Helping Your Child Cope With Back-to-School Anxiety

That morning trudge to the bus stop has already begun for some students in the D.C. area, and while you've likely crossed many items from your child's back-to-school list, it may be time to check in with how they're feeling about the start of the school year.

Some students, no matter their age, may find the prospect of heading back to class overwhelming and stressful.

"Anxiety about returning to school is quite common," said Dr. Lynne Siquelan, a psychologist at the Children's Center for OCD and Anxiety.

While anyone can feel a little nervous about the start of the school year, Siquelan says back-to-school anxiety is especially prevalent in those experiencing times of transition -- like heading to new school or going off to college.

"For a lot of kids, it's not knowing. They're pretty worried about basic things, like where their classrooms are and getting lost," Siquelan said.

Anxiety and stress about the new school year typically resolves themselves, passing within the first few days or weeks.

"A lot of kids have a hard time getting out the door; but when they come home at the end of the day, that really makes a difference," Siquelan said. "If they come home and say they had a good day."

But some students may have a more serious reaction to the idea of heading back to school and may refuse to go altogether. 

"The difference though for school refusal behavior is these kids really don't want to go because it's upsetting for them to go to school," said Dr. Anne Marie Albano, director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders.

Albano says school refusal "runs the gamut," ranging from tantrums at home to leaving school in the middle of the day.

But refusing to go to school is not common; five to 10 percent of school-aged children refuse to go to school at some point, according to Albano.

"I wouldn't be concerned as a parent unless you had a child complaining for more than one week or complaining of physical symptoms," Siquelan said.

Here are some tips you can use to help your child ease back into the routine of going back to school:

  • Talk about school in positive way.
  • Let your children help get ready for class by picking out supplies and clothes.
  • Establish regular routines as soon as possible. Set bedtimes and morning wake-up times that are consistent every day.
  • Sit down with your child and draft an email to their teacher about the child's concerns.
  • Visit the school and meet with your child's teacher. Sometimes getting a preview of what they can expect helps calm nervousness.
  • Familiarize your child with the route to school.
  • If your child's fear is rooted in making friends, set up play dates with their classmates in the first few weeks.
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