Four Sources of Back to School Anxiety and Four Ways to Respond for Resilience

August 16, 2017

Once the school supplies show up at the local retail shops, we know good things are around the corner. We look forward to a break from the summer heat, colorful leaves, and fresh Autumn crops like apples and squash. Many adults feel nostalgic and sentimental during this time. The phrase “back to school” evokes memories of childhood friends and simpler times.

However, for children, this seasonal transition can bring significant tension and uncertainty. Changes that appear exciting to adults often look ominous from a younger perspective. Below are four sources of anxiety – and four ways caring adults can turn them into sources of strength.

Social Anxiety

For school-aged children, back to school means back to peers. Adolescents in particular may feel significant anxiety during this transition. They begin to increase their use of social media to choreograph the first days of school. Summer experiences become shameful secrets or opportunities to brag in front of others. Students may feel keenly self-conscious and wonder, “What is everyone saying about me?”

RESPONSE: Gentle Debriefing

By gently debriefing each day, caring adults make this an opportunity for self-efficacy and confidence. Although caregivers may feel the urge to interrogate their teens or preteens about the events at school, children respond best when adults remain calmly interested.

Consider sharing your thoughts about your own day first. You can take turns with your child reflecting about parts of the day that were special and parts that were unpleasant. Some families use a rubric for debriefing, such as:

  • High point? Low point?
  • Today, what was your: Rose (what was the best part of your day)? Bud (what do you hope for in the future)? Thorn (what was unpleasant)?
  • One thankful moment?

Academic Anxiety

For most children, grades, and formal evaluations provoke significant anxiety. For children who shine in the classroom, grades often bring pressure to “keep it up.” This provides a pathway to perfectionism and emotional withdrawal. For children who struggle in the classroom, grades may mean shame, self-doubt, or even discipline at home.

RESPONSE: Relationship-Building

Caring adults can turn academic anxiety into an opportunity for relationship building. They can do so by providing joint attention to academic tasks and gentle support for the child to work. Think of this attention as scaffolding that supports a building.

To support children, it is better to get involved in their schoolwork than to discipline them for poor academic performance. You can engage with school staff. An adult who puts the time into understanding homework and teacher expectations shows children that their work is valued.

Anxiety Associated with Loss of Freedom

Summertime means lots of unstructured time to pursue individual interests and play! These activities energize and diversify children’s brain development, and the loss of them can bring deep sadness. Entering a school environment can mean trading sun, wind, and trees for fluorescent lighting, air conditioning, and a desk.

RESPONSE: Unstructured Play Balanced with Routine

As an adult who cares for children, you can provide support in two important ways.

  • First, keep regular openings in your schedule for unstructured play and/or outdoor time. Family hikes, downtime with multiple toys or books, and trips to local parks allows your family to move and play freely. You might surprise one another!
  • Second, support this transition by hitting the reset button on your household structure. Establish or re-establish nutrition habits and healthy bedtimes. The American Academy for Sleep Medicine recommends 9-12 hours of sleep a night for five to twelve-year-old children. Centers for Disease Control recommends 8-10 hours a night for adolescents.

Anxiety Associated with Loss of Togetherness

Children may feel that they spend more time with you during the summer break. Adults often overlook relationship distance as a source of back-to-school jitters. Children return to school to face the stressors of peers and homework, without emotional support from their caregivers.

RESPONSE: Establish New Rituals

The advent of the school year gives adults an opportunity to establish new rituals. How do you say goodbye in the morning? Make it intentional and do it every day, even when you’re rushed or angry. Correction: especially when you’re rushed or angry!

First, consider how you greet one another in the car or at a bus stop? Second, consider how do you say goodnight? Finally, make the most of these moments. If you are musical, sing; if you have an artistic streak, draw. If you are quiet, touch.

Caring Adults Lead the Way for Resilient Children

The transition back to school brings high anxiety for many children. Fortunately, research has shown that overcoming anxiety makes us stronger, more confident, and better able to connect with others. By leading the way towards facing stress, adults can demonstrate the courage and connection that their children need most to be resilient.

 


Bob Nickles is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and actor. He was born in South Carolina and has been moving around ever since. Bob lives on the Northside of Richmond and hails most recently from St. Louis. ChildSavers welcomed Bob to the Mental Health team in 2015 and recently, he became the Program Supervisor for ChildSavers and Greater Richmond SCAN’s Richmond Public Schools Resiliency Partnership. Bob will lead the delivery of clinical services within Richmond’s East End schools and supervise the mental health team.