Coping with Back-to-School Anxiety

By Christine Jaimes, LCSW-R, Clinical Director
New Directions Childrens Clinic of WNY

Back-to-school is usually a time of excitement and it’s normal for kids to experience some degree of anxiety as a new school year approaches. However, this year, COVID-19 may add to those stresses as children worry about themselves or their loved ones becoming ill. Normal routines will change as schools take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The uncertainty of the situation and changes in routine can cause many students – and parents – to feel stressed and anxious.

Kids may ask, “Will I get sick? Will my teachers? How will class be different?”
Many parents are having a harder time dealing with COVID-19 than their children, and some of the anxiety that kids are experiencing may be inadvertently passed on by worried parents. As parents, we need to be modeling for our kids how to react to stressful times by coping with anxiety in healthy ways. Be mindful of the present and stay focused on facts. Be smart about what you are reading. Make sure it is helpful and not full of doomsday kind of stories. Stay calm. Rely on routines. Establishing a routine that involves exercise, regular meals and healthy amounts of sleep is also crucial to regulating our moods and our worries.

You can also set aside time to regularly practice mindfulness, which is a way to help stay grounded and calm. YouTube has a variety of meditation and guided imagery videos. Parents can practice mindfulness alone or with children. You can’t control the future, but you can take charge of the present.

Children may show their anxiety in different ways. You know your child best, so be on the lookout for changes in your child’s behavior and mood, such as:

  • Increased defiance or irritability
  • Disturbances in sleep
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lack of concentration
  • Less energy
  • Physical symptoms like nausea, muscle tension or dizziness
  • Refusal to go to school
  • Sadness or crying

What can parents do to help their children?

  • Check in with your child frequently and listen to their concerns. Make sure to validate their emotions, letting them know that their concerns and frustrations are understandable.
  • Help your child focus on what they can control in the fight against the pandemic, such as hand washing, wearing a face mask and practicing social distancing.
  • Ensure your child is getting enough sleep, being physically active and eating healthy food to support a healthy body and mind.
  • Encourage your child to do more of what they enjoy most, whether reading, playing outside or other activities.
  • Explain to your child what you do know about what the school year or classroom will look like to help them mentally prepare.
  • Help your child adjust to COVID-19 precautions such as wearing a face mask by practicing at home. It is okay to empathize with your child if they find wearing a mask uncomfortable. Let them know that although it can be unpleasant at times, wearing a mask is an important way we can help protect others.
  • Set up ways for your child to continue to socialize safely with their friends over the phone or video chat, especially if they participate in distance learning.
  • Teach your child breathing exercises they can do when they feel anxious.