Back to School Anxiety

August 30, 2016

BusJennifer Jencks, PhD, director of the Access Center at Bradley Hospital, discusses triggers and sources of anxiety for children returning to school after summer vacation and what parents can do to help.

What causes back to school anxiety?  

There are a variety of triggers that can cause school anxiety. Summer can be a time of relaxation and improved connection within families, which can lead kids to feel anxious about the arrival of the school year and busier family schedules. Around the beginning of August, kids begin to think about the upcoming year and, if school is at all challenging for them, they can develop anticipatory anxiety, including worries such as ‘What if I don’t do well this year?’; ‘What if I get made fun of or bullied?’; or ‘What if I have a mean teacher?’

Kids with a predisposition for anxiety can be triggered by the change in their routine and change in amount of structure and expectation. For other children, practical issues like having enough food or appropriate clothes and shoes can add stress when school starts because they will be seen by peers, and teachers might single them out in an attempt to help them.

What are the typical things that can make kids anxious?  

  • Performance or taking tests
  • Social success: ‘Do I have the right clothes? Phone? Apps?’; ‘Will people think I am weird?’; ‘Do people like me?’; or ‘Will I embarrass myself?’
  • Teachers - mean versus nice, or difficult versus easy
  • Safety - being exposed to ‘mean kids,’ witnessing social or physical aggression, feeling targeted by administrators or labeled as a troublemaker
  • Sometimes generalized anxiety gets worse without any known trigger

Jennifer Jencks, PhD

Are there other factors that can intensify back to school anxiety?  

One of the biggest contributing factors for anxiety that we run into in school-aged children is puberty. With changes in hormones come changes in anxiety. Fluctuations can lead to intense and irrational worry or anxiety.

Bullying is also a huge piece of the puzzle and can affect feelings of social success and safety. If there is a perceived lack of support from school officials in response to bullying, that can also lead to worsened anxiety.

Kids who have learning style differences can become stressed about school because it is harder for them to learn in the typical ways. This causes them to fear not being able to learn or complete their work effectively. A related issue is test or performance anxiety, when children fear failure or embarrassment or struggle with perfectionism.

In addition, some kids with sensory processing issues can also worry about being over-stimulated in the school environment by crowds, loud noises or smells. Their nervous systems over-react to these stimuli, which makes children with sensory processing disorder physically and emotionally uncomfortable, and can make school an overwhelming and unpredictable environment for them.

What can parents do?  

The good news is there is a lot that can be done to support children experiencing intense anxiety. Parents can start by talking with children about what anxiety is and how it can be decreased. Teaching children anxiety specific vocabulary and strategies will help them describe their feelings better over time, and will give them important ideas about what they can do to regulate their emotions more effectively. Simple strategies like exercise, focused breathing and muscle relaxation strategies can help the body flush out the substances that are causing a child’s body to feel anxious. Parents can read about each of these strategies and practice them with their children at home.

Parents can also model for their children how to manage anxiety. This means pointing out situations when the parent is feeling anxious and sharing what they do to try to manage the anxiety. Providing some reassurance can also be helpful, but not too much! Offer kids one reassurance about their worry and then encourage them to reassure themselves in their own mind. ‘Talking back’ to anxiety by saying statements like, ‘I don’t have to worry about this!’ or ‘I’m worried I won’t do well in school, but my grades have always been fine,’ is an effective strategy over time if practiced regularly.

When should a parent seek professional help?  

While introducing anxiety management strategies at home can help most kids, if a parent feels that their child needs additional help, they should contact a therapist that works with children and specializes in anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy is typically recommended, sometimes in conjunction with medication, and both have positive results for most children and adolescents. Parents can also contact a clinician to ask for more specific strategies to help their child in their unique situations.

Bradley Hospital offers a hotline that connects parents and caregivers to children’s mental health services in Rhode Island, and helps families determine the best place to go for treatment. The hotline may be accessed at 1-855-KID LINK.