How to Help Children Manage Anxiety as they Return to School
Anxiety levels are higher than normal as kids head back to school. To help navigate this unusual time, we’ve put together some advice on how to help your child manage their anxiety as they return to school
Content Marketer and Writer
Going back to school after a summer break can be a time of mixed emotions. There’s a sense of sadness for many children with the days of summer camps and family trips coming to an end. At the same time, there’s a feeling of excitement and energy as they get ready to meet their teachers, see old classmates, and make new friends.
The combination of emotions and the change to routine can make any child experience some level of anxiety. This year, children are heading back to school while we’re still navigating our way through a global pandemic. Like all of us, our children have experienced more than a year of constant change, doubt, and fear — all of which can increase the anxiety they’re feeling.
Why returning to school this year seems more challenging than ever
Back-to-school can often be a stressful during the best of times. The return to the classroom this year feels even more complicated due to the challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. Children are more resilient than we give them credit for, but that resiliency has been put to the test over the last 18 months.
Depending on where your child attends school, they may have participated in online learning, home-schooling, or in-classroom learning. In some cases, children have been moved between learning modes — often with little or no notice of the change.
Children are also aware that we’re not back to normal yet. They share the same concerns and fears as their parents regarding quarantines, school closures, and potential returns to online learning.
Challenges with transitioning from home to school
Many children haven’t had the chance to step foot in a classroom in over a year. For those children, back-to-school can bring a return of separation anxiety from their parents that they had overcome in earlier years.
There’s also anxiety from the things we do to keep each other safe during the pandemic. We still don’t know the long-term effects of maintaining physical distance, wearing masks, and sanitizing hands and surfaces on our children. For some, it may be traumatizing, while for others, they’re simply activities that have become a part of everyday life, like brushing our teeth.
We know parents are concerned about how much anxiety their children may be facing. To help navigate this unusual back-to-school time, we’ve put together some advice on how to help your child manage their anxiety as they return to school.
Observe your child for signs of anxiety
Anxiety can show up differently in each child. It’s essential to continue to be an observant parent and watch for signals from your own child. They may show signs of anxiety while discussing going back to school with family and friends, or it may manifest once they’ve been back in school for a few days.
Some common signs of anxiety include:
- Acting withdrawn at home or in the classroom.
- Complaining of stomach pains or headaches.
- Changes in the amount of food they eat, or changes in what foods they eat.
- Unusual tantrums or outbursts while getting ready for school or after coming home.
- Mood changes, including being uncharacteristically quiet or loud.
- Setting overly high expectations for academic or athletic performance.
Let them know their feelings are valid
It’s important to let your child know that you value and respect their feelings. Telling them that it’s okay to express concern, doubt, or fear about returning to school can help alleviate their anxiety. Knowing it’s normal to feel however they feel can help them feel more connected and find ways to make themselves feel better. Children are naturally self-guided learners, and understanding their emotions are normal is a key stepping stone to becoming more independent and secure.
Ask your child about their fears
Sometimes the simplest thing you can do is to ask. For back-to-school anxiety, ask your child what they’re scared about. It could be a fear of making new friends, not knowing their way around a new classroom or school, or it could be a fear related to leaving the house for an extended period.
Take a piece of paper and either write down their fears or have them write them down. Next to those fears, help them list some ways to manage or deal with their feelings.
For children who have only communicated online over the pandemic, there may be some social anxiety or atrophied social skills that you can help with by planning small playdates with families you are comfortable being around. If your child is showing signs of separation anxiety, suggest that they choose an object that reminds them of home and makes them feel safe that they can bring to school with them. It could be anything from a favorite book to a family photograph — something that can connect them to home when they feel their anxiety growing.
Bring them for a tour of the school before they go back
If the school allows for it, take your child on a tour so they can see where they’ll be learning, playing, and making friends. Some schools offer video tours in place of physical tours, but both are great at alleviating that fear of the unknown.
Even with a tour, your child might fear losing their way around the school, which can make their anxiety worse. Help them draw a map from where you’ll drop them off to their classroom and then back to their pickup spot.
Check in with your child throughout the school year
We’ve focused on ways to reduce your child’s anxiety for the first days back at school, but there’s an entire school year to get through, too! Set up a time with your child during the week where they can share how they’re feeling. It’s an opportunity for them to share how they’re coping with past sources of anxiety and any potential new areas of concern.
One of your child’s most significant influences in life are their own parents. Children are natural observers and have an absorbent mind, not just learning but for being empathetic to those around them. If parents are anxious and worried, children will notice, and that can potentially cause them to be anxious and worried at home and in the classroom.
Remember these tips to help your child learn to identify and manage their anxiety:
- Observe your child and look for signs of anxiety or unusual stress
- Let your child know their feelings are valid
- Create a safe space for them to share their fears and write down ways to manage them
- Take your child on a tour of their school to help reduce pre-first day anxieties
- Anxiety can happen throughout the school year. Check in with your child often.
Many of these same tips for managing anxiety apply to parents. As your child writes down their sources of stress or fears, share the ones you have in common with them. Tackling them together reduces their anxiety and can ultimately bring you closer together as a family.
Alex Kinsella is a freelance content marketer and writer based in Waterloo, Ontario. Alex has contributed to publications including BetaKit, Grand Magazine and more.
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