Dealing with Back-to-School Anxiety: What Can Parents Do?

Start preparing a couple weeks beforehand to make heading back to school stress-free

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Michael Adragna
Michael Adragna

‘Anxiety is the No. 1 mental illness that children are dealing with right now. It’s common.’

Stacy Salamone, family psychologist in Cheektowaga.

Most children feel excitement and perhaps nervousness about their first day back at school after summer break. 

For the 2021-2022 school year, COVID-19 may bring more changes—and, for some, concerns. But what indicates garden-variety jitters compared with anxiety that warrants help? 

Area experts weighed in.

“Anxiety is the No. 1 mental illness that children are dealing with right now,” said Stacy Salamone, family psychologist in Cheektowaga. “It’s common. Young children will typically romanticize their anxiety: stomachache, headaches or general avoidance of school. The parents should be concerned if they see patterns of that occurring. They’re missing school because of these symptoms. That’s how younger children present. Older children have a greater capacity to be more verbal.”

Older children may say they do not want to go back or excessively plan their return. Striking a good balance between planning and obsessing can help children feel prepared, yet flexible if things go differently than they anticipated.

“Be mindful of any type of worrying symptoms and mood related to it,” Salamone said. “If they’re worried and anxious about school, there may be some depression if it’s a situation that’s difficult to overcome or that’s not going away.”

She encourages parents to try to talk about their children’s anxiety with them to help gauge how serious it is. But it is more helpful to ask creative questions, not “How was your day?” Instead, ask, “What was the best thing that happened at school today?” This can help children focus on the positives.

“If you get into a pattern, they’ll look for it and be more mindful about the positives,” Salamone said.

But this approach is best when teamed with, “What was challenging” and then reaffirming the child’s self-confidence with something like, “That was difficult. It sounds like you were brave and I’m proud of how you handled that.”

“A lot of parents try to solve their problems and they want to help them,” Salamone said. “That’s not what older kids are looking for. They want validation and empathy more than, ‘Fix this for me.’”

Summertime often represents for children a period of greater freedom, relaxed schedules and more time to play. While this much-needed break can help them recharge for learning in September, it also means that they are out of synch for the schooltime schedule. To combat this effect, physician Michael S. Adragna, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry in the department of psychiatry at UB’s Jacobs School of Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, recommends getting back to a regular bedtime and mealtime at least two weeks before school begins. It may also help to do a trial run.

“Do some practices,” Adragna said. “If the child is anxious about the first day of high school or middle school and a new building, drive to the school a couple times. Go inside, if possible. That takes a lot of the pressure off the first day.”

Some children feel anxious about having new teachers. Adragna said that meeting the teacher can help.

Review the school website to view photos of the teachers, grounds and the school’s theme for the year.

Adragna suggested connecting with a teacher, aide or school social worker to let them know this child may need additional attention.

“The kid should know there’s someone there who could keep an eye on them, too,” Adragna said. “In general, the best way to work through our fears is to face them with the appropriate amount of support. Avoidance is generally not the answer. Going to school in spite of anxiety one day makes it easier to go the next day.”

Anxiety that prevents the child from eating, sleeping or other routine daily activities for a period of time may indicate that professional help is warranted, as well as an inability to calm down with distractions or comforting supports.