4 Ways to Ease Back-to-School Anxiety and Stress

From what it is to what causes it, we asked two experts to shed light on back-to-school anxiety, including tips and tricks for easing your child's stress.

kid looking out window at school
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Many children find school unnerving. From first day jitters to concerns about bullying, going to school can be a major cause of stress. It may also bring up feelings of fear, insecurity, apprehension, and angst. But are your child's worries normal? How can you ease back-to-school anxiety—if your child is suffering from it?

We asked the two experts to weigh-in. This is what they had to say.

What Is Back-to-School Anxiety?

Back-to-school anxiety is any type of anxiety tied to going or returning to school. The cause of back-to-school anxiety can vary. Some kids are worried about being separated from beloved family members. This is commonly referred to as separation anxiety. Others worry about making friends.

"The average child's school day is packed with potential stressors," explains an article from Harvard Health. "[This includes] separating from parents, meeting academic expectations, managing peer groups, and navigating loud, crowded school hallways and cafeteria, to name just a few... but for some children—and particularly for children who already struggle with anxiety or have anxiety disorders—the return to school can be very stressful."

What Causes Back-to-School Anxiety?

As mentioned, there are many causes of back-to-school anxiety, including:

  • Academic struggles. Children with learning disabilities (both diagnosed and untreated) and those who struggle academically may experience performance-induced fear and anxiety.
  • Interpersonal struggles. While navigating friendships and relationships is a "normal" part of life, some children find the pressure too great. Fights, breakups, and friendship fallouts can increase anxiety.
  • Bullying. Children who are bullied may also experience back-to-school anxiety. This is likely due to concern and fear.
  • Other mental health conditions. According to Psych Central, conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder can "make fitting in and succeeding at school that much harder — paving the way for school anxiety."

Being separated from beloved family members can also be a major cause of stress, particularly for young children.

That said, it's important to note that some children are just more prone to anxiety than others. Those with a family history of anxiety, for example, may be genetically predisposed. Others may just have higher risk factors, including familial instability and abuse or neglect. The loss of a beloved friend or family member can also trigger anxiety.

What Are the Signs of Anxiety?

The signs of back-to-school anxiety vary, from person to person and case to case. Anxiety looks different in younger children, for example, then in older ones. It may also manifest in a myriad of ways, depending on the cause of said anxiety and/or the type. However, the most common signs of anxiety in children are:

  • Increased physical complaints, i.e. frequent stomachaches, headaches, or nausea
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Loss of interest in beloved activities
  • Irritability and/or short-temperedness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Constant worry

"Anxiety can look a lot of different ways since there are a lot of different ways it presents," adds Kendra Read, attending psychologist at Seattle Children's Hospital. "Some key things to look out for, are avoidance (overt- like not going to school or not talking, and subtle- like overdoing work to avoid failure), physical sensations without a clear other cause (heart racing, stomach aches, throwing up, diarrhea, shaking, etc), and even anger-filled outbursts."

How Can You Help Your Child If They Are Worried About School?

While back-to-school anxiety can seem overwhelming, there are ways to support your child through this period—and these feelings.

"The most helpful thing you can do to support your child is to validate their feelings and express confidence in their abilities," says Read. "Saying things like 'I know you feel nervous/scared/anxious but you're doing great' or 'I know you can do this' can be helpful." C. Leigh McInnis, LPC and executive director at Newport Healthcare in Virginia, stresses the importance of listening.

"Allow your child to voice their concerns," they add. "If you notice signs that your child may be struggling with stressor anxiety, it's important that they feel comfortable enough to express what they are feeling to you. You should also make an effort to be present and assure your child that they are not alone." Feeling seen, heard, and supported is key.

Once you've validated (and listened to) your child, you'll want to make game plan. "Encourage your child to try breathing exercises. These are proven to have a calming effect on the nervous system," says McInnis. "Activities such as yoga and meditation may also help, and you should try to get your child or teen to write in a journal, as this is another evidence-based tool for stress relief."

"Research has repeatedly proven that time outdoors reduces levels of stress, depression, and anxiety," McInnis adds. "When children aren't in school, spend time hiking or at the beach. Mental imagery and visualization are also powerful tools. When teens practice positive visualization, for example, they learn how to regulate their emotions and relieve anxiety and stress." You'll also want to get to the root of the problem, i.e. if academic struggles are the cause of said anxiety, you can and should get your child additional support.

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