How to Help Your Child’s Anxiety About the New School Year

Another school year is around the corner and many kids, even the popular ones who seem secure, begin to feel anxious about a new beginning, entering a new grade, meeting new teachers, and even reuniting with old friends.

Very few parents welcome the end of summer with open arms. School supply shopping, schedules, homework, and dark, rainy skies. Not fun! Just as we wish for a few more weeks of summer fun, so do our kids. In fact, for many children, the transition from summer back to school can be quite stressful.

Back-to-school stress, including the anticipation of new teachers and classmates, can affect any child no matter how experienced, popular, smart, or secure he or she may be. And for those kids who are not quite as popular or academically gifted (most kids!), facing the unknowns of the new school year can provoke a variety of unexpected end-of-summer behaviors. But, if you are prepared for the possibilities, you will be ready to help your child transition into the school year as smoothly as possible.

Having trouble sleeping is one of the most common back-to-school symptoms. Even kids who usually have no difficulty falling asleep may develop temporary insomnia as they start to think about school. When this happens, it is important not to significantly change your child’s sleep routine. Resist the urge to allow him to sleep in your bed, and don’t spend extra time in his bedroom either. Instead, allow a slightly later bedtime so your child feels more tired, then keep the bedtime routine exactly the same. If he wakes up during the night, help him back to sleep in his own bed, not in yours.

When kids feel stress it is sometimes expressed as temper tantrums and crankiness. Kids of all ages—from as young as 4 or 5, to as old as college age—may not be able to express worries about going back to school, and these concerns may appear as ‘bad’ behavior. If your child or teen becomes unusually rude or angry, it is useful to help her make the connection between her behavior and how she is feeling. In fact, your child’s behavior will improve if she learns how to talk about her feelings rather than acting them out. In addition, patience is important. You certainly should not allow your child to treat you or others badly, but hugs, kisses, and conversations will help her channel her feelings in a healthier way.

Another frequently seen back-to-school response can include anxiety and worry. Some kids develop separation anxiety or school-related worries, and others may have nightmares. Even kids who don’t typically worry may have temporary anxiety as they think about returning to school. The best way to help a worrying child is to discuss and refute the specific issues that concern him. Explain that he is not alone—that every child feels some concern about the new year. It is also helpful to remind your child that he has adjusted in all prior years, and that if necessary you will help him navigate the tough stuff. Don’t spend too much time talking about back-to-school worries because too much conversation will reinforce them. Instead, help your child focus on enjoying the end of the summer.

The summer may be almost over, but let’s all remember that returning to school means another year of emotional growth, friendship, and important life experience. You can’t beat that!

Dr. Susan Bartell is a Long Island-based, nationally recognized child psychologist, speaker, and award-winning author. Her latest book is “The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask.”