New School Year, New Fears

How to tackle back-to-school anxiety in kids of all ages 

By Melissa Tucker

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Starting a new year in school can be exciting, but nerves can also get the best of kids as they return to class. 

“It’s not an unusual thing for kids to be anxious this time of year,” said Jayne Bellando, a pediatric psychologist and professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. “For adults, if you start a new job, it’s scary. Teachers are always anxious this time of year as well.” 

Oftentimes fears can be exacerbated by offhand comments or something they’ve heard. She said it’s important to connect with children about their fears and to not make assumptions, because they might surprise you. 

“One child was afraid of the next grade because of a comment a family member made. This is a kid who is smart and makes good grades, but because their cousin said the next grade was the hardest grade, there’s this anxiety that wasn’t there before,” she said. “I also remember a young man, this was years ago, who was told teachers have eyes in the back of their heads, so he thought they were mutants. And those are the things adults will not think about until they try to get more information.”

Further complicating matters, many times younger children will express their anxiety in non-traditional ways.

“It may not look like it does with adults,” she said. “You may see some traditional behaviors you would identify as anxiety but you may also see anger, impatience, sullen behavior or somatic complaints.”

Because parents may be confused by these different symptoms, Bellando suggests a few ways to help them talk about their fears, such as asking them to draw or roleplay their feelings with toys or dolls. 

“You could ask them to draw a picture of them at school or draw a picture of a body, and talk about how stress shows itself in different places on people’s bodies,” she said. “Some people get a headache, some have a hard time breathing, some people’s hands shake, draw a red circle, or draw butterflies in their stomach or identify where scared feelings are.” 

Another idea is if the parent pretends to be nervous about the first day of school and asks the child to talk them through it. 

“Have your child be the teacher or the nice friend who will help you, the scared child, feel better,” she said. “The words they’re going to say are the words you’d want them to say to themselves.”

She also suggests recalling a time when your child overcame a challenge. 

“Remind them of the times they have been worried and what they did to overcome it,” she said. “Remembering successes helps us all feel more capable and more resilient in the face of new challenges. Be proactive and brainstorm a plan for your child to help with worries.”

Older children may be more inclined to talk, but Bellando warns parents to be careful about their reactions. 

“The most important thing for a parent is not to automatically jump into, ‘It’s going to be ok’ or lecturing them. Don’t say, ‘When I was a kid ...’ because that’s going to shut the conversation down big time,” she said. “You have to guard against trying to do that to your older kids. They’ll say, ‘You don’t understand.’”

Better things to say are, “How does that make you feel? That must’ve been scary. How can I help you feel better?” 

She says parents should be open to conversation when pre-teens and teens are ready, which may not always be convenient. 

“The kids are not going to talk when you want them to,” she said. “You have to be open for those moments and go ahead and seize them. You may have to turn off the stove and let dinner get cold and take that opportunity to talk.”

Even still, sometimes anxiety can overwhelm children, and then it’s time to consider professional help, such as counselors, psychologists or therapists. She suggests scheduling a meeting with the teacher in mid-September to get an idea of how the child is doing and how to proceed, if the child is having issues. 

“Don’t wait until your child is really struggling to start that discussion with teachers,” she said, adding that children with learning differences are most at risk for anxiety. 

“For these kids, additional services and support may be needed. Schools are required to have free and appropriate education for all children. You have rights and so does your child.”