Back-to-school is an exciting time. But for many kids, it can cause stress and anxiety—even children who are usually easy going may experience butterflies and those with some anxiety may get more nervous and clingier than usual. Parents feel the pain, too. Leaving a crying child at school is hard for everyone.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still lingering and cases on the rise, there is a lot of uncertainty about how safe our kids will be at school – especially those under 12 who are still unable to get vaccinated. With masking optional, many parents and kids feel more anxious than usual about returning to school this year.
CJ Powers, Ph.D., Director of Psychology Training at Huntsman Mental Health Institute, offers his expertise about the signs of anxiety in children and teens, typical anxiety vs. an anxiety concern, and what parents and caregivers can do to help their child cope.
Signs and Symptoms of Depression, Stress or Anxiety
"Look for changes in their behavior," Powers says. "Big changes in your child's behavior is a sure sign that your child is struggling or needs help."
Powers explains that behavior like inattention, withdrawing from friends, family, and activities, more tearful or less cheerful than usual, difficulty sleeping (or sleeping too much), loss of appetite (or overeating), or increased irritability, are some signs that your child may be experiencing unhealthy levels of stress.
There are physical symptoms too, including quick breathing, stomach aches, feeling too hot, tense muscles, diarrhea, or needing to go to the bathroom more than usual.
"As we head back to school, these anxious or depressed feelings may be temporary. It's important to have continuous open conversation and ask questions to find out how they are feeling and whether you need to seek additional help or support for your child," says Powers.
"When something is important to you, and the future is uncertain, worry is NORMAL."
CJ Powers, PhD
Always ask: How are you feeling?
Powers recommends using open-ended questions rather than yes/no questions to get your child talking. He suggests that focusing your questions on how your child is feeling is the most important. And that it can also be helpful to relate to their feelings to show that you understand what they are going through. Here are some direct, open-ended questions to ask your child if you feel something is going on.
- Avoid the "are you worried?" question. Ask instead, "How do you feel about the start of school?"
- Or ask: "With all the changes recently, what kinds of worries are on your mind?"
- Relate to them. "I remember that I always had worries about returning to school at the end of summer. Especially with all that is going on, how worried do you feel about the start of the school year?"
Whether it stems from COVID stress or general anxiety about social acceptance, it is normal for children and parents to experience anxiety and stress when starting the new school year. . School and social relationships are a huge part of a child’s life and the start of a new school year introduces a huge number of changes. Essentially, you are starting over. How do you not worry about going into a new year with new experiences?
Powers has some insight for those trying to navigate going back to school that is also helpful for adults going back to work or college-aged students going back to campus.
What are some common worries?
Common worries children may feel are: will my friends still like me? Who will my teachers be, and will they like me? Will I be able to get good grades under new pressure? They may also feel nervous about their new environment, new classroom, new structure, and new routines. The added stress of a transition year – elementary to middle school, middle school to high school, and high school to college creates a whole set of worries that may range from "where will I eat lunch" to "will I be safe in this new environment."
As a parent, you feel the responsibility of worrying about your child. Helping your child navigate their worries may seem like an added parental stressor. Being around a parent who is also anxious and worried can make children and young people more anxious and stressed. Powers recommends managing your worries so that you can be a better emotional support to your child:
- Increase your self-care
- Talk about it! Talking if the first step to figuring it all out
- Acknowledge worries, but also challenge unrealistic worries by evaluating them against past experiences and likely outcomes
How parents and caregivers can help kids cope
If your child is struggling with anxiety or stress, there are ways to help them, including providing emotional support, working on practical strategies together, and finding professional help if needed. Here are Powers’ suggestions to help your child cope:
- Listen. Start by listening and asking questions that help you understand (without trying to fix it!). Try to understand first. Acknowledge that worries are real and meaningful to your child.
- Seek to Understand. Offering reassurance seems like it might be helpful, but you risk coming across as invalidating and could result in your child keeping quiet. A safer course is to start by seeking to understand and validate. Often that is enough and will help your child feel better (without you having to "do" anything!).
- Think together about ways to reduce their anxiety. If your child seems "stuck," once you feel you understand their worry, ask them how you can help and what they might be able to do to help themselves. This demonstrates respect for your child, puts them in control, and gives them practice with problem-solving. Ask if there are things that you can do to help.
- Ask permission. If you feel like you have advice that you think will be helpful, ask permission first. "I have a thought that might help. Is it ok if I share it with you?" If your child says yes, then share away! If they say no, then respect their wishes and stay quiet.
- Spend quality time together. Even if it's just a few minutes a day, help your child take their mind off their worries by having fun, relaxing, and laughing with loved ones.
- Get your child to school. Some well-intentioned parents sometimes try to help their children feel better by letting them avoid the thing that is stressing them—in this case school. This can actually backfire and make the situation worse. For most kids, back-to-school jitters subside in a few days after they get back into the routine of school.
- Seek professional help if things don't get better. Some young people with anxiety will need a professional or specialist to help them feel better. Visit HMHI's website to learn more about programs available for children and young adults. Also, teens, parents, and caregivers can download the SafeUT app, a real-time chat and tip line to connect to a licensed counselor 24/7 from your smartphone.