Dealing with back-to-school anxiety

August 30, 2023

Primary Care Parenting Mental Health
mother and daughter high fiving on the way to school

When school begins in the fall, some kids may eagerly jolt through the doors, ready to reconnect with friends and meet new teachers. But for other students, the start of the new school year can be full of anxiety and fears. With a little pre-planning, families can help the beginning of a new school year feel less scary – and more manageable – for kids of all ages, says Leo M. Bailey, II, D.O., a family medicine physician at Riverside Commonwealth Family Medicine in Newport News.

Tips to reduce anxiety

  1. Talk positively about the start of school.
    Talk about the new school year in positive terms – focusing on new learning opportunities and new chances to get involved or try new extracurriculars – so kids begin to see back-to-school as something to look forward to, rather than dread.

    “When you help kids focus on aspects of school they enjoy, they feel more empowered to cope with portions of the day that may feel challenging to them, such as morning drop-off or navigating finding a seat in the cafeteria at lunch,” says Dr. Bailey. 

  2. Stick to a routine. 
    Most kids take comfort in having a day-to-day, expected routine. Begin your family’s usual back-to-school patterns before school starts. Ease children into regular bedtimes and early-morning wake-up times at least a week before the first day. This way, they can practice getting up, dressing, having breakfast and securing their school essentials – without feeling frantic or pressured. Encourage even college-bound kids to practice setting an alarm and developing their own daily routine.

  3. Attend orientations and other back-to-school kickoff events.
    Attend your school’s open house, orientation or other kickoff events. These opportunities help answer questions kids may be having about how their new school or campus will operate – even ones they may not have been able to articulate. “When kids know what to expect, they’re less likely to feel anxious about the school year ahead,” Dr. Bailey says.

  4. Help your child identify at least one friend to pair up with on the first day.
    A fear of isolation or loneliness may fuel some kids’ anxiety about the new school year, particularly if they are starting a new school – or leaving home to attend college for the first time.

    Help your child get to know at least one other student attending their new school or grade before the school year begins. Encourage your college-bound student to correspond with assigned roommates over the summer. Knowing at least one friendly face as they start back can be reassuring.  

  5. Make time to listen. And pack an encouraging note.
    Be available to listen to your kids if they want to express concerns or worries about the upcoming school year. Then, work together to navigate ways they can tackle these issues successfully. 

    Finally, whether your child is a Kindergartener or a high school senior, take a minute to write a small note of encouragement and slip it into their lunchbox or backpack. Even college students will appreciate a note tucked into their suitcase or dorm boxes. When your student finds it, they’ll know you’re thinking of them and rooting for them – and that fact alone may help them face the first day with less fear.

Knowing when to seek help

If your child seems to be struggling beyond normal first-day jitters, be on the lookout for signs of severe back-to-school anxiety, including:

  • Sleepless nights
  • Nightmares
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stomach aches
  • Moodiness/whining
  • Angry outbursts
  • Extreme reluctance to attend school (i.e., fighting getting out of the car at drop-off, etc.)

If these symptoms continue, your child’s school counselor or pediatrician may suggest additional steps to help reduce stress and anxiety, including mindfulness exercises, deep breathing practices, journaling, or counseling.

College-bound students should also watch for signs of mental distress and seek help, if needed, through free campus mental health services.

“Back-to-school is a major transition in kids’ lives,” explains Dr. Bailey. “With it comes a degree of newness and uncertainty that could trigger understandable feelings of anxiety or reluctance. With parental support, though, students of all ages can feel self-assured heading back to schools and college campuses this fall.”

Need back to school checkups or immunizations? Find a Riverside primary care physician near you.  

Related Articles

View All Posts
Cancer Gastroenterology +1 More

Colorectal cancer rising at alarming rates among young adults

March 22, 2024
Learn More a photo of a family giving hi-fives to each other
Primary Care Mental Health

Managing stress: How stress can impact your health

March 13, 2024
Learn More Man stressed at work
Primary Care Urology

Top remedies for the common cold

February 15, 2024
Learn More Man Cold