Helping Your Child with Back-to-School Anxiety – Tips for Parents and Caregivers

This article is by Tamara Dalrymple, M.A., PsyD (Candidate), a Registered Clinical Counsellor & Mental Health Specialist at Synergy Health Centre: Victoria, BC.

Anxiety is a normal part of life, and anxious feelings are very common during times when there is a change or shift in routine. Back to school anxiety is particularly common among children and teens.

If you have an anxious child, he or she may complain of physical symptoms, including:

  • Headaches
  • Stomach pains
  • Muscle tension

Your child may become increasingly irritable or clingy, or may cry and express feelings of distress prior to the first day of school.

Children and youth may express worries related to:

  • Uncertainty about their new teacher
  • Change in routine
  • Appearance
  • Academic performance
  • Taking the bus
  • Separation from parental attachments
  • Worries about peers or being liked

Helping Your Child Develop Strategies for Managing Anxiety

As parents or caregivers, there are certain strategies you can use to assist your child with back to school anxiety:

  • One week before school starts, start your child on a back to school routine to include bed time and waking up at regular times. It is helpful for everyone in the family to work on adjusting to a new time schedule.
  • Give your child an alarm clock to help them take responsibility for getting up on time and to practice getting into a routine.

Encourage your child to assist with making lunches/healthy snacks (anxious children often forget to eat).Visit the school ahead of time and find classroom(s), library, counsellors office, etc. to build familiarity.

For young children taking the bus for the first time: map out the bus route with them ahead of time and visit the bus stop.

Encourage Coping and Independence

Avoid giving excessive reassurance: instead, assist your child in problem solving and planning (e.g., make a list of school supplies and plan a shopping trip, create a schedule).

Let your child know it is normal to have concerns, but encourage coping and independence (versus rescuing).

Assist your child with coping statements: When children or youth express anxious thoughts, encourage them to think of ways they can cope and plan ahead.

The night before school, pack up the school bag ahead of time, including snacks.

For anxious children, a reassuring note in their lunch or object that reminds them of home may also be helpful. In some circumstances, it may be helpful to connect your child with the school counsellor.

Help Your Child Learn How to Relax

It is also helpful for anxious children to learn breathing and relaxation strategies. Help them find fun ways to relax and encourage them to use these tools when they are feeling anxious.

Most importantly, monitor your own reactions and behavior.

It is very distressing for parents to see their child in discomfort, and sometimes there is a natural inclination to reassure excessively or protect the child from their fears (i.e. by allowing the child to stay home).

Parents may unintentionally give children the message that they do not have the resources to cope on their own, which may actually reinforce the anxiety.

Develop a Routine

In short, developing a routine, having a schedule, creating familiarity, practicing coping statements, and teaching relaxation strategies are all effective ways in assisting your child with back to school fears.

About Tamara Dalrymple, M.A., R.C.C.

Tamara Dalrymple is a Registered Clinical Counsellor specializing in mental health treatment services for adults and children exhibiting symptoms of anxiety, depression, trauma, PTSD, and chronic pain.

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