Four Signs Your Child May Be Experiencing Back-to-School Anxiety
Written by Kimberly Moore, LCSW
As the month of August rolls around, students of all ages are quickly hit with the reality that a new school year is just on the horizon. While some students are excited at the prospect of a new school year and everything that it brings, others are not. For these students, the start of a new school year is an anxiety provoking event. As a parent it may be difficult to know if your student is experiencing back-to-school anxiety so, here are some signs to look for and how to help them overcome it.
First, have they been bullied at school in the past? For students who have been a victim of bullying, school is not a safe, comfortable place. It is the place where they have been ridiculed, harassed, and possibly physically assaulted. It is the place where those who were supposed to protect them from harm failed. If you’re the parent of a bullied student, it is likely that your child is experiencing back to school anxiety. This type of back to school anxiety can be easier for parents to identify as symptoms such as difficulty sleeping and a change in appetite may be more pronounced as the start of the school year creeps closer.
Next, has your child talked about going back to school non-stop? While some children may continuously talk about the upcoming school year due to excitement, for others this is a sign of anxiety. The students mind may be racing about the new school year and all the what ifs that it brings. Racing thoughts, a major symptom of anxiety, is usually thought of as an internal process but can also manifest externally. As a parent it may be difficult to tell the difference between anxiety and excitement so, the best way is to ask them. For example, one could say “hey, I’ve noticed that you’ve been talking about the new school year starting an awfully lot. Are you excited for it to begin or maybe a little nervous?”. Your child’s response, both verbal and non-verbal, should guide the rest of the conversation about whether they are experiencing back to school anxiety or not.
Additionally, another sign to look for is if your child refuses to participate in back-to-school events like shopping for new clothes or purchasing new supplies. Some refusal to participate may be age related such as a 16-year-old not wanting to go to the mall with his/her parents. However, most children look forward to purchasing new clothes and sneakers and picking out brand new school supplies, so they’ll happily participate in some form. If your child downright refuses to participate, it may a sign that they are trying to delay the inevitable due to anxiety about the upcoming school year.
Finally, is this a transitional year for your child? Transitions may include moving to a new school, the start of junior high or high school, or even college. Big transitions such as these come with a lot of what ifs and unknowns for children which can cause an immense amount of anxiety. They may be afraid of being the new kid in class or nervous about being in an unfamiliar building with unfamiliar people. College freshman may experience anxiety about being on their own and away from home for the first time or living with complete strangers. If your child is experiencing a transition, it likely they are experiencing some level of anxiety regarding it.
So, now that you’ve identified some signs that your child may be experiencing back-to-school anxiety, let’s briefly discuss some ways to help them. First, normalize the anxiety for them. This makes them feel less alone in their anxiety. You may even want to share a story from your childhood and how you, too, were anxious about going back to school. More importantly, make it clear to them that you are there to listen any time they need to talk about anything no matter the subject. This, too, helps them to feel less alone as they struggle with their anxiety. Next, assist them in identifying some healthy ways to cope with their anxiety such as learning new breathing techniques, journaling, or exercise. This helps them to create a toolbox to pull from when they are experiencing anxiety in the future.
Lastly, while it perfectly normal for your child to experience some level of anxiety regarding the new school year, it is time to seek professional guidance when the anxiety begins to impair your child’s overall functioning. This may include a change in sleep pattern, change in appetite, or withdrawal from once pleasurable activities Therapy can assist them in learning new ways to cope and in building their self-esteem. Contact your child’s school social worker or school counselor so they may assist you in identifying what resources are available to you and your child.