Tips for Caregivers: Managing Child and Adolescent Anxiety at the Start of the School Year

by Dr. Michelle Rozenman, Assistant Professor and Director of the BRAVE Lab

The start of a new academic year is a time of transition for kids and teens: meeting teachers, adjusting to expectations in the classroom, making friendships and, for teens, managing time and moving towards independence. This transition is full of exciting experiences, but it can also be stressful, especially in the current COVID context.

Stress is a normal experience and a little bit of stress is expected when things are new and unfamiliar. While some kids and teens might get nervous about separating from a parent after a summer at home, others may worry about doing well in class or meeting new peers, while still others start to avoid tasks or people because they feel overwhelmed.

Parents may notice that your child asks lots of questions about their new teacher, who they will sit with at lunch, or whether they’ll be able to complete all their homework. Parents may also notice difficulties sleeping or that their child has lots of headaches and stomachaches in the days leading up to school and the first days of the new academic year.

Below we provide some tips for parents in managing their child’s school-related anxiety whether your child is returning to school in person, participating online, or a combination.

Approach, rather than avoidance, as the key strategy to managing stress.

It’s entirely natural to want to avoid something that makes us feel nervous, worried, scared, stressed, or sensitive. It’s also natural to want to soothe your child by allowing them to avoid. However, avoidance only reinforces anxiety in the long-term. Work with your child to come up with small steps to approach the things they want and have to do. For example, if your child is nervous about talking to the new teacher, go with them to meet the teacher but have your child speak at least a little bit rather than you speaking for them. Praise brave approach behavior and encourage your child to continue taking small steps toward approach with each day.

Approach in the context of COVID-19.

For some youth, it may be helpful to talk about what steps your family and the school is taking to keep everyone safe. Talk to your child about the fact that some families may have different expectations or practices than your family, and your family’s practices may or may not be similar to that of the school. For some families, it may be helpful to visit the CDC’s website for resources on how to talk to kids and teens about COVID, and steps you can take for successful and safe approach.

Practice and role play.

As part of approach, some small steps might include practicing or role-playing specific situations that worry your child. For example, for some youth practicing the school morning routine (including the drive to school) may be helpful. For others, creating a schedule of what the school day and after school might look like may help them to recognize that they’ve had similar school days in the past. If your child or teen is concerned about social interactions, role playing such that your child is the teacher or a peer and you pretend to be your child, and then switching roles, may help them to feel more comfortable in conversations. You can even be silly with role plays by saying silly things, and having your child correct you about what a more appropriate response might be given the situation.

Focus on the positive and past successful transitions.

Discuss the things that might be exciting to your child or teen: being in the same classroom with their best friend, resuming extracurricular activities that were on hold over the summer, or taking a class or learning about a topic in which they’re particularly interested. Reminders that they previously successfully started something new in the past – whether it be a prior school year or a sport or instrument – can be a helpful reminder that even though they were nervous about something before, they succeeded.

Model brave behavior.

Providing age-appropriate examples of times you were scared, worried, or nervous in similar situations may help to validate your child’s feelings. For example, you might share that you also felt a little nervous at the start of each new school year when you were a child yourself. At the same time, you want to make sure that you send your child messages about behavior you want to see. For example, “I also always felt a little nervous when meeting new classmates. But looking back on it, the nervousness didn’t last very long and I always ended up meeting new kids. I bet you’ll feel the same way after a few days of school.”

Get support if anxiety starts to get in the way.

Although everyone feel stressed or sensitive sometimes, about 30% of kids and teens will experience significant anxiety that interferes with school, socially, or at home before age 18. If you start to notice that your child has anxiety symptoms that aren’t decreasing as the child acclimates to the new teacher(s), classroom, and peers, or your child’s anxiety starts to get in the way of daily life, considering seeing a professional. Below you can find some additional resources for what to do if anxiety starts to get in the way. You can also talk to your child’s pediatrician or school staff for additional recommendations.

Next Steps!

Join me for a free webinar on Wednesday, August 18 to explore more about helping your children manage stress and anxiety in the back-to-school transition. Register here today.

I also invite you to learn more about our research on our website, including how to participate in our work.

I wish your family a safe and happy transition back to school!