Tips to ease back-to-school anxiety


The words “back to school” excite many children and teens, but some of them also have back-to-school jitters about new routines, separating from parents, schoolwork, new teachers and/or social interactions.

This anxiety is especially prevalent among students who are in a transition year, like starting preschool, kindergarten, middle school, high school, college or a new school.

The good news is that most of this anxiety will subside over a few weeks. But there are some red flags that indicate a child’s anxiety is causing significant distress, including:

Continually seeking reassurance or asking repeated, worried questions, despite already receiving an answer.

Tantrums when separating from caregivers to attend school.

Difficulty getting along with, or withdrawal from, family members and/or friends.

Avoidance of normal activities in and out of school.

Fatigue, taking longer to fall asleep, waking parents during the night.

Loss of appetite or changes in eating habits.

Difficulty concentrating.

Extreme mood swings or expressing feelings of hopelessness, despair and worthlessness.

Use of drugs or alcohol.

Frequent somatic complaints of headaches or stomachaches, or even vomiting.

Parents should check with their pediatrician about any physical issues, such as headaches, stomachaches, frequent vomiting, changes in eating habits and bedwetting. It is important to rule out any physical conditions before treating any mental-health concerns.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental-health disorders in children and adolescents. Children and teens can also suffer from social anxiety, which can impact their ability to function at school.

Social anxiety occurs when a person is overcome with fear and worry in social settings, leading to deep feelings of embarrassment and fear of being judged by others. Symptoms include feeling nauseous, sweating, nervous shaking, unexpected blushing and fear of having to talk or perform in front of a group.

Emotional distress that goes unresolved can sometimes lead to school avoidance – students who want to arrive late, leave early, or skip school altogether.

School refusal is an extreme pattern of avoiding school due to emotional distress and is distinguished from normal avoidance by how long the child has been avoiding school, how much distress they associate with attending school, how strongly they resist, and how much their resistance is interfering with their life and their family’s life.

The longer a child is absent from school, the harder it is to get back into the routine.

The reasons a child or teen may refuse to go to school include being bullied, not understanding or failing a subject, rejection from peers, family conflicts or problems at home, physical illness or other mental-health disorders.

School refusal is different from truancy, which is not typically a result of anxiety. Instead, a truant child or teen might not care about school, or might feel that they don’t have a good reason to attend.

And let’s not forget about college students! Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental-health problems on college campuses, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. The increase in antisemitism on college campuses can also contribute to feelings of anxiety. Here are some statistics:

30% of college students report that stress negatively impacts their academic performance.

85% of college students report feeling overwhelmed by everything they must do.

6% list anxiety as their top concern.

5% report taking medication for anxiety or depression.

Here are some ways that you can help your child reduce back-to-school anxiety:

A week or two before school starts, start preparing children for the transition by resuming school-year routines, such as establishing a bedtime, preparing tomorrow’s clothes and packing bookbags. This probably means going to bed earlier and putting screens away 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.

Arrange play dates and meetups with friends before school starts. The presence of a friend during transitions has been shown to improve a child’s academic and emotional adjustment.

Visit the school before the first day. Take a tour, meet the teachers, learn how to use a locker (those combination locks are tricky to learn in seventh grade!), see where classrooms and bathrooms are. You can also rehearse the drop-off routine and practice walking to the classroom.

Inform staff if your child has anxiety, and perhaps establish a go-to person who they can check in with upon arrival (an aide, counselor, nurse), as well as someone they can go to if they need a break during the day (an aide, counselor, nurse, principal, teacher).

Validate and listen to your child’s worries to help them feel secure. Don’t dismiss or avoid them by saying “everything will be OK.”

Highlight the good and fun times your child has had in the past.

Model good stress management.

Encourage journaling, yoga, meditation, mindfulness, calm coloring.

Connect family members as much as possible. Everyone’s after-school schedule is busy with sports, clubs and lessons, but try to eat together at least one or two nights during the week. Turn off all devices while you are eating, so you can focus on the food and one another.

Get out in nature, which has been shown to reduce levels of stress, depression and anxiety. Smell the roses, head to the beach, take a hike, look up at the clouds!

And, finally, the best advice: Ask your child what would support them in transitioning back to school. It might be a new outfit or an after-school plan for the first few days, such as a relaxing family activity or a get-together with a close friend.

If problems persist or increase in frequency and intensity, as well as interfering with the child’s ability to attend and participate in school, you may need to seek professional mental-health services. This can include Play Therapy, Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy, referrals for medication from a psychiatrist or a referral for assessment/testing for psychological, neurological or learning disorders.

If you would like to seek counseling for your child or yourself, please reach out to the Counseling Center at Jewish Collaborative Services, at 401-331-1244.

GABRIELLE DWORKIN, LMHC, RPT, GC-C, is a child & family clinician at Jewish Collaborative Services.