While the back-to-school season is typically an exciting time, in the Covid world everything has been turned upside down. Many of us are now having to send children back to in-person school for the first (or second, or third) time in this academic year as districts begin to reopen for in person learning. It is normal for young children and adolescents to face anxiety as remote learning ends and in-person school begins.
Young kids might face separation anxiety, while middle and high school students may face social anxiety after spending time apart from friends and classmates. Many schools are also changing their normal routines and protocols to protect students against COVID-19, further contributing to anxiety.
The uncertainty and anxiety surrounding the current situation can cause students—and parents—to feel stressed. Here’s how to help your child cope with feelings of anxiety and support their mental health as they return to school.
Signs of Back-to-School Anxiety
Young children and adolescents communicate feelings of anxiety differently, and many children will experience different symptoms. While some children might cry or have temper tantrums, others might complain of the physical symptoms of anxiety, including headaches or chest pains.
You know your child best, so be on the lookout for changes in their behavior. Some common anxiety symptoms include:
- Restlessness, fatigue, and/or sleep problems. such as nightmares or insomnia
- Sadness, feelings of dread, negative thoughts, and/or crying
- Physical symptoms, including nausea, muscle tension, and dizziness
- Panic attacks
- Loss of appetite
- Excessive worry, intense fear, or discomfort toward returning to school
- Refusal to go back to school
Anxiety Disorders in Children
If your child’s symptoms of anxiety extend beyond the first few days back at school, this may be an indication of an anxiety disorder. Your child might act scared or upset, refuse to participate in daily activities, or refuse to talk. Children and adolescents with anxiety may have trouble communicating their feelings. Their anxiety may display in a variety of symptoms, such as shortness of breath, racing heart, headaches, stomachaches, or heart palpitations.
Some common types of anxiety disorders in children include:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Social anxiety disorder (social phobia)
- Separation anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Specific phobias (i.e., agoraphobia)
If left untreated, the symptoms of anxiety disorders can extend into adulthood, affecting mental health, job performance, and adults’ ability to function in their daily lives. In some cases, anxiety symptoms may also be an indication of an underlying medical condition. As a result, it’s important to see your health care provider rule out any medical conditions.
Fortunately, there are several treatment options for anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorder treatment typically begins with psychotherapy (such as exposure therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and can be combined with medication (such as anti-anxiety medication, benzodiazepines, or antidepressants). A licensed psychologist can diagnose anxiety disorders. Your health care provider will talk to you and your child, ask about their anxiety symptoms and medical history and provide a diagnosis. Parents and psychologists can then work together to construct the best treatment plan for their children.
Supporting Your Child’s Mental Health
Occasional anxiety is a normal reaction to returning to school. However, if your child refuses to go to school (school refusal) or regularly calls from school complaining that they need to come home, you may need to seek help.
Here are some helpful strategies parents can use to help children prepare to return to school and cope with back-to-school anxiety.
- Encourage your child to share his/her fears. Let your child know that apprehension is a normal reaction to returning to school. Before school starts and during the first few weeks, set up a regular place to talk to your child where you can give them your undivided attention, such as during dinner or before bed.
- Look after the basics. Encouraging your child to eat a balanced diet, get enough sleep, take medications as prescribed, and make healthy lifestyle choices can help reduce feelings of anxiety.
- Roleplay with your child. Roleplaying feared situations with your child could help them make a plan and feel more confident. For example, let your child play the role of their bullying classmate or demanding teacher. Then, model appropriate responses for your child to help them conquer feared social situations.
- Pay attention to your own behavior: It’s not easy to hand over the responsibility of caring for your child to teachers. Children take behavioral cues from parents, so the more confident you act, the more your child will understand that there’s no reason for their extreme fear. Additionally, avoid rewarding your child’s anxious behavior by allowing them to stay home from school.
- Focus on the positive: Help your child redirect their attention away from negative thoughts and focus on the positive. For example, try asking your child to list three things that they’re most excited about on the first day of school.
Therapy for Back-to-School Anxiety
If your child’s anxiety interferes with their ability to function, impacts their relationships, or negatively affects their academic performance, we encourage you to schedule an appointment with a licensed child or adolescent psychologist. Even if your child doesn’t have a diagnosable mental disorder, psychotherapy can help your child learn healthy coping techniques to manage feelings of anxiety and apprehension.
The highly specialized team of child and adolescent psychologists and psychiatrists at the Ross Center utilizes evidence-backed treatment to help children tackle their fears, combat negative thoughts, and overcome anxiety. After an in-depth assessment to differentiate learning and academic struggles from social and emotional problems, the Ross Center experts will work with you to determine the best treatment plan for your child.
With early intervention and proper treatment, your child will be able to enjoy better long-term mental health outcomes, healthier relationships, and positive behavioral changes.
**Please note – at this time many of our child and adolescent therapists in Washington DC and Northern Virginia are completely booked. We encourage parents to add their names to the waitlist so we can contact you as soon as a spot becomes available. We maintain an active waitlist and contact potential patients as soon as therapists have availability based on the date you are added to the list. In the meantime, we encourage you to sign up for our newsletter to be notified of upcoming parenting programs, and to view the events section of our newsletter to access recorded webinars geared to parents. We can provide you with referrals to other child therapists in the area, but unfortunately the pandemic has heightened the demand for care across the board and many of our colleagues have waiting lists as well. If you or your child is in crisis, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.