Anxiety amongst children is not uncommon, but many children may be experiencing back to school anxiety for the first time due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Predictability is essential when helping children manage anxiety and worry. It could include maintaining a routine such as reading their favorite book before bed, having the cereal they like in the mornings, and watching the cartoons they enjoy in the afternoon. Yet, at the core of predictability for most children is the structure of the school environment. Due to the pandemic, many children have had a stop-start school experience over the past eighteen months, and returning to full-time education in the Fall may be causing them to experience back to school anxiety for the first time.
If you are concerned that your child is exhibiting the signs of back to school anxiety, then contact HPA/LiveWell in Albany, New York, as we can provide you with the information and support that you need.
Anxiety in children
People typically consider mental health issues such as anxiety to be solely an adult problem. However, in the same way that adults experience intense worry at times, children and young people do too. If you would like to learn more about the symptoms and treatment of anxiety disorders, check out our previous post.
There are many different reasons why a child might feel anxious at various stages of childhood, but back to school anxiety can affect children of all school-attending ages. Returning to school after the COVID-19 pandemic may prove problematic for many children, as their typical routine may have been upended by lockdowns, isolation, and stories about hospitalizations and illness. Many children have grown accustomed to homeschooling and are now used to having their caregiver by their side to help them manage any problems or worries. For children starting school for the first time, this experience is all that they have known.
For these reasons, it might not be unusual for a child to experience separation anxiety in the weeks before going back to school. This might look like acting clingy or needy, crying when separated from their caregiver, or acting out behaviorally.
Other symptoms of anxiety in young children include:
- Acting clingy or needy
- Difficulty sleeping
- Disturbed sleep
Other symptoms of anxiety in older children include:
- Inability to tackle everyday challenges or tasks
- Lack of confidence to attempt new things
- Difficulty concentrating
- Disturbed sleep or appetite
- Emotional outbursts
- Ruminating or experiencing negative thoughts
- Aversion of activities that they would have previously enjoyed, such as seeing friends or playing a sport
Although many children will experience anxiety symptoms at some stage of their childhood, it only really becomes a problem when it starts to interfere with their everyday lives. Back to school anxiety after numerous lockdowns may be affecting children’s mental and emotional well-being to the extent that they are struggling with their confidence, self-esteem, and enjoyment of life. This may cause them to withdraw and avoid any situations that could trigger their anxiety.
How to help back to school anxiety
The transition from home learning to school might not be smooth if your child is experiencing back-to-school anxiety. However, the following tips might help to make the process more manageable for all involved:
- Monitor your child’s behavior
Observe your child for any symptoms of anxiety. This might manifest as difficulty sleeping, clinginess, or even as physical pain such as stomach issues. Even if your child isn’t verbally expressing any worries about returning to school, this doesn’t mean they are not experiencing them.
- Practice open communication
Regularly check in with your child. Ask them how they’re feeling and let them know what you’re also feeling. If they tell you about their worries or anxiety, don’t minimize it – validate their concerns. Your support can normalize what they’re feeling and help them navigate any further issues they may have. If your child is too young to explain their emotions or worries accurately, then you could have them play-act what they imagine the return to school will look like.
Read up on your child’s school pamphlets together. Ask them how they feel about it and if they do express concerns, ask whether there’s anything that you can do together to make them feel better. You could also inform their class teacher if you think that your child’s back to school anxiety is significant.
- Make a back to school plan
To reduce your child’s anxiety about returning to school, you could devise a leaving plan to mitigate the sudden unpredictability they may be experiencing. This might include activities such as:
- Making “Fun Goodbyes” – this can be something meaningful for you and your child, such as a line from their favorite TV show or song. It’s just intended to make saying goodbye a positive experience.
- Explain why you are leaving them in school concisely and clearly. Do not involve emotions.
- Let them know that you will be back for them at a specific time. You could point at a clock in the classroom and explain that you will pick them up when the big hand is on a certain number. Make sure that you don’t return before this time!
- Keep to this routine for as long as necessary.
Remember to stay as calm as possible when your child returns to school – after all, it isn’t just an emotional experience for them. You may vicariously feel their anxiety! However, children often take their emotional cues from their parents, so aim to model calm and kind behavior. Be mindful that your child may experience a rollercoaster of emotions during this time and that this is entirely normal. Check out our previous post if you would like to learn more about different ways to manage anxiety.
If you wish to know more about how to manage back to school anxiety or the other mental health services provided at HPA/LiveWell in Albany, New York, contact us at 518-218-1188. With our new online therapy capabilities, HPA/LiveWell can now offer mental health services to anyone within not only the Capital Region, the Hudson Valley region – Poughkeepsie, Rhinebeck, Newburgh, White Plains, Kingston, and surrounding New York cities, but we can offer mental health services and eating disorder treatment to anyone throughout New York state.