Easing Back to School Fears and Anxiety

Back to School Fears and Anxiety

By Paul Barth LMFT

Even under normal circumstances, returning to school can be stressful for parents and children alike. Transitions, uncertainty, and change in general are just plain hard. Returning to school under the restrictions of COVID, however, only exacerbates the worries that parents and children are experiencing.

  • What will school look like if we meet in a building?
  • What will non-traditional instruction be like?
  • Will it be the same as last year?
  • When will things just return to normal?

For children there are some helpful things parents can do to help. Putting into practice some or all of these strategies can help alleviate some of the fears and anxiety that surround this dreaded annual transition.

  • For Parents:
    • Listen to your child. Parents, in an attempt to meaningfully address their children’s fears and anxieties must make a concerted effort to allow the child the safety and freedom to talk openly and honestly about their emotions, experiences, worries, doubts, fears, etc. Parents can do this by creating a culture at home that promotes and encourages this expression by:
      • Actively listening to your children. Ask them to freely talk about school, what they fear about returning, and what they are excited about.
      • Giving permission to feel scared. Focus less on correcting them and more on making your child feel understood and that it’s okay to feel afraid.
    • Guard your conversations. Protecting your children from exposure to “adult conversations” which, if overheard or not understood in their right context, can heighten the child’s fears and anxiety about going back to school. Children sense their parents fears and anxiety and they can unnecessarily take that upon themselves.
    • Be prepared. To the extent that you can, try to take care of all the logistics that you have control over before school starts. When you do this, you communicate to your child that these things are taken care of, which will in return help reduce any fears or anxiety about returning to school. Suggestions to do:
      • If learning will be done at school:
        • Make sure that school supplies are bought ahead of time
        • Purchase and ensure backpacks are ready to go
        • Ensure the child’s school clothes, shoes, and jackets are up to date and ready for the new year
        • Ensure the transportation route to and from school is planned and rehearsed
        • Go over the pre and post-school routines and expectations so that the child clearly understands what to expect each day
      • If learning will be done virtually, parents can go a few steps further and:
        • Involve the child in setting up their personal workstation and make it a fun and exciting corner or area just for the child
        • Ensure that all their supplies and materials are easily accessible and ready to go
        • Ensuring that their computer or tablet and headphones are all working and that the proper distancing learning software is installed and up to date
    • Encourage. Reward. Repeat.
      • Encourage. Let you child know that you’re in their corner and that you’re cheering them on. Your words have power and they shape the narrative that your children believe about themselves.
      • Reward. Giving praise for facing their fears or overcoming their anxiety can be a very powerful motivator for children. Other rewards can include increased privileges or increased allowance.
      • Repeat. Consistency is the name of the game here. Habitually encouraging and rewarding your children will not only build their self-confidence and self-esteem, but new challenges, situations, and transitions will be met with a greater sense of optimism and anticipation instead of fear and anxiety.