Back-to-School Anxiety

While approaching a new school year is exciting for most children, others anticipate a new grade, a new classroom, and a new teacher with mounting anxiety, even dread. Research shows that some children are biologically predisposed to resist change and to withdraw from new situations. These children have been described temperamentally as Slow to Warm Up; that is, they are characteristically negative and anxious in the face of new or unfamiliar experiences. Their anxiety may be experienced through such symptoms as headaches, stomachaches, and sleep difficulties. These children might also catastrophize their worries, for example, that the next grade’s work might be too hard, the new teacher might be mean, or the child’s friends might not be in his class. Ruminating on these fears understandably fuels the child’s anxiety. In some cases worries may be based upon earlier negative experiences at school, with peers, or around past transitions; however, the routine experience of anxiety in anticipation of a new school year more likely reflects a child’s general predisposition to anxiety.

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In supporting an anxious child it is valuable for parents to recognize that despite their child’s experience of anxiety prior to school restarting, he is likely to adapt successfully to any changes soon into the new school year. It is also helpful to remind the child of past successes where despite his anxiety in the face of a challenge or change; he ended up feeling settled and positive within a short period of time.

As a new school year approaches, parents are encouraged to consider these additional techniques that can help ease their child’s anxiety:

  • Identify, label and normalize feelings of anxiety related to change.
  • Remind the child of her past successes facing anxiety in anticipation of a new challenge.
  • Check with the school so that you can provide your child with details of changes he can expect.
  • Solicit your child’s thoughts and feelings related to her anxiety. Suggest that she replace a “worry thought” for example, “I won’t have any friends in my new school” with a true and more encouraging thought such as, “I will have an opportunity to make new (and additional) friends”.
  • Have the child write or draw out a positive or fun scene that might be anticipated in the new school setting. Suggest that when he starts to worry he moves on to consider that story or picture so that he can remind himself that change can be fun and positive.
  • Teach your child to calm herself physically through regulated and help her practice visualizing a setting where she feels particularly relaxed, such as in a scented bubble bath or on a beach with friends.
  • Explore your child’s expectations regarding the new school year, identifying any unrealistic beliefs such as fear that she “won’t know how to do grade 5 math”. Encourage your child to adopt more realistic expectations by reminding her, for example, that “You are in grade 5 to learn grade 5 skills- grade 5 would be extremely boring if she entered already knowing the grade 5 curriculum1”
  • Help your child set boundaries around worrying by, for example, selecting a “worry chair” where he agrees to do all his worrying. He can also be encouraged to limit his “worry time” to a daily scheduled 15 minute “worry period” and he might consider delaying his “worrying” perhaps until the weekend before school begins.
  • In the week prior to school startup, support your child in finding a balance between engaging and enjoyable activities that can distract him from his anxiety and experiences that can allow him to feel calm and relaxed.

Reluctance to separate from a parent around the first day of school is not uncommon in young children. A parent showing confidence that the child will adapt can help calm the child’s distress. Continued anxiety around separation may be impacted by a plan with the child’s teacher to establish a familiar greeting or routine activity or chore for the child to engage in upon entering the classroom.

Should school resistance escalate or persist over time, professional consultation may be indicated.

Back-to-School Anxiety
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For over 40 years Nancy has practiced as a Registered Psychologist, specialized in assessing and treating children, adolescents and families. She has practiced with Denis Boyd & Associates since 1991; prior to that she worked in varied government and private programs.

Nancy supports children and teens who present with a range of mental health concerns including anxiety, depression, ADHD, adjustment, trauma, and family issues. She assists families and parents in their intentions to effectively support their children’s emotional development and well being.

Nancy graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1977 with her Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology. She is a member of the B.C. Psychological Association.

Posted in Family & Parenting, Stress & Anxiety