What to Do About Back-to-School Anxiety
Have you ever heard of the “Sunday scaries”? It’s that edgy feeling you get as Sunday winds to a close and you start thinking about having to go back to work on Monday. You might have to return to a truly awful, toxic job, or you might just not relish the idea of going back to that stack of papers you left on your desk on Friday. In either case, it’s easy to think of the feeling as part of being an adult.
But adults aren’t the only ones who get Sunday scaries. Kids get them, too. For teenagers, having to go back to school on Monday can bring up more complicated anxieties, while younger kids might simply not want the weekend’s unstructured playtime to end. Kids of any age can have pretty serious school-related worries—bullies, mean teachers, social rejection, and assignments or subjects they have a hard time understanding or completing.
For a lot of kids, going back to school in the fall brings on an even bigger case of the scaries. Mental health professionals call this feeling “anticipatory anxiety,” and it can be more intense than the anxiety we feel when we’re actually back to what we dread. The end of summer’s freedom requires a major adjustment even for kids who don’t struggle with issues like bullying and who are naturals in the classroom. School is a formal and highly structured setting that places demands on them that they got used to not having to deal with during the summer.
Given how much we sometimes dread going back to work, we might have a hard time knowing how to comfort kids who are feeling anxious about going back to school. It’s even harder if our well-meaning reassurance proves wrong and they do find themselves struggling with new subjects, harder classes, or conflicts with peers. Fortunately, though, as parents, we’re not helpless. There are things we can do to help our kids cope with back-to-school anxiety.
What Do Kids Have to Be Anxious About?
As adults, we tend to look back at our childhoods through the lens of nostalgia. We recall sunny days spent playing games and having adventures with our friends. We may even have positive memories of school—maybe the day we discovered a favorite book or that time when a teacher encouraged us to nurture a passion that’s with us to this day. Many of us, especially those of us who didn’t have traumatic childhoods, forget just how anxious a time childhood can be.
For kids, the monsters under the bed, in the closet, or at the end of that creepy upstairs hallway are real. So are the fears that come with considering scary questions for the first time. Kids spend a lot more time worrying than we realize, including about what will happen to them when we aren’t there to protect them, like at school. They might wonder what they’ll do if they have to face bullies or other bad people without parents or guardians. In the information age, it’s even worse, as children are becoming aware at even younger ages of big world problems that adults haven’t figured out or fixed yet.
School inspires a ton of specific worries for teenagers and younger children alike. In addition to serious issues like social and test anxieties, kids of any age worry a lot about how their friends and peers see them. While we might see their demands for a specific accessory, toy, or piece of clothing as silly or even entitled, it can seem like a matter of social life or death for them, especially if they’ve already been made fun of for what they wear, have, or like. That doesn’t mean parents need to get kids everything they want, but it does mean that we need to talk to them about these things, listen, and take their feelings seriously.
What Are the Symptoms of Childhood Anxiety?
One of the best ways to find out if our kids are anxious or worried about something is to ask them what’s on their minds. Older children and adolescents might not want to talk about certain things with parents because they don’t think parents will understand. They might also feel like a parent can’t make them feel better because it’s not their parents’ opinions they’re worried about. But you can help them more than they realize. Your honest and caring response can make a huge difference, especially if you can help them understand or process a new challenge or issue.
Sometimes, the reason our kids don’t tell us what they’re worried about isn’t because they don’t want to, but because they don’t know how. At any age, we worry about things we don’t know how to explain, but younger kids literally lack the words or concepts to tell us how they feel a lot of the time. One way we can help is by watching for the following symptoms of childhood anxiety:
- Sleep problems
- Frequent crying
- Changes in appetite
- Constant muscle tension
- Tantrums and meltdowns
- School refusal or reluctance
- Headaches or stomachaches
- Resistance to new experiences
- Restlessness or difficulty focusing
None of these symptoms necessarily indicate that your child has an anxiety disorder or even that they are experiencing severe anxiety. Each child has a different personality and some kids who are relatively happy can still be obsessed with orderliness or with doing things in a specific way. Most children have obsessive passions at some point, and every kid has a tantrum sometimes. But when kids have multiple symptoms, severe symptoms, or symptoms that persist, it’s worth digging deeper.
It’s important to note when any of these symptoms or behaviors are new or when they always crop up in response to a particular situation or stressor. For example, if your child always has trouble sleeping on Sunday night, or starts acting differently on the way to school, it’s a good idea to explore further to see if you can find out what’s troubling them. It’s very likely that they’re experiencing some sort of school-related anxiety. Understanding what specifically makes them anxious about school can help you help them.
How Can I Help My Anxious Child?
There are a few tricks parents can try at home in addition to listening to an anxious child and trying to reassure them. Talking to your children is one of the most important things you can do, but it doesn’t always work, and it can sometimes backfire. It’s hard for us to witness our children suffering, so we sometimes try to shut them down or even criticize them for being scared when it’s too hard for us to hear what they’re saying. When talking isn’t working or isn’t enough, other things you can do to help an anxious child include:
- Distracting them from their worries
- Guiding them through relaxation exercises
- Helping them identify irrational thoughts or fears
- Encouraging them as you help them confront their fears
Sometimes, all it takes to break the cycle of anxiety, at least in the short term, is to draw a child’s attention to something else. A successfully distracted child can forget that they were even scared in the first place. We’ve all had that moment of sudden, enraptured silence when a tantruming toddler’s attention was drawn to a cute puppy or passing firetruck. Even teenagers can be distracted by a favorite show or game. Distraction can seem like a cheap tactic, but it can keep a kid from spending hours making it worse with anxious rumination. When it works, distraction can be highly effective. But it’s not always enough, especially for a child with severe anxiety.
A lot of techniques therapists use can work at home, too. Some relaxation exercises are complex, but there are many simple techniques parents can practice without having to read through complex scripts. You can help your child focus on their breathing or guide them through a grounding exercise by having them describe or count things they can see, hear, or feel in their immediate environment. This can be doubly effective, because they can use the techniques you teach them at home when they’re feeling anxious at school.
Explaining to children how certain fears are unrealistic can help them learn how to overcome their scary thoughts. Be careful not to invalidate your child’s feelings, though—it’s important to let them know that it’s okay to feel and express fear, and that they’re not silly for being scared. It’s almost always easier and better to praise them for being brave than it is to talk them out of being scared. Sometimes you can guide them toward their own bravery by encouraging them to stand up for themselves or by supporting brave acts in person when it’s possible or appropriate.
Be careful how you help your child confront their fears. Think of the difference between gently holding a child’s hand and walking into the water with them and “teaching” kids to swim by throwing them in the water. Not only was that old-school approach truly dangerous, it often just reinforced the fear and made it bigger.
This means it’s not best to take a child who’s scared of dogs straight to your nearest dog park, or to pressure a shy child to perform in the all-school talent contest. Think of small steps you can help them take, like letting a calm dog approach their outstretched hand or letting them practice something they’re shy about doing in public in front of you and perhaps another trusted adult.
When Does an Anxious Child Need Therapy?
Confronting and overcoming fears is a normal part of growing up. One of our main roles as parents, especially as our children get older, is to encourage them to step out into the world and fulfill their potential even when it would be safer and more comfortable to just stay home. There are times, though, when a child needs a little more help.
One sign therapy might help is that you feel like you’re doing everything you can and it’s still not enough. Therapy isn’t just for helping kids learn coping techniques, it’s to help the whole family system. Sometimes, a child’s anxiety has less to do with an innate disorder than stress that’s affecting everyone but that they express more than everyone else. You might be surprised how much getting your child help with “their” problem can help the whole family.
Another sign a child might benefit from professional help is when they take longer to calm down than other kids, if they ever calm down at all. There’s a huge difference in helping a child get through an occasional tantrum that lasts a few minutes, another to try to get through daily meltdowns that last half an hour or longer.
This article by the Child Mind Institute lists some signs that a child might have an anxiety disorder. These signs include anxiety that is severe, out of proportion, or unrealistic. Another sign of an anxiety disorder is when anxiety has a significant impact on your child’s functioning. When school anxiety gets bad enough that a child consistently refuses to go to school, for example, the consequences of not dealing with it become more severe.
If you’re not sure your child needs counseling, you can request a consult with your pediatrician. Don’t worry about overreacting or making a mistake—the worst thing that will happen if you take a child who doesn’t have an anxiety disorder to a therapist or other professional is that you’ll get more information, help, and insight than you otherwise would have. The worst thing that will happen if you don’t reach out is that untreated anxiety will follow your kid into adulthood and lead to chronic mental health problems.
At First Line Counseling, I routinely help anxious children and teens. I can help uncover underlying reasons for a child’s anxiety, help them process their feelings, and teach them coping techniques they can use at home and at school. Children are often more resilient and malleable than adults, and early intervention can make the difference between a kid having a tough year and having a tough life. If you think your child might need therapy, please e-mail or call, and I’ll be happy to make a recommendation or set up an initial evaluation. You don’t have to go through this alone.