As summer draws to a close and the anticipation of a new school year builds, everyone in your home can be feeling anxious about the familiar-yet-different routine of the academic year.
Understanding the causes and effective coping strategies for handling back-to-school anxiety can make the transition from summer to school less stressful for your family.
How Common is Back to School Anxiety?
Anxiety has been on the rise in children and teens, and it isn’t uncommon for that anxiety to manifest itself during times of transition or around new social situations, like going back to the classroom after summer break.
In various studies, nearly 7 out of 10 children between the ages of 13-17 named depression or anxiety as a primary concern of their own or in their immediate peer group. High schoolers reported feeling a myriad of emotions at school like fear, anger, or sadness.
While back to school stressors may be different for a kindergartener than a high schooler, there are many similarities on how to help your child overcome their concerns.
What Triggers Back to School Anxiety?
Summer provides a sense of liberty and often decision autonomy for children. The relaxed pace, the flexibility of daily routines, and the absence of academic obligations equals a carefree season for many families.
“When I see children in my office for school related anxiety, they often tell me that they dread the schedule changes – getting up earlier, giving up entertainment they enjoy for studying – all this can trigger anxiety,” says Marina Livis, LCSW.
Many kids struggle with abrupt changes in sleep/wake schedules. Others feel overwhelmed by the requirement to stick to school rules. For some it’s the sheer pressure of balancing academics and extracurriculars.
While some children might not be comfortable articulating their anxious feelings about the start of the school year to you, if you notice your child:
- Shutting down or pulling away from family social interactions
- Complaining about vague illnesses like headaches or stomach aches
- Irritability or temper tantrums
- Clinginess in younger children
- Disruptions in sleep patterns
it could be a sign that they are struggling with their emotions around returning to the classroom or starting school for the first time.
The Social Side of Back to School: Navigating Friendships and Fitting In
Returning to school isn’t just about dealing with academic pressures. There’s also navigating the complex world of childhood social relationships.
For some children, the thought of reconnecting with old friends and making new ones can be thrilling. However, for others, the very same scenario can be intimidating and cause considerable stress.
“For children with social phobias, summertime at home can really reduce those social pressures so going back to school can be tough,” says Livis.
Whether it’s a fear of not fitting in, concerns about facing bullies, or the pressure of conforming to peer norms any of these concerns can magnify normal anxieties associated with the social aspects of school.
Additionally, the uncertainty about social dynamics, like the changing nature of friendships or the influence of cliques, can add to the general anxiety and stress around going back to school.
Academics: Performance, Expectations, and Self-Doubt
The pressure of academic performance can often overshadow the joy of learning new things for many students. As children progress through their schooling, the academic pressure tends to mount. The expectations from teachers and parents, the competition with peers, and the child’s own aspirations can create a challenging mix of emotions.
“Back to school means back to test, project, and presentation anxiety for a lot of children,” states Livis.
Concerns about keeping up with new subjects, apprehensions about forgetting concepts learned in the previous grade, and the fear of falling behind can compound these worries.
The anxiety about academic performance isn’t just confined to the classroom.
It can often spill over into home life, making it a significant back-to-school stressor for children and their caregivers.
Separation Anxiety Can Affect the “New to School” Experience
Separation anxiety is a prevalent issue especially among younger children. Even if your child attended daycare, heading off to kindergarten is a vastly different experience which can create an anxiety response.
As children naturally move away from the comforting presence of their parents or trusted caregivers and venture into the school building, the feeling of being away from familiar faces and spaces can be unnerving.
The worry about coping without their primary caregivers around, the fear of unfamiliar situations, and the need to be more self-reliant can all contribute to separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety in older children can show up during key transition periods, such as starting a new school or moving from elementary to middle school. Big changes are prone to amplifying the overall stress of the back-to-school experience.
Parental Stress: Another Other Side of Back-to-School Anxiety
While much of the focus around back-to-school anxiety centers around children, it’s important to acknowledge that parents also experience a considerable amount of stress during this period. The shift from the relaxed tempo of summer to the stringent demands of the school year brings with it a set of challenges for parents.
From the practical concerns of managing schedules, to the financial stresses associated with needing ever-growing lists of school supplies, parents have a lot of anxiety inducers to navigate as summer draws to a close. Once school begins, suddenly you’re coordinating transportation, shouldering the emotional worries about your child’s academics, social interactions, and overall well-being.
The spectrum of school related parental stresses is broad.
Additionally, witnessing your child’s anxiety – or them witnessing yours — can further fuel everyone’s stress, creating a cycle that requires conscious effort to break.
How You Can Help Your Child – Or Yourself – If School Time is Stressful
If you can establish routines and predictability around school year changes it can provide a sense of security. When children have to deal with an array of changes all at once – new classmates, different teachers, unfamiliar classroom rules – it can be a disruption to their sense of stability. When possible, helping children familiarize themselves with anticipated changes before the school year begins can be a crucial step in reducing this element of back-to-school anxiety.
One tip is to begin by modifying sleep patterns or re-establishing curfews with older children.
“Modeling emotionally regulated behaviors, meditating, and striving for consistency can go a long way to help children feel more settled heading into the school year,” says Livis.
If it still feels like you or your child are struggling, can be very beneficial.
Evidence Based Therapies for Overcoming Anxiety
Talk therapy can be very helpful for families dealing with back-to-school stress, but the reality is, having coping skills that can be used in the situation can also help mitigate anxiety in students.
“Before finishing my Masters, I was a holistic health coach and already familiar with the EFT tapping technique, so when I’m working with children or families experiencing back to school stress, I like to introduce them to the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) or ‘tapping’ as an effective stress management strategy,” says Livis.
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), also known as “tapping”, is an evidence-based, stress management technique that combines aspects of Cognitive Therapy, Exposure Therapy and somatic stimulation of acupressure points on the face and body while reciting positive affirmations or a “set up statement”.
An EFT tapping therapy session typically involves rating your anxiety, and then pairing the topic of worry with a “set up statement” that addresses the concern and then tapping on your meridian points while repeating your statement.
A “set up statement” can look like the following:
“Even though I’m feeling worried about starting school soon, I love and accept myself anyway.”
After engaging in the somatic tapping process and repeating a phrase that helps to calm the anxiety, you will typically feel some relief from anxiety and worry.
Livis explains that during office or telehealth sessions, she helps children uncover specific stressors so that effective set up statements can be used in the moment.
“Teaching children this simple and quick technique can empower them to handle their anxieties better. Whether they are feeling overwhelmed about a test, nervous about a school presentation, or anxious about making new friends, tapping can provide them a way to self-soothe and regain their equilibrium,” says Livis.
Tapping can also be effective for parents dealing with their own back-to-school stress. By acknowledging their concerns and using tapping to alleviate these anxieties, parents can manage their stress levels more effectively. This not only helps in creating a more peaceful home environment, but also models positive stress management behavior for children.
In Conclusion: Setting a Positive Intention for the School Year
Returning to school can be made significantly less stressful with the right tools and coping strategies. Open communication, consistent routines, positive reinforcement, and supportive resources can all contribute to a more positive back-to-school experience.
Ultimately, the goal isn’t to eliminate all back-to-school stress but to equip children and parents with the skills to navigate it effectively.
With the right strategies and professional support, the transition back to school can be less about stress and more about the excitement of a new academic year.
You’re Not Alone…We Can Help
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Whether in person, or virtually, our mental and behavioral health experts are here to support you and your family every step of the way.
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