The season of back-to-school is quickly approaching. Already, you’re probably getting ready for the school supplies, backpacks, and endless amount of paperwork that always seems to accompany the start of a new school year. It can be an exciting time, but for some kids, going back to school can bring a lot of anxiety. And it’s not just them. Parents can feel first-day worries themselves. We talked to experts on what back to school anxiety looks like and how you and your kids can have a successful start to the year.
WHAT CAUSES ANXIETY?
Tania Da Silva—a child, youth, and family therapist and the clinical director at Behaviour Matters in Toronto—explains there are a few factors involved in anxiety that your child could be prone to. First, a child who has a family member with an anxiety disorder is more likely to have anxiety too because genetics can influence brain chemicals in kids’ bodies. If these chemicals are in short supply or not working well, that can cause an anxiety disorder. Secondly, Da Silva says certain experiences in a child’s life that are difficult to cope with, such as a recent divorce or loss, can bring on anxiety.
Finally, children learn from their parents. “Growing up in a family where others are fearful or anxious can ‘teach’ a child to be afraid too,” Da Silva explains. She encourages parents first to explore these factors and their own situations because this will help determine how best to give, receive and seek out support.
WHAT DOES ANXIETY LOOK LIKE?
In addition to these factors, anxiety gives off certain signs in your child. Some are obvious, such as long-lasting mood swings, tantrums, and talks of not wanting to go to school or avoiding the subject altogether. But others can be harder to see, such as your child avoiding interactions that used to be fun, whether or not they’re related to school. Eating and sleeping habits can change, says Da Silva, because “worries can keep kids up at night or their stomach might be so tense from nerves that they cannot eat.”
Self injury, one of the most concerning signs, happens when some children inflict physical pain on themselves because the internal pain of anxiety becomes too much to handle, according to Da Silva.
“You may notice too that your child is avoiding reminders of school starting, even ones that may seem pleasant like picking out new items,” says Rachel Annunziato, Associate Professor of Psychology at Fordham University in New York.
If you recognize these factors or symptoms in your child, there are fortunately ways you can help.
HOW PARENTS CAN MANAGE THEIR CHILD’S ANXIETY
It may not feel like much, but validating and normalizing concerns by checking in with your child every day is so important, says Da Silva. Ask them how they’re feeling and what potential worries they may have, along with letting them know it’s normal to be anxious about going back to school. If kids decide to talk about what’s bothering them, it’s important for you as the parent to really practice some active listening: use eye contact, face them, and try not to interrupt. “It’s very easy for a child to shut down if they are not feeling heard or understood,” cautions Da Silva.
Annunziato agrees. “[This is] in order to discover more about the context. Is there a specific reason for anxiety that parents can help with? Or is it more diffuse and related to starting a new routine? In this way, parents can provide reassuring information to their children once they have a better sense of their fears.”
Working with your kids in finding a solution is a proactive way to help them figure out what they want for the upcoming year or on that first day, versus staying stuck on the problems, explains Da Silva. “Ask them what advice they would give to a friend or someone dear to them who was in a similar situation. This helps move them outside of the fear and towards a solution.”
Another way to be proactive is to practice the thing that may be making them anxious. If walking to school is scary, do a dry run with them on the weekend. If making new friends is hard, practice meeting new people out in your community.
Finally, role-playing will help to encourage kids to express themselves. “As parents, we are always on display and being watched by our children,” says Da Silva. “Make sure to role model and be mindful of what you are displaying. It’s also great to use your own personal experiences with anxiety or emotions as teachable moments which again normalizes anxiety for your child.”
A FAMILY APPROACH CAN HELP YOUR ANXIETY TOO
“This time is hard for parents too, both logistically and emotionally, as summer winds down,” says Annunziato. She encourages parents who may be feeling some anxiety themselves to emphasize with their kids all the exciting things that come with going back to school, such as seeing their friends, and reminding them that they’ll still be able to do things they loved from the summer. “It can be helpful to plan feasible family fun so it doesn’t feel like summer is ending,” she adds.
It’s also a good idea to include the whole family in preparing to go back. While parents are tackling the school supply list, kids can pick out their backpack. Da Silva recommends creating a support team for both you and your child from teachers and school counselors. Enlisting the help of older siblings and other family members as well can ensure everyone’s needs are being addressed at the start of a new year.