How to Help Kids with First-Day Jitters and Anxiety

Photo by Flickr user Laddir Laddir

By Ashley Magnum, MSW, LISCW

Kids Mental Health Pierce County

Back-to-school jitters are a natural form of anxiety for many children. Long before the coronavirus pandemic, the first day of school generally resulted in a mix of emotions:

  • Excitement to reconnect with friends
  • Nervousness about new teachers and expectations
  • Sadness over the loss of summer freedom

The circumstances created by the pandemic add to the mix of feelings involved in the start of school. Remote and hybrid learning models create change. Parents and children worry about missing out on learning and social experiences along with their risk of becoming ill. The many unknowns around new models of teaching and learning are also stressful.  Both parents and children are being asked to navigate learning in new ways. All of this adds to the stress.

Back-to-school anxiety peaks for many children a day or two before the first day of school. Parents should carve out time to talk with kids about their feelings connected to the start of school.

The First Day of School Talk

Discussing the first day of school should be an open conversation between parents and children. Start by listening. Try to learn where your child is coming from and connect with empathy. Discuss new expectations at home. Then, talk about how learning may look within a home environment and how the day might be structured. Help children by listening to worries, providing information, and filling in gaps in their knowledge. Some examples of topics that can be points of stress for kids going back-to-school include:

Social Situations at School

For some kids, school social situations elicit feelings of nervousness, concern, and fear. Even in remote learning environments, social dynamics exist. If your child has a history of inclusion or exclusion from a group or clique, talk about his or her desires for this year. Discuss how the online school experience could lend itself to new ways of connecting with children he or she is interested in. If your child has experienced bullying, talk about what to look out for with remote learning. If your child has been involved in bullying, remote learning may offer new tools to help your child reduce, even stop, aggressive behaviors.

For tweens and teens, learning online both includes and requires more digital access than usual. Social media and chat apps are easily in reach. It’s a good idea for parents to be aware of this. Discuss with your middle and high school children what their online school life will look like. Assure that children feel supported to navigate the demands of web-based platforms and learning tools. Seek support from your child’s school district if needed. Establish some guidelines for social media and chat app use. It is a good idea for parents to have access to their children’s devices and for children to be in the loop when parents are looking through their digital activity.

Academic Anxiety

Learning new things, revisiting challenging subjects, and following the general requirements of school come with twists and turns. Explore learning challenges through dialogue with your child.

If your child has general apprehension, known challenges, or specific concerns, ask to have a conversation with your child’s teacher. This way the teacher gains an understanding of the concern. Together, you can likely develop an effective learning approach for your child.

For your child, knowing that he or she has your support and that the teacher is engaged can be a big help. Inform children that you are working with their school, and where appropriate, encourage children to be a part of this dialogue. Be sure to keep conversations within your family. If your child wants to speak with others about it, he or she will.

Summer Break

The mourning of summer and loss of freedom is common for many children. A good way to talk about this is to ask your child what his or her top three, five, even 10 summer highlights were. Then, talk about the highlights of the past school year and the excitement of the upcoming year. The key is not to diminish any experiences, but rather to demonstrate that a range of experiences exists both during summer and throughout the school year. Each season brings something to celebrate and look forward to.  Avoid the easy temptation to simply focus on the negative, the changes, and missed activities related to the pandemic.  Rather, point out the strengths and adaptive skills you have learned about your child, and family, as you continue to navigate new challenges together.

When Your Child’s Back-To-School Anxiety Might Indicate a Larger Issue

For some children, back-to-school anxiety can become more pronounced or may reflect more significant underlying anxiety. To help determine if your child’s anxiety is more severe and warranting outside support, watch for the following:

Behavioral and Physical Symptoms of Anxiety in Children

Children who are very uncomfortable due to anxiety may begin to avoid what they fear. School refusal, crying, increased irritability, withdrawal, regressed behavior like bedwetting, baby talk, reduction in talking or a refusal to speak can be signs of severe distress. Physical symptoms of distress such as headaches, nausea, vomiting, changes in sleep or appetite, and general complaints of fatigue or not feeling well may also be signs. If your child is struggling with physical symptoms, it is important to rule out illness by checking in with your child’s pediatrician. If illness is ruled out and symptoms continue, your pediatrician may suggest referring your child to a counselor or psychologist. With a counselor or psychologist, your child, and you, can address underlying anxiety, develop a support plan, and identify coping mechanisms.

Persistent Symptoms of Anxiety in Children

Anxiety and related symptoms which are present for more than half the days of the week, for over three to four consecutive weeks may reflect something more substantial. When symptoms remain for a month or more it is wise to check in and seek outside support from your pediatrician or a behavioral health professional in order to address the distress experienced by your child.

Impact on DaytoDay Functioning

While the experience of worry is common for all of us, ongoing anxiety can take a toll. When a child’s worry or anxiety begins to disrupt home, school, social, physical, or other aspects of life, it is likely time to seek support. Addressing concerns early with a behavioral health counselor or psychologist is recommended. Early behavioral health support can help children explore positive coping resources before less adaptive coping becomes firmly rooted and more difficult to change.

If your child is referred to a counselor, plan to be present on the first visit to meet the counselor, offer your input, and express your concerns. It is likely that a counselor will also meet with your child alone. This is because children may be more apt to share with a new person when their parent is not in the room.

Parents, You Got This!

Good job! Reading this post shows you care for your children and want to support them. You’re ready for the back-to-school jitters conversation. When you talk with your child, don’t forget to set yourself up for success too.

Parents’ Check List for Back-To-School Success

  • Check your behavior. Children tend to mimic parental behaviors and pick up on stress. Take a relaxing breath. Be kind to yourself and your kids. Remember that the 2020-2021 school year is new territory for all. It did not come with an instruction manual. We are all learning together.
  • Structure the school day. This will help both you and your child know what to expect, which can reduce anxiety. Build breaks into this schedule.
  • Help your kids get plenty of rest with a set bedtime and wake up time.
  • Eat regular meals and have healthy snacks available.
  • Move your bodies. You and your children should shoot for a target of 30 minutes of exercise every day. This can be within or outside of the home.
  • Give your child something to look forward to. An outfit or a special breakfast, snack, or lunch for the first day of school can help increase positive feelings.
  • Set up a special workplace for your child. Keep it free of clutter and encourage your child to engage in focused work within this space. Enlist your child in determining where feels most comfortable and conducive to learning.

Pandemic life is no joke. We’re all learning as we go. Keep listening to your kids, empathizing with them, and having conversations. The stability you provide as a parent is a major asset in helping to soothe your child’s anxiety.

Mary Bridge Chief Clinical Officer & Pediatric Neuropsychologist, Chris Ladish, PhD also contributed to this article.