-to-School Anxiety Too—Here's How to Cope

Kids aren't the only ones who get anxious during back-to-school season. Here, experts share their top coping strategies for parents, whether you're worried about classroom violence, academic performance, or anything in between.

The first day of school can trigger plenty of anxiety for students, who might worry about fitting in, navigating coursework, and being away from caregivers. But as it turns out, many parents also suffer intense nervousness as summer draws to a close.

"The fears that parents experience are multiplying at the beginning of every school year," says John Duffy, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety. According to Dr. Duffy, parents might worry about all kinds of things: academics, school shootings, mental health crises, social media activities, drug usage. They can hear about scary situations on the news—such as cyberbullying or classroom violence—and worry their kid will experience the same.

Whether your child is in kindergarten or high school, it's normal to dwell on their academic performance and well-being. But, as parents grapple with their own anxieties, they need to take care not to pass their worries onto their kids. "Even young children can pick up on things," says Sarah Furlong, a doctoral candidate and clinical psychologist who works with children and parents at UNC School of Medicine.

As another school year rolls around, here's how parents can cope with their own back-to-school worries and anxieties in a healthy way.

Focus on the Positive

Kids blossom when they're surrounded by activities and support at school, says Dr. Duffy. "Kids thrive, by and large, during the academic year." They might work hard to master division, make first chair in the orchestra, or excel on the soccer field. As you gear up for the school year, don't just fret about what could go wrong—think about the positives. Your child is becoming an educated, independent person that's getting ready to navigate the world.

And if your child does struggle, many schools offer support and advice to help them. "There are social workers, psychologists in the building that they can go see," says Dr. Duffy. "There are teachers who are on their side. There's all sorts of opportunities for kids to advocate for themselves."

Mother and child going home from school
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Find a Support System

Speaking worries out loud can help ease back-to-school anxiety for parents. But don't burden your kid with all of it, advises parenting educator Michelle Icard, author of Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen: The Essential Conversations You Need to Have With Your Kids Before They Start High School. "Your kids will feed off of your feelings," says Icard. "This is not to say that you shouldn't have these feelings, but you need to find the appropriate place to explore them, and it's not with your child."

Instead, find other adults (partners, family members, friends) who are willing to discuss your concerns. They can also offer some real-life perspective, especially if they also have school-aged children. Online support groups and forums can also serve as outlets for your worries.

Do Something About Your Worries

Sometimes taking action can ease our worries, says Dr. Duffy. For example, he recently encouraged parents to attend a school board meeting about a pressing issue within their district. "So many parents went to weigh in and hear what people were thinking, and that helps knowing that we're not ignoring this, that we're really trying to figure out what to do about it," he says.

If your fears are focused on classroom issues — like separation anxiety, behavior concerns, or learning differences — Furlong recommends talking to the teacher before the school year begins. "It can feel better for parents when they've been proactive and reach out to the teacher ahead of time and start that relationship before things come up," she says.

Maintain Open Communication With Your Child

Keeping open dialogue with your child may also help. Icard recommends approaching it as a team building exercise. You can say, "School is coming up. Is there anything you think might be a challenge this year?" Also share your own concerns—taking care not to spur any panic—and offer to brainstorm solutions together.

For example, maybe you're worried your child won't wake up for school in time, sparking a constant morning battle. Together, you can come up with a game plan before it becomes a fight. The solution might involve an earlier bedtime, a new morning routine, or customized breakfasts.

Along those lines, if you're worried about your child's math performance, the solution could involve hiring an after-school tutor, having one-on-one homework help from a parent, or studying for an extra hour on the weekend.

Take Steps to Reduce Your Stress

When Furlong recommends mindfulness to anxious parents, she's not envisioning them going into a zen-like state for hours. "When I'm talking about mindfulness, I'm thinking more about increasing your ability to be present in the current moment," she says. This leads to reduced stress and better engagement with your child.

As you explore mindfulness, start small—appreciate the smell of your morning coffee, and marvel in your child's early-morning energy. "That builds up the skill of being in the moment," she said. "Then you can apply that to being in the moment with your kids."

You can also take steps to reduce stress throughout the day, which might make you feel calmer about your back-to-school anxieties. Find what methods work for you, whether it's getting active, practicing deep breathing, listening to music, or reading a book.

Seek Help from a Professional

Parenting any child has never been easy — but with everything going on in the world, things might feel especially scary right now. If you're having a hard time handling your worries about a new school year, or if you just need a fresh look at daily routines that prompt constant frustration, reaching out to a therapist may be the answer.

"What I see parents, they are really focused on their children, so taking care of themselves falls to the bottom of the list," says Furlong. "If you're noticing that your priorities feel like you're coming last always, it's a sign that it could be useful to go to therapy just to figure out how to find that balance."

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