Preventing Back-to-School Anxiety

Back-to-school anxiety is common after families spend time together at home during a break from school. The time off can cause an abrupt transition, leading to a “let down” and “post-holiday break” in children.

Children and teens, as opposed to adults, are more likely to express their feelings and emotions through behaviors rather than words, such as being more irritable, spending more time alone and not wanting to go to school.

School refusal is quite common after school breaks and can be a sign of back-to-school anxiety. For some kids and teens, school is a place that causes stress and anxiety due to worrying about their academic performance, ability to make and keep friends and/or extracurriculars.

What are Signs of Back-to-School Anxiety?

Parents should expect a period of adaptation while children adjust to school bedtimes. However, within a couple of weeks, they should be used to the new routine. If they have not adjusted, it could be a sign of a bigger problem.

Some of the most common complaints from children with back-to-school anxiety are stomach aches, diarrhea and nausea. Many of these children are conscientious and rule-following and do not “act out” when upset, but rather internalize their distress.

These kids may visit the restroom multiple times while getting ready for school, and do not “feel like” participating in after-school activities.

Sometimes, they significantly change their eating patterns. These can be significant changes in a food preferences that can include increases in consumption of white flour and white sugar-based foods. Seeking these goods may indicate a child’s body is trying to address excessive stress chemicals.

Anxious kids should instead eat protein, vegetables, and whole fruit to nurture their bodies. Eating the wrong foods when stressed only exacerbates the negative symptoms and continues the maladaptive stress cycle.

Other signs the adjustment is not going well can include:

  • Young children are not comforted with a favorite blanket, stuffed animal, doll or movie.
  • They are unable to name children they like at school
  • They have increased intolerance for directions and chores
  • They focus on negative daytime events.
  • Their use of inappropriate and negative language can be due to mental exhaustion, fatigue, frustration or unhappiness.

How to Help Prevent Back-to-School Anxiety

As adults we know how important routines are. For our kids, routines can help alleviate stress and back-to-school anxiety.

Some ways to help in this time of transition are having kids be a part of the routine- packing their backpack, picking out their outfit, deciding what’s for breakfast the next day.

For older kids, help them with the transition by being a nonjudgmental listening ear. Ask them how they are feeling and give them the space to vent and or express feelings and then validate those feelings. For instance, you can say, “I am wondering if you have any concerns about going back to school? I remember not wanting to go back to school when I was your age. Sometimes I would ask my parents questions or tell them how I was feeling and that would help. I am here to listen and support you in any way that I can.”

Acknowledging and reassuring your child that their feelings are common is extremely important. It provides them comfort, support and hope in their ability to overcome their current feelings and successfully return to school. It is also important to let your child know that it is possible to be both worried and brave when going back to school.

Promoting Family Time During the School Year

School breaks are often filled with more family time than a typical week filled with school, after-school activities and homework.

Building quality, enjoyable family time each week can build stronger relationships and create memories of special moments with the family. Some ideas include playing board games, going on a long walk, hiking, doing a puzzle together, completing an arts and craft activity, and so much more.

Ask your child what they might want to do as a family. Providing children and teens with regular family time gives them something to look forward to as well as creating small traditions even after school breaks are over.

Kids’ Minds Matter Can Help

If children do not seem to have adjusted after a couple of weeks back to school, it may be sign of a bigger problem, like adjustment disorder or other mental health issues.