Help calm your child’s back-to-school fears

By Ashley Talmadge

Colin was starting sixth grade in a new school. At an orientation event, he became visibly unnerved as he struggled with the combination on a sticky locker. “He was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to open his locker with only four minutes between classes,” says his mother Lynn.

Colin’s particular fear is surprisingly common, and so is his apprehension about the beginning of a new school year. Most kids – even excited ones – experience a few “butterflies” for the first weeks of school, and the source of such uneasiness is not always obvious to parents.

What kids worry about

Age, experience and temperament all determine a child’s concerns. Young children with little experience outside the home may have separation anxiety. “Being in the care of adults other than their parents can be initially stressful for some children,” says Deb Cockerton, a child and youth behavioral counselor. These youngsters also worry about practical matters, such as finding the bathroom and getting on the right bus.

When they’re a bit older, children worry about whether they’ll make friends in their class and where they’ll sit at lunchtime. “Tween students are concerned about how they will fit in with their peers and how they will do academically,” says Cockerton. The start of puberty and issues like (cyber)bullying, body image and athletic ability may be additional stressors.

Some worries are not obvious to parents. “There are always some things we don’t think of as adults. We’ve had little ones who are afraid to flush the toilet in the loud echo-prone bathrooms,” says Kerry Norris, principal and longtime educator. Older kids who are beginning to measure themselves against peers may feel humiliated if they wear the “wrong” clothes, for example.

Major transitions can cause feelings of insecurity, even if a child has previously done well. Lynn says that Colin was an “extremely successful student” during his elementary years. Yet, as a kid who “thrives on routine and predictability,” it took time for Colin to adjust to the new academic expectations, the more complicated schedule and the pre-teen social dynamics of a new school.

Signs of anxiety

Kids express anxiety in many ways. Some are vocal and quite specific about their concerns. But, more often, it is a child’s behavior that indicates their distress. “The younger child can become more ‘clingy,’ not wanting to leave their parent’s side,” says Cockerton.

A tummy ache is a common symptom of stress in younger kids. Older children can also suffer physical symptoms, such as headaches. They may eat more or less than usual when they’re feeling anxious, and Norris notes they may also experience sleep interruptions and moodiness.

Books to ease the jitters

To Read with Little Ones:

First Grade Jitters,
by Robert Quackenbush

I Am Too Absolutely Small for School, by Lauren Child

Kindergarten Rocks,
by Katie Davis

The Kissing Hand,
by Audrey Penn

For Older Kids:

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things, by Lenore Look, ages 6-9

Back to School, Mallory, by Laurie B. Friedman, ages 7-10

Smile, by Raina Telgemeier, ages 8-12

How parents can help

Kids feel more confident and competent when they come to school prepared. Experts like Cockerton and Norris agree that parents play a leading role in helping kids cope with back-to-school fears.

Here are 15 ways to calm the jitters:

1. Talk to your child about what worries them. Provide accurate information if your child is misinformed.

2. Listen carefully and respond empathetically. Avoid saying, “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine!” Focus on your child’s very real concerns.

3. Create a safe space. The tween who resists face-to-face conversation may “open up” at unexpected moments. Look for natural opportunities to listen and check in during daily activities: while riding in the car together or when they’re doing a chore at home, for example.

4. Read books. Cockerton says books can give kids “language to express what they are feeling.” School-challenged characters can also normalize a child’s feelings. (See sidebar for book ideas.)

5. List it. Help kids refocus on the positive by listing the things they’re excited about as well as the things that scare them.

6. Talk to veteran students. If your child is starting at a new school, try to make contact with kids that already go to school there. Fears of the unknown can be calmed with accurate kid-to-kid information.

7. Tour, meet and greet. Before school starts, visit the school so your child can see the layout. Make introductions to teachers and other school personnel if available.

8. Brainstorm. Help your child build a repertoire of possible solutions to a problem. Lynn’s son Colin was anxious at the thought of changing into his
gym clothes around other boys. “We helped him figure out where he could change and feel he had some privacy,” she says.

9. Play “What if?” Asking your child: “What would you do if you forgot your lunch?” Or “What would you do if you couldn’t find your homework?” gets even the youngest kids involved in problem- solving. “Developing the skills to solve problems independently lasts a lifetime!” says Principal Norris.

10. Role play. Act out potentially uncomfortable interactions: “What can you say if you want to be friends with someone?” “What can you do if someone is mean to you?”

11. Resist over-scheduling. Keep extra-curricular activities manageable, especially during the first few months of school. Kids need downtime to unwind and reflect.

12. Show confidence. Let your child know you trust their ability to succeed. Remind them of the many challenges they’ve faced and managed in the past.

13. Check parental fears. “Children are very good at reading their parent’s emotions and if the parent is worried about how their child will do at school, the child will interpret that as ‘something to be worried about,’” says Cockerton. Resist oversharing your own fears with your child.

14. Make home comfortable. Kids who are worried about a parent’s physical or mental health may be reluctant to leave home. When major life events (divorce, death, a family move) occur, maintain as consistent a routine as possible.

15. Get help. If your child’s difficulties persist, “networking with the school personnel is a critical piece of the puzzle. Open communication with school teachers, counselors and others is paramount to ensuring the most successful year possible,” says Lynn.

*Some names have been changed for privacy purposes.