Back-to-school anxiety: How kids and parents alike can calm their nerves this school year

Getting into the groove of a new school year is never easy — but when facing the unique challenges of these uncertain times, it can be downright daunting.

Both children and parents alike are facing many unknowns this school year, and potentially struggling with the anxiety those question marks may bring. And after a year of social distancing and remote learning, reentering the world of face-to-face interaction might be a scary prospect for many families.

In a recently published study conducted by Brainly, an online learning platform, 66% of students reported that they felt anxious about the upcoming school year; nearly 40% reported that they feel unprepared for the upcoming school year.

Adults, too, are feeling anxious about the back-to-school season. In a survey conducted by OnePoll for Office Depot, 54% of parents of school-aged children acknowledged high anxiety for the 2021-22 school year.

However, for those struggling to get into the back-to-school spirit, there are many steps families can take to tackle stress and anxiety — and the first step might be understanding those feelings a little better.

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Is anxiety inherently a ‘bad’ thing?

Experiencing anxiety is not only normal, it’s actually a survival tool left over from our distant ancestors.

Anxiety is our bodies’ way of reacting to fear or stressors. Our heart rate increases, our breathing quickens, we begin to sweat, and our muscles tense. These reactions are known as the “fight-or-flight” response, and it enabled our ancestors to either stand and fight or flee from a dangerous threat.

Unfortunately, our modern-day bodies don’t understand that we’re no longer staring down a hungry saber-toothed cat, but instead feeling pressure from our jobs, social interaction, money issues, or a new school year.

“Clearly, large proportions of parents, children, and adolescents are impacted by anxiety, and the pandemic has only made things worse,” says Jessica Robinson, who writes for The Speaking Polymath blog for parents.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

The signs and symptoms of anxiety can vary from person to person, and from kids to adults.

While an anxious child might throw a tantrum, or a teen might withdraw into their rooms, an anxious adult might struggle with stomach aches. Our anxiety is as unique as our personalities and circumstances.

According to Dr. Jeannine Jannot, school psychologist and author of The Disintegrating Student, the symptoms of anxiety can be broken down into the following categories:

  • Somatic — headaches, stomachaches, feeling lightheaded/dizzy, indigestion

  • Behavioral — skin picking, hair pulling, hand wringing, new tics, changes in eating, sleeping, relationships

  • Emotional — irritability, easily frustrated, quick to anger, catastrophizing

What are the effects of anxiety and stress?

Stress and anxiety are not only emotionally upsetting, but they’re physically damaging as well — both to children and adults.

In children, whose minds and bodies are still developing, unchecked stress can have a lifelong impact. According to experts, stress stifles the brain’s development of cognitive skills categorized as “executive function,” including focused attention, self-control, flexible thinking, and working memory.

“The impact of ongoing stress on childhood and adolescent brain development might not be limited to the global pandemic. The long-lasting and devastating effects on brain development could even follow them into adulthood,” writes Amy Takabori for The Science of Learning blog.

“That means that to protect your kids and their quality of life, we have to make sure they mask up and power up their brains.”

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How should parents talk to their kids about anxiety?

While conversations will vary by age — talking to an eighth-grader will look very different from talking to a first-grader — communication is key when it comes to back-to-school anxiety.

Make kids feel safe

According to Dr. Jeannine Jannot, one of the key elements of communicating with children is helping them feel safe.

“Provide children with a safe space to share their concerns and feelings about school. Avoid the temptation to jump in and problem-solve, listen carefully to what a child is communicating, and follow through with help,” she says.

But it’s not just kids who need to do the talking. Parents also need to share how they’re feeling with their children.

“It’s important for the parents to let their children know that they are feeling stressed and anxious too,” says Stephanie Dalfonzo, author of Goodbye Anxiety, Hello Freedom. “We need to teach children how to self-regulate to maintain their emotional balance.”

Share personal experiences

In addition to sharing their own feelings of stress and anxiety, parents can help their children by sharing a time wherein they themselves overcame a difficult challenge. Sharing personal stories can also be a useful tool in getting the conversation started.

“Speaking about anxiety with kids can make both kids and parents uncomfortable, particularly if the parent isn’t used to naming emotions,” says Nina Meehan, founder of Creative Parenting, an organization that provides families with imaginative play ideas and parenting tips that lead to quality family time.

“Using story as a tool for communication is an easy way to make these conversations flow. Kids naturally connect to stories… And we, as parents, have a lot of stories. We’ve been kids, we probably felt anxious at some point!” Meehan adds.

Model calmness

Additionally, parents can help their children cope with anxiety by modeling calmness, while still remaining honest and open about their own stress.

“Children feed off their parents’ energy and views. So if you are running around like your hair’s on fire, talking about how this is going to be the end of the world, there is a very high likelihood your children will adopt this same behavior and outlook,” says Dr. Peter Bailey, family practice physician and contributor at Test Prep Insight.

“I would suggest reassuring your children with lighthearted comments. Saying something like ‘at least we have a year of practice under our belt’ or ‘we have nowhere to go but up’ are small, light comments that can help lighten the mood. Remind them that you’ve always got their back,” adds Dr. Bailey.

How can parents and kids work through anxiety?

Thankfully, there are many ways to cope with overwhelming feelings in a healthy, positive way — methods from which both parents and kids alike can benefit.

Create a routine

Establishing a routine doesn’t have to be complicated. Little things — picking outfits the night before, preparing lunch, planning breakfast, loading up backpacks, going over tomorrow’s schedule — can help kids feel more prepared for the day ahead, and thus, less anxious.

“Routine is one of the best ways to make school transitions smooth and quell anxiety,” says Dr. Brittany Ferri of Medical Solutions BCN. “Predictability helps kids know what to expect, which lessens that fear of the unknown that often comes along with the first days of a new school year.”

And, while life can’t always go to schedule, strive for consistency in your agenda. Dinnertime, bath time, and bedtime should all happen around the same time every day, if possible. Starting this schedule ahead of time and structuring their day as though they were going to school will give them time to adjust before the big day.

Research the unknown

Sometimes, eliminating small question marks can empower us to tackle the bigger question marks.

If your kids are returning to in-person learning or starting at a new school, study the school’s map and chart their path to classes or the cafeteria.

If they’ve never met their teachers before, and are unable to before the first day of class, look them up online so they can put a face to the name.

If they’ll be dealing with a locker for the first time, practice using combinations to open locks.

“Anything that helps them feel prepared can help ease the stress of the next day’s activity,” says Morgan Champion, Director of School Counseling at Connections Academy. “These simple tasks can reduce anxiety and help students feel prepared.”

Practice mindfulness/meditation

When we feel our anxiety levels rising, it’s important to take a step back from our feelings, which we can do through simple breathing techniques.

“In kids, mindfulness techniques become tools to help them pause and reset whenever they feel that they are losing control,” says Natasha Sandique, Psychology Consultant at Mom Loves Best.

“You can teach a ‘5-4-3-2-1 technique’ and introduce it as a game!” Sandique says. “You can sit down wherever you are and take a pause. After which, ask your child to find five things he can see, then ask him to ask you to do the same. Then, move on to four things he can hear, three things he can touch, two things he can smell, and one thing he can taste. You can then explain to your child that this can be a helpful game to play either alone or with you whenever he feels upset or anxious.”

Establish coping skills

Coping skills help us tolerate, minimize, and deal with life’s stressful situations — and they’re essential to managing our emotions in a healthy way.

“The trick with coping skills is to figure out what they are before you need them and practice them routinely. Listening to music, journaling, being outside, exercising, reading, baking/cooking, are all common coping skills,” says Dr. Nicole Lacherza-Drew, owner of Vici Psychological Care.

“However, find what works for you and your child. Try to implement these routinely so when you need to use them your brain is already used to the activity.”

Engage in creative play

According to Nina Meehan of Creative Parenting, kids are, by nature, experts at creative play.

“Imagination, story and play are their language for learning, so whenever we as parents can use these tools, it helps to create connection and eases tension,” says Meehan.

One way to ease kids’ anxiety through imaginative play is to act out your child’s first day together, says Meehan. Start with what the day might actually be like, then try the over-the-top version, where everything is silly and exaggerated. Let your kids play the teacher, and you the student, then switch roles.

Another creative way to ease anxious feelings is through arts and crafts. Have your child decorate their lunchbox or backpack to give them a sense of control over the experience. “It gives them a transitional object where they can express their own unique artistic perspective,” says Meehan.

If your child is anxious about socializing, help them to practice reading other people’s emotions — something that might be particularly helpful when wearing masks. “Make it a game and see if you can guess each other’s emotions,” says Meehan. “Practice ‘happy,’ ‘sad,’ ‘angry,’ ‘silly’ eyes. Then add in full body. What does ‘happy’ look like in your whole body? Make sure that you as the parent are also playing along. Kids will see your silliness as permission for them to be silly!”

What are some helpful resources for parents?

If you’re struggling with how to address anxiety with your children, there are many useful resources and tools available.

The Let’s Connect! Welcome Back Kit, created by nonprofit Beyond Differences, helps kids reengage and get to know their classmates. It’s filled with games and activities to help them get reacquainted and ease the social stress of returning to school. All Beyond Differences programs are provided to schools free of charge.

Pediatric mental health company Little Otter launched a free toolkit for families that assesses and offers completely personalized guidance for any family that’s looking for a little extra help or has specific concerns for their kids — such as if their children may be getting bullied, or if they seem worried more than usual. It also includes some hands-on activities for parents to do with kids based on their age range and stress levels to help them work through their feelings.

While the school year might look a little different this year compared to others, it’s nothing your family can’t handle with some communication, planning, and a few helpful resources at your fingertips!

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