How Can You Ease Back-to-School Anxiety and Stress?

Spot illustrations of potential symptoms of anxiety in children

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Back-to-school anxiety is normal and understandable. Many kids may feel anxious about going back to school after a long summer break. Others may feel nervous about starting school for the first time.

Regardless of what the case may be, parents can help ease the transition back to school by being able to recognize the symptoms of stress and anxiety and implementing some creative strategies.

Reasons Kids Might Be Stressed or Anxious

Some kids' worries are rooted in a fear of the unknown, especially if they will be in a new building or a new school district. They also may be worried about making friends or have concerns about the workload and whether or not they have the skills needed to be successful.

COVID-Related Concerns

For students who spent months out of traditional in-person classrooms due to the COVID-19 pandemic, going back to school may feel extra intimidating or even scary. This may be especially true if they had classes online throughout the entirety of 2020.

They might be worried about everything from wearing masks and being unvaccinated to wondering if they will still have the same friends after being gone so long. They also may feel uncertain about what school will be like now and whether or not they will even know their way around.

Concerns About Friends, Bullies, and More

Sometimes, kids are anxious or worried about the upcoming school year because of experiences with bullies. For many kids, this time away from school was a welcome reprieve from mean behavior and cutting remarks. So, as the new school year approaches, they may begin to worry that they will have to go through the same experiences again.

Kids also might be stressed about appearance-related issues. Children from underserved communities and/or those living in poverty may worry about not having the right clothes or supplies. Other kids may worry about how others will view them especially if they have experienced weight changes, are now wearing glasses, have developed acne, or have recently gone through puberty.

Other common stressors include having a falling-out with a close friend, getting cut from a sports team, dealing with a new learning environment, being assigned to a difficult teacher, and not getting into higher-level courses.

There are countless reasons why kids may experience anxiety and stress as the first day of school approaches. Their reasons are as unique as they are.

COVID-19 and Kids' Stress Levels

COVID-19 continues to top the list of reasons why kids are experiencing increased anxiety and stress. Many kids and teens are experiencing feelings of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty as they struggle to come to terms with the continued experience of living through the pandemic.

Even as many parts of life are opening up and returning to "normal," kids may still be harboring fears. It's not uncommon for people—including young people—to struggle with psychosocial issues following outbreaks of infectious diseases.

For instance, a study of the aftermath of an Ebola outbreak found that an increased number of people reported experiencing mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Meanwhile, another study conducted following the outbreak of the swine flu found that children receiving mental health care are particularly psychologically vulnerable to epidemics like COVID-19.

Many of the things that contributed to kids' budding identities have been stripped from them due to the pandemic—and figuring out how to readjust to life back in the classroom is stressful.

Not only have they been limited in terms of who they can see and spend time with, but they also have had to deal with grief over many of their favorite activities being canceled. Likewise, many families have experienced increased economic hardship or uncertainty due to the pandemic. And, some students have had relatives get sick or even die from COVID-19. Both of these scenarios can leave kids feeling stressed and anxious.

Even if these situations don't apply to your family, your kids may know someone who has had these experiences. Naturally, these realities (or simply worrying they may happen) can create a lot of stress, which some kids may direct into anxiety about going to school.

Most kids also are trying to process the information they overhear or see on social media about the risks associated with getting sick from the coronavirus. This information—some of which may be inaccurate—may cause them to worry about getting COVID-19 and passing it on to the people they love.

Even as we emerge from the worst of COVID-19 in the United States, kids may be hearing about the new variants of the disease and wondering how that will impact them, their families, and their friends. Questions about vaccine safety and who is vaccinated and who isn't also may bring stress.

COVID-19 Prevention in Schools

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urged all schools to make returning to in-person instruction a priority. It also recommends that schools promote vaccines, as vaccinations are the leading strategy to end the pandemic.

Along with vaccination, the CDC recommends other safety protocols for in-person learning to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. These include having unvaccinated kids and adults wear masks indoors and still maintaining three feet of separation in classrooms.

Other safety precautions include screening, proper ventilation, hand-washing, cleaning and disinfection, and respiratory etiquette. Additionally, people who are sick should stay home, get tested and quarantine if they have COVID.

Even with all of these safety precautions, kids may still experience stress and anxiety. While it may be disconcerting to see your child's stress and anxiety levels rise as the school year approaches—especially after the hard year they just came through—it's also important to know that these feelings are not uncommon.

Be on the lookout for anxiety and stress. And make sure you are doing what you can to help alleviate uncomfortable feelings.

How to Identify Anxiety

While anxiety regarding returning to school is common, it's also not something that should be ignored. For this reason, you need to be able to identify when your kids are struggling with stress and anxiety.

Signs of Anxiety

When kids are anxious, they may not know how to put their feelings into words. Instead, look for clues in their behavior. Kids who are experiencing anxiety may:

  • Appear more clingy than normal
  • Be restless and fidgety
  • Complain of stomachaches
  • Display changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Express negative thoughts or worries
  • Get upset or angry more quickly
  • Have bouts of unexplained crying
  • Struggle to concentrate

If your child's anxiety lasts longer than two weeks and interferes with their daily life, this could be a sign of an anxiety disorder. Talk to your child's doctor about your concerns.

Untreated anxiety puts kids at risk for poor school performance, difficulty maintaining friendships, and even depression. And as kids get older, untreated anxiety can even lead to substance abuse.

Tips for Dealing With Stress and Anxiety

The best way to address stress and anxiety is often simply to encourage your child to talk to you about what is troubling them. Listen without judgment and validate their feelings. Sometimes, expressing their feelings is all a child needs to feel better.

Another great way to ease some of your child's anxiety about going back to school is to get your home ready for the transition. Strategies such as planning school lunches ahead of time or establishing a comfortable homework area can help make kids feel more in control and relieve some of their anxious feelings.

Foster Familiarity

As the school year approaches, it's important to help your child feel more comfortable about their new school environment. One of the things that can cause back-to-school anxiety for kids is not knowing what to expect.

This unfamiliarity may be inevitable, especially if there are new rules and guidelines as schools continue to adjust to pandemic cases and guidelines. Take the time to help your child prepare for how things might be different.

Help them become more acclimated to new routines and unfamiliar surroundings by talking through what they might expect to see. Allow them to ask questions and answer them honestly.

Another option to help build your child's comfort level is to make a couple of trips to and from school. Whether your child will walk, take a school bus, or be driven to school, helping them become familiar with the route may help ease back-to-school anxiety.

Even if your child is already familiar with the route to school, making a pre-first-day run will remind them where the school is, and help them feel more connected to where they will go on the first day back. This exercise is even important for first-time drivers. Teens need to know how to get to school and where to park their car.

You also should go over the basics with your kids. For instance, talk about where they will put their jacket as well as how lunch will be handled. You could even talk about how bathroom breaks are handled in the building. Knowing the answers to some of these questions will help your child feel more comfortable in their new classroom.

Be Positive

One way to help ease anxiety and stress about starting school is to remind your kids about what makes going to school great. Aside from learning new things and participating in extracurricular activities, there is a lot that is good about school.

For starters, there's the swag—fun new school supplies and clothes. There are also friends, teachers, and staff members they haven't seen in a while. Remind your kids what they can look forward to about school, such as time with friends, the playground, gym class, art class, or visits to the library.

Assure Them They Aren't Alone

Remind your kids that they're not the only ones who may be nervous about starting school again. Other students are likely to be just as anxious as they are about the first day of school. Reassure them too, that the teacher knows kids are nervous, and will probably spend time helping students feel more comfortable as they settle into the classroom.

If your child is concerned about reconnecting with friends they haven't seen in months, arrange some playdates. Helping your children reconnect with old friends or strengthen bonds with new ones not only reduces anxiety and stress but also can help your child start the year off on the right foot.

Keep in mind that living through the pandemic may have accentuated feelings of isolation and loneliness in kids—especially if they have been cut off from many of their peers since the start of the pandemic.

Do what you can to reconnect them with their peers—even if it's virtually for now. In some schools, you can get a class list, which can help you in knowing who to connect with.

But if your school district restricts access to this list, try posting in school community groups online in order to connect with other parents with children in your child's class. If your child is anxious about not being in the same class with old friends, reassure them that they can still stay in touch.

Make an Effort to Be Present

As your child transitions back to school, make every effort to be there for them, especially during the first few weeks. One way to do that is to try to be home more during the back-to-school time if that's possible for you.

Right before school starts and during the first days back, try to make it a point to be available to support your child through this transition. If you work away from home, try to arrange your hours so that you're able to drop your child off at school as well as be there after school if you can.

Alternatively, if you can't be there, ask another trusted relative, friend, or caregiver to fill this role for your child. Leaving them an encouraging note in their backpack or calling them before they leave for school can help them feel more secure, too.

You can also plan a special time to do something fun together to celebrate after their first day. Giving them something to look forward to, while also honoring that going back to school is hard for them, can help them feel more at ease.

If you're a stay-at-home parent, try to focus more on your child and put nonessential items on the back burner when they are home. Spend some time talking to your child about their day, such as what they liked and what they might have questions about.

By giving your child more attention, you will help them feel more secure about their connection to you and home, and help them navigate back-to-school time.

Promote Healthy Living

One of the best ways to combat anxiety and stress is to address eating, sleeping, and exercise habits. Make sure kids get enough sleep and eat a balanced diet. Getting adequate sleep and eating healthy food, especially a balanced breakfast, is important for brain function, mood, and the ability to focus and pay attention in school.

Likewise, your kids need plenty of opportunities to burn off steam. Some kids like playing active sports while others enjoy a quiet afternoon reading or journaling. Every kid is different. So, make sure you're choosing activities that are truly stress-relievers for your child.

Know When to Get Outside Help

You know your child best. If you sense that their back-to-school anxiety may be rooted in something more serious, such as an anxiety disorder or a problem with a bully, talk with your child, your child's teacher, and the school counselor.

If your child continues to struggle with anxiety, or if you feel you need additional help, you can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

And remember, you need to relax as well. Back-to-school time can be just as hectic and stressful for parents. Take care of yourself by eating right and getting enough sleep and exercise during this transitional phase.

Remind yourself that any anxiety or stress you or your child may be feeling is usually temporary. Before you know it, your family will likely be deep into the back-to-school groove.

A Word From Verywell

The key to supporting your kids when they are stressed or anxious about the upcoming school year is to be there for them. Listen to their concerns without minimizing their feelings or trying to fix the situation. Allow them the space to process their feelings without judgment.

Sometimes, just knowing that someone understands what they're experiencing is enough to help kids get through a challenging situation. Other times, they need a little extra help. In these situations, talk to your child's doctor or seek help from a mental health professional. With the right help and treatment, your child can learn to manage their stress and anxiety.

9 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.