Helping Kids With Back to School Anxiety

For some children, 'back to school' is a stressful time.

Back to school image via shutterstock

Back to school image via shutterstock

Back-to-school can be an exciting time for some children, and yet for others it’s a nightmare. Bullying, difficulty learning, making new friends, and even just a simple change in schedule can make kids feel anxious and worried. We talked to Dr. Robert Sege, a pediatrician, director of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine, and the director of family and child advocacy at Boston Medical Center to see what the most common stressors are and how parents can help their children get through the year with ease.

Make room for your kids to express their anxiety. “When children enter school, one thing they fear is that 3rd grade is harder than 2nd grade, or 4th grade is harder than 3rd. Teachers always say, ‘I’m preparing you for [the next] grade’ during the year, and that stresses kids,” Sege says. “One thing parents can do is to let them express it. Ask questions like, ‘What happened at school today?’ and let them tell you in their words.”

Allow your children to talk. Really talk. “Parents can see when something is not quite right when it comes to their children. Ask your kids about one good thing that happened today and one challenging thing. A specific way to talk to them is to train yourself to allow the child to tell his or her own story completely before you jump in,” Sege says. “Most of the time parents will jump in early because they think they know where the story is going. They think they can squelch the problem by trying to handle it too early. Let your child finish the whole story.”

Life isn’t perfect and kids have to know that. “This may be old-fashioned advice, but it’s important to have dinner together as a family. If families only communicate during times of crisis, then the little things add up,” he says. “They have to know that life isn’t perfect… kids to need to see that. Model it. By that I mean you don’t have to ‘adultify’ a conversation but children need to see that even for a well adjusted person (like their parents) that life has challenges. You don’t always have to paint a positive picture. Tell them about some of the rougher parts of your day.”

Pay attention. “If a child seems particularly anxious about going to school, it could be because he/she is being bullied. Ask you child, ‘What happens during lunch? What do you do during recess?’ Try to get at the common places and times when bullying happens,” Sege says. “This will help to get your child to tell you what’s going on, rather than asking, ‘Are you being bullied?’ If a child is struggling academically it could be learning disability or problem. Talk to the school and a doctor. It could just be that they need further assistance to get better.”

Get your kids outside. “In school, kids are required to sit and learn. I like to make sure that kids get a physical element. Get them active, tired, and sweaty, whether it’s through organized sports, the Boys and Girls Club, or the YMCA. People underestimate how important this is,” Sege says. “Kids should be playing. I stress ‘playing’ because there is a difference between a coached sport and playing tag in the schoolyard or playing pirates during recess and we tend to forget that.”