Strategies to help your children manage back-to-school anxiety

September 21, 2021 in Family Caregiving  •  By Miles Varn, MD
back-to-school anxiety

Most school years, there will be some children who feel anxious about going back to school. They worry about making friends, learning new routines, and whether they’ll like their teacher. But this year, child development specialists are predicting more children than usual may be experiencing back-to-school anxiety related to the pandemic.

For some students, this will be their first time back in the classroom full time since schools switched to remote learning because of COVID-19. In some communities where virus transmission rates are high, children may be worried about getting sick or bringing the virus home and infecting family members. Younger students may be experiencing heightened separation anxiety after more than a year of spending all day with family.

If your child is anxious, she or he isn’t alone this fall. A meta-analysis that included 29 studies and was published in JAMA Pediatrics found that the prevalence of anxiety and depression symptoms in children and teens is double pre-pandemic estimates, with 25.2% of children and 20.5% of adolescents in the studies reporting higher levels of depression and anxiety.

How parents can help

As a parent or caregiver, you have an important role to play in helping your children manage back-to-school anxiety.

  • Be aware of your own anxiety. You may be more than ready to send your children back to the classroom, but if you or partner is feeling anxious about your children being back at school, you may be unconsciously letting your anxiety show, which can make the children feel anxious. Take time to think about how you feel. If you are anxious, make a conscious effort to manage your anxiety. Talk with family or friends about your concerns, practice stress management techniques, or talk with a mental health provider. You can be honest with your children and let them know you’re feeling a bit anxious, but then explain the steps your family and the school are taking to keep students safe and make the transition easier. You can also share how you’re working to manage your anxiety.
  • Check in with your children regularly. With some children, the signs of back-to-school anxiety are obvious, but with others, they may not be. Talk with your children every few days. Ask how they’re feeling in general and about school in particular. If they say they’re worried, anxious, or uncomfortable about being in school, don’t just tell them everything will be ok. Validate their feelings and let them express their worries. Then answer any questions they have and help them build a coping plan so they’ll develop stress and anxiety management skills they can use in any situation.
  • Encourage healthy habits for the whole family. In addition to teaching your children age-appropriate stress and anxiety management techniques, practice habits like healthy eating, being active, and healthy sleep as a family. Not only will these habits help keep your family healthier, they’re also keep components of strengthening and maintaining resilience.
  • Stay flexible and have a backup plan. Since we don’t know how the pandemic will progress, it can be helpful for both parents and children to work to remain flexible and bear in mind that the routines you’re working to establish may change if circumstances change. Last year, parents had to scramble to adjust to remote learning and balance work and their children’s school needs. Take the lessons you learned last year and create a backup plan for what you can do if school switches back to being remote or a hybrid model.
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