Going back to school after summer break can be an exciting time, but it can also cause worry and anxiety in students and parents, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
There are many reasons why this season can cause anxiety, and most of them boil down to one thing: the “unknown.” A new school year brings new challenges, schedules, teachers, classmates, coursework and social situations.
“Going back to school brings a lot of new experiences all at once, so it’s very understandable for kids and parents to feel worried about the transition,” says UNC Health psychologist Samantha Pflum, PhD.
Some young people are still worried about getting sick from COVID-19, particularly if they have a chronic illness or live with a loved one who is high-risk. Making decisions about masking and receiving the COVID-19 vaccine can also be a source of worry, Dr. Pflum says.
“The fear of getting sick is still present for many kids,” Dr. Pflum says. “They may wonder, ‘Will there be another outbreak that closes school? Will we have prom? What will happen with my extracurricular activities?’ COVID-19 has caused a lack of certainty in those areas.”
It’s natural for parents to also experience back-to-school anxiety, wondering how their child will handle the new school year, if they’re supporting them in the right way, and if COVID-19 outbreaks will interrupt schedules for the fourth school year in a row.
Spotting Anxiety in Your Child
Signs of anxiety show up differently depending on the age of your child. Younger children might refuse to go to school or exhibit clinging behavior. Adolescents may express worry about their homework, a certain class or test, or another aspect of their day. They may also report feeling ill to get out of going to school or ask to be picked up early from school due to sickness. A drop in school performance, such as starting to fail classes or not turning in assignments, can also be a sign of anxiety. Be on the lookout for any signs of consistent sadness or signs of bullying.
Children of all ages can experience physical signs of anxiety, including headaches, nausea or other gastrointestinal issues.
If you notice any of these in your child, be sure to talk with them about it. Check in with a school-based counselor to see if they can help them ease into the school year. If that is not a good fit, seek support from a professional therapist in the community, Dr. Pflum says.
Coping with Back-To-School Anxiety: Tips for Families
Parents can help their kids and themselves feel more at ease about the new school year, Dr. Pflum says. Here are her suggestions:
Set a routine and practice it with your child.
Kids are routine-oriented, so setting a schedule and walking your child through it can help them (and you) feel less anxious about the future.
“Setting a routine is valuable for anyone, but especially for younger kids who may need support in structuring their days,” Dr. Pflum says. “Anything you can do to help your child feel like they have a little predictability in their day will help.”
For younger children, Dr. Pflum recommends creating a physical schedule with visual blocks of time. Use pictures or symbols to help your child understand when it’s school time, homework time or playtime, for example, and talk through it.
Also, going to school orientation and meeting the teacher can help make students and parents feel more comfortable.
Frequently check in with your child about how they are feeling.
As you help your child get settled into their new routine, check in with them on how they’re feeling about all aspects of their day. Over time, be sure to ask about their teacher, friends, bus ride, class environment and extracurricular activities, Dr. Pflum says. Pinpointing the source of any discomfort can help you know how to troubleshoot it.
Encourage extracurricular activities that interest your child.
Participating in extracurricular activities gives students a break from academics and offers a chance for them to connect with peers, Dr. Pflum says.
Having something to look forward to and friends who enjoy doing the same things they do can help children feel less anxious about going to school.
Teach your child how to self-advocate.
It’s especially important for teenagers to feel like they can be good self-advocates. This includes being able to examine how they’re feeling and express it, and knowing who is a safe person to go to if they’re struggling.
You can encourage your child to talk to you, a guidance counselor, an academic adviser or a role model in your community that you trust.
Be gentle with yourself and your child.
Remember that this phase is temporary, and it’s normal to feel anxiety about going back to school.
“It’s easy to think, ‘We do this every year; it shouldn’t be so hard.’ But every year is different and brings new challenges, so it’s important to be gentle with yourself and your kids,” Dr. Pflum says.
Remember that virtual learning wasn’t that long ago, and many kids are still adjusting to in-person learning and trying to “catch up” academically and socially. Be patient with your child and yourself as you continue to adjust to this new reality.
Looking for a mental health professional? Find one near you.