Dealing with back-to-school anxiety
By Ameeta Vohra
The end of summer marks a new beginning for children, but it can also cause anxiety, as many kids struggle with a change in their daily schedule.
“Even when everything’s very positive with school, we expect there will be some level of anxiety,” says Dr. Alexa Bagnell, chief of psychiatry at the IWK Health Centre. “Often, it’s structure, school expectations, schoolwork and the social, peer dynamics and involvement that happens with school.”
Parents can see signs in several ways, including a child asking more questions than normal. In this case, a child will be seeking reassurance by expressing worrying thoughts about what might happen when they go back to school or start at a new school. They often wonder and worry if they will make friends.
“Headaches and stomach aches may also indicate they’re worrying more,” says Bagnell. “As well as changes in sleep pattern. It’s hard in the summer because everyone’s sleeping is a little off, but it’s something to watch for. And take note if they are not eating as well or are more irritable or emotional than usual.”
There are several ways parents can help ease their child’s worries. Bagnell suggests parents acknowledge and validate their emotions. Tell their children it’s normal to feel this way and work with them to see what will make them feel comfortable returning to school.
“Don’t ignore it, but also don’t build it up,” she says. “There are ways parents can help and it’s important to tell children that this is something everyone goes through to varying degrees.”
Another way parents can make a difference is by getting their kids ready for the change in routine a few weeks before the school term starts. That means getting sleep patterns back on track.
“That way they’re not starting the first day of school tired,” she says. “Being tired leads to anxiety, and they won’t cope as well.”
If anxiety is from starting at a new school and not knowing what to expect, Bagnell suggests parents contact the school and see if a visit can be arranged before classes start. This is especially beneficial for children moving from elementary to junior high.
“Some schools will do a tour so students will know what to expect when they go to the new school, so it’s not a total surprise what it looks like,” she says, noting it helps for them to know where the classrooms are and the bus route, if that applies. It’s also a good idea to walk and practise the travel route.
Staying in contact and connecting with classmates and friends over the summer can make the back-to-school transition more manageable. It enables children to maintain their friendships and builds enthusiasm that there are connections to look forward to in the fall.
“Even planning the first day of school to go with a friend will make a difference for anxious kids,” she says. “It’s also good for schools to have a heads up from parents if a child is nervous and brand new to the school and student body.”
Since those first few weeks are a big transition, parents should watch their child’s anxiety levels. If they refuse to attend school, are avoiding friends, and won’t get out of bed, it might be signs that parents should seek help.
“Talk to your family doctor and reach out for mental health support to make sure things get on the right track. Some basic strategies can make a big difference.”
Ultimately, Bagnell says parents and children should look to the positive and joyful aspects of returning to school, such as seeing their friends and their favourite school activities.