Helping Kids Cope With Back-To-School Anxiety

Air Date:
Heard On The Larry Meiller Show

Going back to school can be a stressful time for children, and they can suffer from anxiety as a result. Larry Meiller finds out what signs to look for, and how to help the young people in your life to make a smooth and easy transition.

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  • Back-To-School Transitions Can Cause Anxiety, Child Psychologist Says

    For children, going back to school after a summer at home can bring mixed feelings. There might be excitement to see friends and use those great new school supplies.

    But, there is probably a little nervousness or even more severe worry, too. It’s natural to feel some anxiety about a transition, but if left unchecked, it can affect sleep, interactions with others, and even the sense of self-worth.

    Being nervous and anxious about heading back to school is completely normal, according to Dr. Marcia Slattery.

    “This is not unique to a certain group of kids,” she said. “It’s ubiquitous.”

    As a University of Wisconsin Health child and adolescent psychiatrist and the director of the UW Anxiety Disorders Program, Slattery sees both children and adults who are dealing with anxiety. She said that dealing with some kind of change or something new or different in life are prime causes.

    In a child’s life, starting a new school year looms large on the scale of change and new conditions.

    “There are all sorts of unknowns that are part of that,” Slattery said. “You don’t know who your teacher is, you don’t know who the kids are going to be in your class, it might be a new building, is the homework going to be too hard, am I going to have the mean teacher, am I going to be liked by the other kids.”

    Slattery said that anxiety can mount quickly, “going from the small to the catastrophic pretty easily,” she said. “There is a range of different worries, and the tendency is that we always think the worst.”

    Slattery offered several techniques for helping children make the transition back to school without too much anxiety. They are outlined in her recent article, “Making the Transition Back to School.”

    Because the unknowns can be an endless source of anxiety, Slattery recommends doing a dry run to the new classroom or school whenever possible. That can include seeing where the child’s desk is, meeting the teacher in advance, or even walking from a locker to a distant classroom to feel confident that they can make it to class on-time.

    “All of that is extremely helpful,” she said, “and it’s what we call behavioral exposure.”

    That’s the concept of doing whatever it is that the person is afraid of and anxious about.

    Talking with children about how they’re feeling about going back to school is very helpful. It opens that door so that they know it is OK to talk about, and allows for planning ways to deal with what is causing anxiety.

    Slattery warned, however, that parents need to be careful that they don’t add to the child’s list of things to be concerned about. Adults shouldn’t assume that children are afraid of the same things that they might have been as children. And any worries that the parent has about the new experience is probably better left unsaid to the kids.

    For younger children who might not have the skills to express their anxiety verbally, parents can help them by talking positively about what they will experience. For the littlest ones, it may be new toys to play with and time to play with other kids.

    While engaging children in shaping their back to school experience is great, Slattery said that it can reduce stress and anxiety if choices are narrowed a bit. She gave the example of asking a child if they want to take blue or black pens to school, instead of asking what color they would like to have. She explained that kids often struggle with “broad and ambiguous” decisions.

    While some anxiety is normal, there are certainly cases in which it is more severe and needs professional attention. In fact, Slattery said, up to one in four children deals with an anxiety condition that compromises their quality of life.

    For the children with normal back to school anxiety, the signs will subside quickly after school starts up and they see that their fears, for the most part, did not come true.

    Common symptoms that might indicate that the anxiety is of a more severe nature include persistent stomach aches, bouts of crying, strong resistance to going to school, and sleep disturbances. Slattery said that parents of grade-school children dealing with severe anxiety often describe afterschool meltdowns as well.

    “Anything might trigger it,” she said. “It’s this tremendous emotional outburst of crying, or yelling, or screaming.”

    Interestingly, Slattery added, often teachers will have a very different view and see that same child as “the perfect kid.” She explained that it isn’t a matter of the child not feeling anxiety at school, but rather an intense desire to “hold it together” until they are in their safe home environment.

    If a parent sees some of the signs of more serious anxiety, Slattery recommended starting by talking with the child’s primary care provider for advice and recommendations.

    “The problem with anxiety is that it’s very quiet,” she said. “In the classroom, anxiety is not the squeaky wheel. … (As a parent) you really need to be tuned into it.”

Episode Credits

  • Larry Meiller Host
  • Judith Siers-Poisson Producer
  • Dr Marcia Slattery Guest