It’s normal for students and parents to feel nervous at the start of the new school year. Kids may wonder, ‘Will I like my teacher? Will I make friends? Will I keep up with my studies?’ Parents, too, may echo their kids’ academic and social concerns, as well as feel some fear about navigating competing demands for school, sports and work schedules.
So how can families cope with back-to-school anxiety to create a smooth start to the new school year?
First, it is helpful to recognize how your mind and body may be experiencing and manifesting increased stress. For example, you may have trouble sleeping or your kids may have trouble calming their minds before bedtime. Some kids may share about their feelings of worry or mood changes, while others may resist talking about how they feel. Still other kids may demonstrate “shutting down” behaviors, such as not wanting to participate in things they have enjoyed all summer, like summer camp.
“Regardless of how it looks in each child, back-to-school anxiety is a natural reaction to unpredictable changes,” says Carrie Etheridge, LCSW-C, director of social work at Sheppard Pratt.
Ethridge also explains that the return to school may bring more anxiety because most families have more to manage.
“Summer schedules tend to be more relaxed. Even if your child attends camp for most of the summer, there are fewer expectations, such as tests or projects. For children who are not in camps or do not have a structured schedule, it may be a big change to get back into a routine,” explains Etheridge.
Parents also have a different set of responsibilities when kids go back to school, which can include helping with homework, getting supervision for their child after school and juggling additional expenses, such as affording school supplies or new clothes.
Given all of these factors, it’s no wonder that the start of a new school year has parents and students alike feeling a bit more anxious than usual.
Fortunately, there are several things that families can do to mitigate their back-to-school anxiety.
1. Listen. Listen. Listen. Let your child share their fears with you, and just listen. Don’t jump in to solve their problems or downplay their concerns. Make sure they feel heard and validated before you move into problem-solving mode. Parents often underestimate the value of providing a safe, listening ear.
2. Solve problems together. Parents can help children become more independent by teaching them to solve problems on their own. You can suggest things that have helped them in the past when they were feeling anxious and see if that inspires them to propose a solution on their own. Giving a child ownership of the solution empowers and builds confidence in his or her own ability to solve future problems.
3. Stick to a schedule. Routines reduce anxiety. And it’s a bonus if you can find ways to simplify your schedule, especially at the start of the new school year. For example, you might consider pausing music lessons while your child adjusts to the new school year. Or consider implementing an earlier bedtime for younger kids, who are likely more tired after a long day of learning. Plus, this gives parents a little more time at night to prepare for the next day.
“As much as possible, put a predictable schedule in place that the whole family can see,” says Etheridge. “Do as much as possible the night before: help your child set out their clothes, make sure their backpack has all of the assignments and supplies they need for the next day and create routines that minimize the morning chaos that happens in every home.”
4. Model healthy anxiety management. For parents, the key is not to pretend that you never get stressed; the important thing is to model healthy coping skills. For example, make sure you are prioritizing your own self-care, such as getting enough sleep, limiting screen time at night, getting exercise and eating healthy foods. These habits are the bedrock of mental wellness.
5. Educate yourself. A primary trigger for anxiety is uncertainty. Reduce uncertainty for you and your children by finding out as much as you can before the school year. Take advantage of opportunities to tour the school, meet the teacher, learn school schedules and meet other families.
Further, Etheridge advises, “If you have an opportunity to speak with the teacher before school starts, this can be a valuable opportunity to share your child’s needs or worries as well as your own. It also allows time (to) share communication preferences, your parenting style and clarify expectations on both ends.”
In addition, for children who may struggle, the school counselor can be a valuable resource and another person for your child to reach out to if they have concerns.
“Ask about the school counselor and their availability and how they are accessed. For some schools there is a more formal process, while for others, kids can ‘pop in’,” explains Etheridge.
6. Share, don’t compare. “Please don’t compare yourself to any parents on social media, whose kids are all smiling with their first-day chalkboards!” advises Etheridge. “It’s a snapshot of a moment in time, and not always what was just happening a moment before. Instead, be honest with your friends, family and coworkers about what you’re experiencing. You may find that you have more in common than you think.”
7. Celebrate a new beginning! Even for the most reluctant student, planning a fun activity that your family finds relaxing or enjoyable can help create a positive start for your school year.
“Creating a positive family event can help change the narrative,” says Etheridge.
Instead of focusing on your worries, collaborate as a family to celebrate the exciting aspects of the new school year’s fresh start.
Laura Farmer provides PR and communication support for Sheppard Pratt and is a regular contributor for Baltimore’s Child. Sheppard Pratt is the nation’s largest private, non-profit provider of mental and behavioral health services.