Helping Your Child with Back to School Nerves
Written by Rachel Ealy, M.Ed., LPC-Intern
Starting the new school year is exciting, but it can also be nerve-racking for some children. Anxiety is a complicated for kids so I often use the terms nervousness, worry, fear, or school jitters. The term anxiety also comes with a stigma and many parents do not feel comfortable saying or recognizing that their child has anxiety. This can result in delaying treatment and not getting treatment at all.
Growing up, I remember being nervous to start school. I worried about who my teachers were going to be, if I would know anyone at lunch, if I would make any new friends, if others would think that I am weird, and if my parents would be okay while I was at school all day. Anxiety may present as excessive worrying, but it can also present itself as an upset stomach, nausea, headaches, or even muscle tension and fatigue. The beginning of the school year may elicit some of these symptoms that can be misconstrued as catching a cold or other physical illness. It is important to be able to differentiate the symptoms so the correct condition can be treated. The first step is to have your child seen by their pediatrician or family doctor to rule out any medical concerns.
How to Tell if Your Child May Struggle with Anxiety
Once you have ruled out any medical concerns, pay close attention to the questions your child asks. Is your child asking for constant reassurance about school, if you can stay with them at school, or complaining of physical symptoms such as daily headaches and/or stomachaches? Pay attention to your child’s sleep schedule and eating habits. Is your child having trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep? Have their eating habits drastically changed, such as an increase or decrease in food intake? Pay attention to signs of irritability, difficulty concentrating, and fatigue. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2013), “children with generalized anxiety disorder tend to worry excessively about their competence or the quality of their performance [which] may switch from one concern to another” (p. 222).
How to Help
Here are a few ideas for how to help your child that is nervous about the upcoming school year. Just as I recommended having your child see their pediatrician, I highly recommend having your child see a counselor. This will provide them with the opportunity to have a safe place to process their experience and develop healthy coping skills.
1. Routine: Children thrive on structure and routine. Set up a routine around going to bed on time in order to get enough sleep. A bedtime routine should start at least 30 minutes to 1 hours before lights-out. Have your child complete personal care such as showering and brushing their teeth, as well as picking their clothing out the night before. Allow some time to wind-down by reading on their own, reading to your child, or just catching up at the end of the day. Children in elementary and middle school should be getting 9-11 hours of sleep each night. Your child’s routine should also include a morning schedule. Make sure that your child has ample time to get ready and eat a nutritious breakfast in the morning without rushing. The more stress you can take out of the morning routine, the better. If your child experiences nervousness regarding school in the mornings, add some extra time for practicing deep breathing. I recommend having a visual for the routine by having a chart that lists times for starting bed time routine, bedtime, waking up in the morning, leaving the house etc.
2. Attend Meet the Teacher Night or schedule another time to meet the teacher if you are unable to attend. This will help your child become familiar with who their teacher will be, what their classroom will looks like, where their classroom is, and give them a general idea of what to expect. You can even rehearse drop off and pick up, if your child will ride the bus you can show them where they will be picked up and dropped off in each location. Familiarize your child with as much as possible so that they can ask any questions that they have beforehand and ease as much worry as possible.
3. Schedule a playdate with a friend or future classmate. Experts from the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center state that, “research shows that the presence of a familiar peer during school transitions can improve children’s academic and emotional adjustment” (n.d.).
4. Validate: Validate your child’s feelings and experience by telling them that you know what it is like to try something new. You can tell them about your first day of school in whatever grade your child is going in to and what the school year ended up being like. Try not to simply tell them that it will be okay. Acknowledge that starting the new school year is hard and that it is okay to feel scared, worried, and/or nervous.
5 tips to ease back-to-school anxiety (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/5-tips-to-ease-backtoschool-anxiety
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.