What parents can do to help their children cope with back-to-school anxiety


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As psychologists for the Obsessive-Compulsive and Anxiety Disorders Program at Texas Children’s, we work with children of all ages who have symptoms of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Returning to school is one of the times of year when we see a significant increase in anxiety symptoms among children, even those without anxiety disorders. This year may be particularly difficult for children who participated in virtual learning last school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we get ready to begin a new school year, we want to take this opportunity to discuss typical anxiety reactions, signs your child may be struggling and what you can do help ease their anxiety problems.

Is it typical for my child to have anxiety before starting school?

Anticipation about any big transition is typical for children and adults alike. It is also typical for children to have mixed emotions about returning to school. For example, they may feel excited to see their friends again, disappointed that they will have to wake up earlier and nervous about meeting new teachers. In anticipation of the return to school, your child may have difficulty falling asleep the night before the first day, seem more irritable in the days leading up to the change, or tell you they do not want to go to school. However, these behaviors usually resolve several days after the start of the school year.

What are some signs my child is experiencing anxiety about returning to school?

Elevated anxiety symptoms are usually accompanied by physical symptoms, forms of avoidance or reassurance-seeking. Some children experience and complain of aches and pains before going to bed on school nights or in the mornings before attending school. This may take the form of headaches, stomachaches, muscle pain or vomiting. Children may also try to avoid going to school by asking to stay home, crying in the morning, picking fights, throwing tantrums or showing other disruptive or aggressive behaviors. Children may also ask many questions in order to seek reassurance from parents or others. For example, children may ask repeatedly about COVID-19 procedures at school, who they will see at school, what will happen if they are sick at school, whether their parents will pick them up at the end of the day, or other details about pick-up or where their parents will be during the school day. Younger children may even request for their parents to walk them into the building or stay in the classroom.

What can I do to ease my child’s back-to-school anxiety?

The more children avoid a situation, the more they learn the situation is too scary or difficult to manage on their own. The best thing for children is to learn they can handle attending school. Even if children are upset, they should still attend school each day. Most of the time, they are able to calm down quickly once they enter the school building and start their day. If they are absent for a day due to anxiety, the following day will be even more difficult for them to attend.

To help, parents can offer gentle encouragement, such as “You’re feeling nervous, but I know you can do this.” Parents can answer reassurance-seeking questions the first time they are asked, such as letting a child know when they will be picked up. However, if the child asks the question repeatedly, the parent should redirect and help the child to move on without reassuring them again and again. For example, “We already talked about that. What do you want for breakfast?” Instead, it can be helpful to do something distracting in the mornings on the way to school, such as listening to music, talking about something unrelated to school or playing a game on the way. If a child texts their parent throughout the school day about wanting to leave school, parents should not provide contestant reassurance.

These suggestions can be helpful for younger children as well as adolescents. If teenagers show signs of school avoidance, parents should disengage from debates, arguments and unproductive conversations about school attendance. Parents should be sure their child does not engage in fun or pleasurable activities during school hours, such as watching television, spending all day on social media, or napping. Access to privileges could be tied to school attendance. For example, perhaps teenagers’ data will be activated in the afternoon with a parental control app if they attend school that day.

When should I seek help?

If your child shows school avoidance behaviors for more than several weeks such as those mentioned above, it may be beneficial to seek professional help. Also, if you notice other behavior or mood changes, such as depressed mood, difficulty sleeping, irritability, change in appetite, or avoidance of other situations, these may be other signs your child is struggling.

You can talk to your child’s pediatrician about whether additional help – such as behavioral intervention (therapy) and/or medication – may be beneficial. The best type of therapy for anxiety is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). For more information about identifying anxiety and when your child may need help, click here.

Click here to learn more about Texas Children’s OCD and Anxiety Disorders Program dedicated to providing high quality, family-centered and individualized care for children and adolescents.

Back-to-school anxiety is normal and understandable. We hope this information will help parents recognize the symptoms of anxiety so they can help their child as they transition back to school.