By: Michael Cross, Licensed Professional Counselor
Back to school is upon us once again and it can be both an exciting time for some students and a period of high anxiety for others. We obviously love to see our students be ready and motivated for school because Lord knows we, as parents, have been waiting all summer for this time! But what about the students who are dreading the school year? How do we know what our child is feeling? Are they just “nervous” because of excitement or are they experiencing “anxiety” because of fear (they both can look the same outwardly)? Is there an easy way to identify which students are more at risk to experience back to school anxiety and how do we approach it? This article will address these questions
“Is my child potentially at risk for back to school anxiety?”
There are 5 major areas that could be immediate red flags to identifying potential anxiety for students:
1. New School
If your child is entering a new school, whether it is due to a recent move (new town or school district) or transitioning to the next level (elementary, middle, high school, or even college), then it’s a high probability they are experiencing anxiety. The awkwardness of being in a new building surrounded by unfamiliar faces (teachers and other students) is enough to make anyone feel uncomfortable and out of place. And don’t forget, the pressure of making new friends is also a major concern, especially at the middle and high school levels.
2. Introverted Personality
Does your student have an introverted personality? Schools tend to be extroverted cultures, and teenagers are often hesitant to share intimate or much personal information with peers due to the fear of rejection and social acceptance. Extroverts have strengths in meeting new people and small-talking but they a difficult time making intimate friendships (they typically do better in school settings). Introverts, however, have strength in building more interpersonal relationships but only after trust is established, which is where their weaknesses play a major factor in preventing it (i.e. small-talking & meeting new people).
Extroverts “recharge” by interacting with others (groups of people), whereas, introverts “recharge” in their alone time. This explains why most extroverts get excited for school after being isolated from people during the summer and why introverts, who have had plenty of alone time during the summer, get anxious at the thought of being around groups of people again.
3. Previous Bullying
If your student has been bullied in past school years, then they are at risk for high anxiety entering the new year. The fear of seeing students who have physically, verbally, or emotionally bullied them in the past creates an extreme fear of the unknown when it comes to their safety or self-esteem. These students appear to dramatically be more upbeat and positive during the summer months strongly due to the physical separation from bullies.
4. Unrealistic Expectations
A child’s unrealistic expectations of the upcoming school year can create anxiety shortly after the year begins. What kinds of “unrealistic expectations” you may ask? These may include, but are not limited to, “who my friends will be,” “what the difficulty of school work will be,” “what my social status will be.” These expectations are especially a concern for students moving to a higher level. These students are coming off of a year where they were, for lack of a better word, “kings of the school” and entering to a new level where they will be at the “bottom of totem pole.” Not to mention, children’s personal interests and desire for social status can dramatically change at each new level meaning that their choice of friends may also change depending, leaving some students feeling rejected and unwanted by their peers.
5. Major Adjustments Over Summer
Lastly, major adjustments experienced or made over the summer months can create high anxiety in a child entering a new school year. Things like moving homes, parents getting divorced, grieving a loss, parents losing a job or starting a new job, financial setbacks, or even broken relationships (romantic or friendship) can all affect a child’s feeling of security and confidence. They dread seeing friends again and most times don’t know how to explain major changes in life and would just prefer to isolate.
“How can I be aware if my child is experiencing any of these and how do I approach helping them cope with their anxiety?”
Here are three key approaches to helping your child deal with back to school anxiety:
1. Parental Involvement
First and foremost is parental involvement in your student’s life. Talk to them, be curious and ask questions about their relationships, friends, school work, feelings, and personal struggles. Do this without attaching judgement or punishment if you hear something you don’t want to or even necessarily believe. Be open-minded and give them the benefit of the doubt (remember they are learning how to deal with life and don’t have all the proper tools yet).
2. Counseling / Mentoring
This leads us to the next point of getting them the help they need it. A counselor, life coach, or mentor of some kind can help equip your student with the social, coping, or study skills needed to succeed in school.
3. Routine / Structure
Finally, get them into routine quickly. Humans work better on routines and structure because it requires less energy to “remember,” “stay organized,” or “not forget” things. Once structure is set, they can now put that extra energy into their school work, extracurricular activities, passions, and social lives. Sleep (schedule) is also a major factor in preventing both depression and anxiety on a chemical level, so be consistent.
Back to school anxiety is extremely common and although you may be ready and excited for school starting up again, your student might not be. Look for red flags (paying attention to the 5 key areas talked about) and keep involved in your student’s life. You can never be “too curious” about your child’s school and social experience, you might even be surprised at how much they want to share with you but feel like you wouldn’t care or are uninterested. And lastly, make sure they’re equipped with healthy tools and support.