How Do I Help Calm My Child's Back-to-School Worries?

Even the most social child can experience some level of back-to-school anxiety. Parents Ask Your Mom columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., offers tips and strategies to ease the transition—for kids and parents.

Back to School Blues
Photo: Parents | Zoe Hansen

-Back-to-School Blues

My kid is usually social and adaptable, but as we gear up to return to school, he's been a bit apprehensive about the return to routines and textbooks. How do I get my child comfortable with easing back into the daily routine? 

—-Back-to-School Blues

If there's anything I've learned about parenting and kids in my 12 years of being mom, it's that the beginning of the school year is always a hot mess of stress. It doesn't matter their age or how ready we think we are to get back to normal, those first few weeks are full of feelings. And meltdowns, for all ages. I envy my children's leisurely summer mornings and half-day camps full of fun activities as they continue to be surprised that I'm still working. I completely understand how the slow summer tempo makes the fast-paced school year very unappealing! It's like the Monday at work after a week-long vacation, tenfold.

With that said, there are steps you can take to ease the transition, even if you can't make it totally stress-free. Transitions big and small are tough for kids (and parents), and some kids are more sensitive than others. You know your child best, so consider the following tips within the context of your son's personality and temperament. With a social and adaptable nature, this will likely be easier for him than for other kids who struggle with flexibility (I may know a couple of those very well). But these tips should make for a better lead-up to the first day of school for everyone.

Sleep Schedule

I have three children who are early risers, but in my therapy practice, I see the school day wake-up time as the biggest shock with the greatest effects. The greater the difference between the summer wake-up time and the school year wake-up time, the more painful the transition. Abrupt changes to the sleep cycle not only cause grumpiness, but makes stress feel that much more overwhelming, causing an even bumpier transition. One of the best things any parent can do to prepare for a smoother transition to school is to gradually move the wake-up time earlier at least a few days before the first day of school. This aids the other important sleep habit—an earlier bedtime! When we wake up earlier, we are tired earlier. Shifting the summer sleep schedule to be closer to the school year sleep schedule will have the most direct effect of any steps for a smoother transition.

Positives and Perspective

Most kids have something they like about school, even if it's the popular answer: recess! It's great to empathize with what your child is dreading about school, but important to do so in a way that doesn't keep him stuck in the dread. Empathize, and then offer balance by helping him remember what he does like. It might help to reflect on other school years, remembering highlights and memorable experiences. This reminds him that it's not all about routines and textbooks! Maybe he made a new best friend one year that he couldn't live without now, or had an especially fun teacher, or experienced a personal achievement, like performing in a talent show when he felt terrified. Reflecting on growth over each school year adds the perspective of how school is about much more than boring classes and homework, even if your child never admits it.

Find the Joy in Preparing

Another way to shift his apprehensive vibe is to find the hype. Just this year, my 7th grader became really excited about a fancy, new pencil case and a set of two-sided highlighters. My 3rd grader picked out a hot pair of black sneakers streaked with neon green he's excited to show off. So, where could you find your child's nugget of joy in preparing for school? Maybe it's a spanking new water bottle he can personalize, or making a plan with his friends for walking to school. There can be something symbolic about new items or rituals that mark a fresh start. (Maybe this is why so many adults feel nostalgic about school supply shopping, or find the smell of freshly sharpened pencils oddly comforting.)

Spotlight on Social

Academics may be the purpose of school, but most kids don't find learning very motivating. When my 2nd grader befriended a classmate a block away, he got out of the door on time every morning because he didn't want to miss out on walking with his friend. Every child has their own social situation, but it might help your son to spend some extra time with school friends before the start of the school year so that those friendships feel secure going into the new year. It's much easier to look forward to hanging out with friends than learning long division! And our kids' social development is just as important as their academic development, so it's worth the attention as part of prep for the school year.

Plan a Reward

In our family, we have a tradition of going out to dinner after the first day of school. This gives our children something to look forward to at the end of what can be a nerve-wracking and over-stimulating day. This is not bribery! When any of us does something that feels hard or momentous, celebrating it is a great ritual. Your reward may look different, but I like our family's dinner out as a way that we ensure time and space for everyone to share all about their first day of school. This type of reward isn't about earning an object, it's about enjoying an experience.

The Bottom Line

There may be no way around the pain of the summer to school transition. I usually want to close my eyes and open them in October! But regardless of the inevitable struggle, there are ways to add stability, fun, and joy to the anticipation period. Easing the angst of saying goodbye to summer can help your family's school year get off to the best start possible, even as your son mourns the end of the slower, sleeping-in days of summer. Until next year.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois, and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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