Tips to Manage Back-to-School Anxiety

Tips to Manage Back-to-School Anxiety

The start of the school year usually comes with at least a touch of trepidation, but this year, it’s more important than ever to navigate end-of-summer anxiety

This time of year has a familiar cadence to it. By the beginning of August, a bit of excitement mixed with anticipation and yes, probably some anxiety, begins to creep up as the new school year approaches. 

“Anything that might be new, like new teachers, new school or new building, brings with it some anticipatory anxiety,” says Dr. Kimberly Bell, clinical director, at Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development in Shaker Heights. “Usually for kids, the anxiety sounds something like, ‘Am I going to look stupid? Am I not going to know where I’m going? Will I have any of my friends in my classes?’  Those are unknowns.”

The COVID-19 factor

Of course, this is 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic has taken back-to-school anxiety to a whole new level. Today’s students, parents, teachers and school administrators are faced with more uncertainty than ever, and no matter how a given school district is handling the current situation, education will certainly look different this year than in years past. 

It’s a complex time, with families responding to the pandemic in a variety of ways. This situation makes it difficult to have a consensus about the “right” way to move forward with the 2020-21 school year. 

“This is a new virus, a new experience for all of us, and it’s all changing,” says Ruta Maciulis, director of academic services and school psychologist at Lake Ridge Academy in North Ridgeville. “Some students are afraid they’re going to catch it, some have had family members who have been sick or have passed away, so it’s a lot more internalized. There are some families that don’t believe it even exists and that it’s not going to touch their family. It’s going to be a lot of melding of different people coming together with different views, different beliefs.”

The contrasting opinions on what’s appropriate for this time can create tension between kids as they come together in a revised school setting, adding layers to typical social anxieties and the need to “fit in” for many students. 

Grace Dooley, 13, attends a private school in Elyria that educates preschool through eighth graders. Her family has been cautious, wearing masks and limiting exposure to COVID-19 by quarantining and practicing social distancing. She is to start eighth grade this fall, her final year at her school.

“I’d like to be able to go back to school and have a normal eighth grade year with my friends because I might not ever see them after next year,” she says. “But I’m not really sure how the schools will be able to open safely without getting sick, just because there’s so many people that they’ll have to keep separate.”

Grace’s mother, Megan Dooley, shares the same concern. She has four children ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade. In a typical year, they have a routine to prepare for the school year that includes picking out backpacks, getting school supplies ready, and starting conversations about going back to school. 

This year, her kids seem to be handling the uncertainty well overall, she says. While they have questions and concerns about what will happen, they aren’t visibly suffering from major anxiety over it. For Megan Dooley, it’s more difficult. 

“I’ll be honest, I’m worried,”  she says. 

“Rationally, I know our school will do what they can to protect our kids. Logically, I understand why some parents need school to open. Psychologically, I understand why the American Academy of Pediatrics says schools should do what they can to open. But, scientifically, it seems like based on the science and medical info we have so far, no school can open safely based on the guidelines.Trying to make all those concepts make sense together in my head is a driving force of my stress and anxiety.” 

A Healthy Start

Trying to manage the anxiety in both children and parents is imperative as the school year approaches. Depending on the age of the child, conversations can be as specific or as high-level as appropriate to get them comfortable with what to expect, whether that’s wearing a mask, keeping distance from other people, or even a modified learning environment. 

“As crazy as the world is right now, the best thing you can do is talk and verbalize everybody’s feelings about it, and to be as prepared as you can be,” Bell says. “You can prepare kids for things they might not expect by simply explaining that some things may come up that will be surprising. Then you’ve actually inoculated them because you’ve prepared them that there may be some unexpected things that you just can’t know yet, but if they happen, you’ll talk about them and you’ll get through them.”

Part of that preparation is ongoing communication with the school system to know what they’re planning to do, and then sharing that information with your children. 

“Buy your school supplies early,” Maciulis says. “Hand sanitizers, masks, tissues and wipes will likely be on every list. I would say to buy supplies as soon as possible and don’t wait for the last minute with that list.”

Establishing a routine early will help reduce stress and anxiety for parents and students alike, Maciulis adds. 

“Start with getting into the swing of it, getting good rest and eating good food, talking about why they may need to wear masks, why they may see plexiglass, why they may need to be home part of the time in a way that doesn’t induce fear,” she says.

Some children, particularly younger ones, can be overexposed to news and information that is developmentally above their heads and not appropriate for them, and they may absorb fears from their family and peers, Maciulis says.

Bell agrees, recommending that parents reduce the overall household anxiety by starting with managing their own coping mechanisms and demonstrating a healthy lifestyle for the kids. 

“I think we need to practice increasing our bubble in bearable bits, in manageable pieces for ourselves and for our kids,” Bell says. “Parents need to set aside a time in the evening when kids are in bed, or in their rooms if they’re older or not around, to support and discuss worries and fears with each other, because we can get through anything that can be talked about. And whether that’s a spouse or whether that’s extended family, I would hold those conversations until the evening when you don’t have your kids around, so that they’re not hearing multiple anxiety-filled discussions.”

If you recognize signs that anxiety is getting in the way of daily life — for example, if symptoms and behavior changes are severe or last for longer than a few days — it’s important to talk with a mental health professional. For younger children, you may not need to involve them in therapy sessions, but rather opt for parent guidance work to help them navigate their anxiety. 

“Bodily anxiety symptoms like stomach aches, headaches and not sleeping well will happen all the way through adolescence,” Bell says. “Whenever a child doesn’t have words to describe their feelings, their body will do the talking for them. Any major changes in any kind of behavior is a good reason to sit down and ask, ‘Is there something on your mind?’”

“The thing about consulting with a therapist is that you talk about your child, and you talk about how to apply these various things to your specific situation,” she adds. “And there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. There’s just too many different personality traits. Talking to a therapist as a parent just gives you help in what’s going to work best for your kid.”

Heather Tunstall is a freelance writer who lives in Lakewood.

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