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Back to school anxiety – will it last forever?

September 19, 2016

Now that school is starting all over again (or it has already started, depending on each institution’s particular schedule), on track with the ineludible yearly cycle, some of the children and their parents may find themselves confronted with back-to-school anxiety.

The phenomenon – that NPR found to be feel like being chased by a lion from the children’s perspective – is not as uncommon as it may seem. If your child is among the lucky ones, which approaches the start of a new school year with neutral feelings or positive excitement, then you may appreciate that, yet keep informed on what back-to-school anxiety represents.

While some undermine the seriousness of this psychological state by deeming it as a sum of worries, there are a few basic strategies parents and caretakers should employ to help children keep their discomfort under control. It is however advised that, when the beginning-of-school-related anxiety symptoms last beyond a couple of weeks, the adults supervising the child would seek expert advice and perhaps take the child to see a specialist. (Other sources talk about the first couple of months from the beginning of school and recommend talking to the teacher first, before reaching out for specialized psychological advice).

To sum up, back-to-school anxiety represents the unpleasant inner state accompanied by nervous behavior that manifests in children in relation with the beginning of a new school year. The children affected by this anticipate future unpleasant events and perceive the immediate future as uncertain and threatening.

Back to school anxiety symptoms

While it is considered normal for children to become more nervous or excited once the first day of school year gets closer, 20% of them display beyond normal manifestations. The symptoms may consist from an unusual shyness, isolation from the surrounding activities, fatigue, detectable physical discomfort that has no palpable reasons (such as stomachaches or headaches), or of tantrums, nervousness, difficulties in getting along with friends and family members. These may appear mixed or alternating, since each individual displays his/hers particular array of behaviors.

As parents surely developed ways of knowing when something is wrong with their children by the time they reached school age, it should be easy to notice when kids’ behavior alters and, as mentioned above, if the symptoms persist over two to three weeks, professional help is advised.

Mild cases could benefit from a specialist counseling the parents or from direct children counseling, whereas the more serious cases could use professional help in alleviating the anxiety as soon as possible in order for it not to affect the children for longer times and not to become associated with the beginning of school period in a cyclical manner.

What can parents do to ease anxiety?

First and foremost, acknowledging the problem would be the basic step in the right direction. Scolding the children for the effects caused by their inner discomfort is counter indicated, as well as ignoring the cause beneath their behaviors. Once narrowing down the back-to-school anxiety as being the culprit, there are other steps parents can take in order to diminish the children’s stress:

  • Prepare children for the beginning of the new school year gradually, starting with a couple of weeks before the first day back to class; reinstate the routines accompanying school time, talk in a positive manner about the upcoming school year, offer previews of the expected changes to chase away the fear of the unknown and share your own pleasant memories of school days; pay attention to separate your own school-related anxieties (if existent) from the children’s and to try not to cause even more stress;
  • Encourage your kids to connect or reconnect with other children; readjusting with the idea of community and of being in school together with others might help in normally sizing the future event of going back to school; familiar peers may also take your child’s mind off the unpleasant, hyper inflated worries he or she is projecting onto the future times in school;
  • Keep your child busy with fun, interesting activities that are not too tiring; turning preparatory activities for school into fun activities could also help (like shopping, sorting out clothes or older supplies, tidying up the room); this way, while enjoying the activities, the idea of a new school year should ease up on the anxious youngster until many of the anticipatory worries would be dismissed by reality (pay attention though if the kid has anxiety due to real issues, such as bullying or falling behind in learning stuff, and try to address the issues themselves);
  • Support your child as you would in any other bothering situation; there must be a parent-child dynamic that your child responds to in a positive manner – employ your specific way of communicating to and being there for your child in order to alleviate the worries caused by school starting again; help the child find the good moments in the present and future school activities and encourage the communication with the teachers.

Remember that this crisis may affect the child on the long term if not managed properly, or may just be converted into a phase that offers the opportunity of a life lesson. Gradually, children learn to master their feelings and states, in order to cope with external situations that do not completely match their comfort zone.

Each such situation, once healthily surpassed, stands for a lesson in that never-ending subject we call life. As some sources acknowledge, even students are prone to back-to-school anxiety, so there is never too early to empower children in handling such situations they might be confronted with even later in their lives.