How to Manage Children’s Back-to-School Anxiety

Going back to school after a long summer vacation, not to mention entering a new grade, with a new teachers and new classmates, can be stressful for many young children. Read on for Dr. Susan Bartell’s tips on combating your child’s back-to-school worries.

back to school anxiety; worried boy carrying a backpack, on his first day of schoolYesterday, I overheard a young girl, about 9 years old, sharing concerns with her mother about the upcoming school year. “I know I’m not going to like my teacher—everyone says she’s the worst one…and none my friends are in my class!”
   Most kids experience some anxiety as they begin a new school year (even high schoolers!). Your child may express this anxiety as worry, pessimism, or even through negative behavior. For parents, it can sometimes be difficult to know how to manage this anxiety, but doing so effectively can make the transition to the new school year so much easier.

The good news is that, whether the anxiety is about school or anything else, when you teach your child to respond to it successfully, you can help her learn to manage her feelings, as well as inoculate her against future episodes of worry.
   There are three simple steps you must teach your child in order to help her develop the emotional strength she requires to combat anxiety. In fact, if you are an anxious type, you might want to try these too, because they work as well for adults as they do for children (and then perhaps you will be less likely to role-model an anxious response).

1. Anticipation doesn’t have to mean aggravation.

Teach your child that the worry one feels in advance about how scary or bad a situation will be is almost always much, much greater than what it feels like once the experience actually begins. Explain that in fact in many cases the actual experience (like the first day of school) is usually a lot of fun, even though thinking about it in advance might seem scary. Help your child to focus on the positive aspects of the upcoming event by making lists of what she is excited about, rather than thinking about her worries. The list may include new notebooks, a lunch box, school clothes; more friends; being an older kid in school; or trying a new sport.


2. You can’t judge a book by someone else’s cover.

Tell your child that it is never possible to know what an experience will be like for one person based on another person’s experience. For example, I have seen many children expect a teacher to be mean or boring simply because another student said she was, only to find out she is warm, caring and interesting. Teach your child to form his own opinion about people, rather than relying on other people’s judgments. This is a valuable life lesson that can be used in all situations.


3. Rehearse your worries away.

Children (and adults) worry about situations they believe they can’t control. You can help your child master his anxiety by imagining he is in the anxiety-producing situation and then encouraging him to role-play how he would behave. For example, he can pretend it is the first day of school by getting dressed in school clothes, putting his backpack on and pretending to walk into the classroom with you as the teacher. Of course, you will greet him with a big smile and show him to his desk. You might also pretend you are a classmate he hasn’t met before and your child can practice greeting and getting to know you. Rehearsing like this will teach him that he has the ability to approach the first day of school with confidence, and you will both have a good laugh!

Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally recognized child psychologist, speaker and award-winning author. Her latest book is “The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask.” You can learn more about Dr. Bartell at