Helping Kids Manage Their Back-to-School Anxiety: Dos and Don’ts

By Summer Batte, author of Name and Tame Your Anxiety: A Kid’s Guide

The first day of school can be a source of anxiety in any year. But for many kids, this particular back-to-school season feels a lot more intense and nerve-wracking. After all, a sixth grader who has been distance learning since March 2020 has spent about 20 percent of her school career at home. Also, there’s still a pandemic, so reentry is going to be bumpy for students, parents, and teachers. Still, as caring adults in a child’s life, we can make a difference by showing kids that we understand their feelings and that, despite a case of the jitters, we believe they can do this. Here are a list of dos and don’ts for helping kids manage their anxiety about returning to school this fall.

Helping Kids Manage Their Back-to-School Anxiety: Dos and Don’ts

Do Start Talking About Excitement

Anxiety and excitement can feel similar. Heart rates go up, breathing gets faster, and it may be hard to sit still or concentrate. When a person feels this way before a big event or change, using calming strategies might help. But it may be just as helpful to embrace the symptoms you’re feeling and flip the script. Saying, “Wow, I’m so excited about seeing friends that my hands are sweaty!” can help a child change the way they think about their symptoms and make it easier to focus on the positive parts of returning to school. Parents can model this with their own returns to activities or work, or they can voice their “symptoms of excitement” about kids going back to school.

Do Make a Calming Kit

Some kids find it useful to have a set of physical tools that can help them lower their anxiety. These tools usually engage the senses, helping the child “zoom out” from their worries and focus on other things in their environment. Mints to suck on (taste), lavender to smell (scent), a photo of a beloved pet (sight), or a cool, smooth stone (touch) are all options to include in a “calming kit.” Even if the larger kit needs to stay at home, it might be possible for a child to take a small item—such as a piece of satin fabric—to school. Ideally, encourage kids to practice feeling the fabric days or weeks ahead of school, when they are feeling relaxed and comfortable. Get them to talk about how it feels in their hand—this helps get an anxious person out of their own head. In time, use this focus on the fabric when the child becomes a bit anxious about something. Hopefully, by the time school starts, having that piece of satin in a pocket will provide a bit of security and confidence in your child that they can soothe themself whenever they need to.

Don’t Say “There’s Nothing to Worry About”

Really, who can even say that with a straight face this year? Still, it’s tempting to say this to a child, either because you do know they will be safe or because you just don’t want them to have to worry! Regardless, your kid is feeling nervous. It may have been a long time since they’ve been around so many people. School procedures and rules may be very different than they remember—and what they do remember may feel very, very distant.

We tend to say this to kids when we want to reassure them that they’ll be okay. Remind them of the adults at school who they can ask for help. And rather than brushing aside their feelings of worry, say what you mean: “My job as the adult is to make sure you are safe, and I’m confident you are safe here.”

Do Talk About How Other Kids Are Feeling

Because anxiety happens in our minds, and the symptoms are usually felt in our bodies, it’s often very difficult to see anxiety happening to someone else. So kids may arrive for the first day of school and think everyone else feels just fine—that they are the only one with anxiety. This is definitely not true. Talk ahead of time about how everyone experiences anxiety, even if we can’t see it happening. Hypothesize about what a friend (or a teacher!) might be worried about this year. Ask your child what strategies they might advise this friend to use to manage anxiety. Might that same strategy work for your child?

Do Set Kids Up to Speak Up

The more power a child feels to get their needs met, the less nerve-wracking returning to school will be. This fall, self-advocacy could mean kindly reminding a classmate that while it’s really fun to be together again, everyone will be safer if they stay a few feet apart. Older kids might consider being the brave one who shares with the class that coming back to school has been difficult. Individuals who are willing to express what they are feeling often discover they have more in common with their peers than they realized.

Do Plan Downtime

Anxiety is exhausting. So is change. Returning to school this year is a huge change for many students, and that’s before we layer on anxieties about health and safety. Relaxing activities can help kids recharge between school days. Plan some simple comforts for those first weeks of school: put a few coloring books on standby, let your child pick what to have for dinner on Day One, or keep the first weekend free of organized activities. On the first morning of school, you can remind your child that they have spaghetti and a movie to look forward to.

Don’t Say “I Told You It Would Be Easy!”

We tend to say this to kids after they’ve mustered the courage to do something really difficult for them (even if it seems simple enough to us). But managing anxiety is not easy. Instead, acknowledge their efforts and celebrate the win: “I know that was hard, but you did it! I’m so proud of you.”

Summer BatteSummer Batte has worked as a writer and editor for more than 16 years. For the past four years, much of her work has been focused on research-based advice stories. She came to appreciate her undergraduate studies in psychology at Stanford University more than ever when she experienced peripartum depression and anxiety, and a few years later, learned she was parenting a child with anxiety. For nearly 10 years, she has researched anxiety and learning disorders to ensure her daughter got the education and life she deserved, and also to help explain anxiety, therapy, and medication in a way that respected and trusted her very bright child’s ability to understand complex concepts. She homeschooled her daughter for three years, which led to even more research into learning styles, teaching methods, and the American education system. It also meant she had to relearn a lot of math. When she has downtime, Summer likes being with her family, reading, watching great TV, trying to perfect chocolate chip banana bread, and knitting (which her daughter made her learn). She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Name and Tame Your Anxiety: A Kid's GuideSummer is the author of Name and Tame Your Anxiety: A Kid’s Guide

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