How to Help Kids Manage Back-to-School Anxiety

July 1, 2022
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How to Help Kids Manage Back-to-School Anxiety

Starting a new school year is an exciting, potentially nerve-wracking time for kids. The way parents manage the first few weeks of classes can make a significant difference. It’s normal for a child to feel nervous about going back to school. New teachers, different routines, even a new school, would make any child edgy. Parents should be sympathetic and reassuring. For children and teens with anxiety, returning to school after any holiday break can result in school refusal or increased anxiety. There are also more things for kids to worry about now than there were when their parents were young. School shootings, cyberbullying and COVID-19 top the list.
Reports of school shootings can be particularly confusing and frightening for children. Children may feel in danger or worry that their parents, siblings or friends are at risk. They will look to adults for information and guidance on how to react.

The National Association of School Psychologists provides some ways parents can help children feel safe and secure after an act of violence occurs:

  • Reassure the child that he/she is safe. Emphasize that schools are very safe. Provide examples of school safety, such as that the outside doors are locked, there are emergency drills in place, etc.
  • Make time to talk. Let the child’s questions guide how much information to provide. Validate his/her feelings. Be patient, as kids may not talk about their feelings or fears readily. Watch for clues that they may be ready to share their feelings.
  • Keep explanations developmentally appropriate. Young children do not need lengthy explanations or details, so try to keep it simple and be brief. Middle school-age children will need help separating reality from fantasy. Older children and teens will likely have heard details from their friends or media, so try to emphasize their role in safety and how they can access support.
  • Review safety procedures and safeguards at school and at home. Keep calm and explain how their schools and the police work to keep them safe. Have children name an adult at school they could go to if they feel scared or threatened.
  • Limit exposure to news about the incident. Limit a child’s exposure to violent images on television or the internet. Be mindful of how adults are talking about these events in front of children.
  • Keep a regular schedule and routine. Make sure children get plenty of sleep, healthy meals and regular exercise.

Any changes in eating, sleeping, energy level and mood can indicate a child’s level of anxiety. Watch for regressed behaviors, such as clinging, and intense emotional reactions, such as anxiety. Don’t hesitate to get help from a guidance counselor or behavioral health professional if a child’s anxiety or fear rises to
an unhealthy level.

In general, what can parents do to help their kids manage their anxiety?

  • Set a routine. Establish a routine for homework and bedtime and start practicing it before school starts.
  •  Be selective when talking about school. It’s important to set expectations about the new school year but let the child initiate questions and discussion. Show enthusiasm about the teaching staff and principal.
  • Clear parents’ schedules. If possible, parents should avoid business trips and evening commitments during the first week of school so they can be home to help their children. Use this time to talk about school and ask questions.
  • Tour the school. If a child is switching schools or starting middle or high school, walk around the new building to find classrooms, practice using a locker, and find the bus stop before the first day of school.
  • Allow extra time. Pack lunches and pick out clothes before bed to avoid rushing in the morning. Send kids off to school with a good breakfast. Don’t turn on the television, tablet or video games before school.
  • Get to know the staff. From the principal to the school psychologist, school nurse, and teachers, there are resources for parents and children.

Over time, if a child is still struggling with feelings of stress or anxiety, seek help; talk with your child’s physician. There may be a deeper issue.

630 Naperville Guest

Laura Koehler, Psy.D, is a licensed clinical psychologist and manager of outpatient anxiety services at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

About Edward-Elmhurst Health

Edward Hospital and Linden Oaks Behavioral Health are part of NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health, a fully integrated healthcare delivery system committed to providing access to quality, vibrant, community-connected care, serving an area of more than 4.2 million residents across six northeast Illinois counties. Our more than 25,000 team members and more than 6,000 physicians aim to deliver transformative patient experiences and expert care close to home across more than 300 ambulatory locations and eight acute care hospitals – Edward (Naperville), Elmhurst, Evanston, Glenbrook (Glenview), Highland Park, Northwest Community (Arlington Heights) Skokie and Swedish (Chicago) – all recognized as Magnet hospitals for nursing excellence. Located in Naperville, Linden Oaks Behavioral Health provides for the mental health needs of area residents. For more information, visit NorthShore.org and EEHealth.org.

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