Back To School Transition for Children and Teens

By Angie Holstein, MSW, RSW Registered Social Worker and Psychotherapist

Back to school is an exciting and stressful time of the year for most children and teens. It is a time of transition and change from carefree summer days back to structure and routine. Transition times are not only disruptive to the children, but for families in general. Anxious and worried feelings are a normal part of this time of the year.

Some common signs of back to school worry and anxiety:

  • Clinging
  • Crying
  • Temper tantrums
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches
  • General nervousness
  • More withdrawn or distracted

Typically, children and teens feel (physical sensations) worry and anxiousness before they realize it cognitively (i.e. their thoughts and specific causes). Through the developmental and maturational process, children will be able to build emotional language to identify their feelings. This takes time, experiences dealing with distress, role modeling and support from the adults in their life.  Paying attention to somatic symptoms such as the ones noted above can give adults the clues to how children are feeling.

Common worried and anxious thoughts typical for children and teens:

  • Being away from their attachment figures; parents, siblings, grandparents, caregivers (“Will my mom be here at the end of the day?”).
  • Fitting in with other kids and finding friends (“Will I make a friend in my new class?”).
  • Having someone to sit with at lunch (“How will I find someone to sit with at lunch?”).
  • Tests and academic expectations (“Will I fail my tests?”).
  • Adjusting to a new teacher and classroom expectations (“Will my teacher be nice to me?”)
  • Managing the bus routine (“What if I miss the bus?”).
  • Many more specific to your child’s or teens pattern of thinking.

The number one strategy we employ to deal with anxiousness and catastrophic fears is avoidance. We do it because it is effective in relieving the emotional and cognitive distress in the moment. As adults, can’t we relate to avoidance practices? It takes time, opportunities to practice and emotional support to build additional strategies to deal with the distress of worry and anxiety. Allowing children and teens to miss school will only deepen their fears over the long term, cause the distress associated in attending to increase and miss the valuable opportunity to learn and practice skills to soothe their distress. We must ask ourselves if we are also avoiding their distress as a means to soothe ourselves. Seeing our children fearful and in emotional distress is highly upsetting.

Here are a few strategies to consider:

  • Notice the signs: If you notice any of the signs noted above or those specific to your child, give them time to talk about their fears. Let them know it is normal to experience what they are feeling and ask them what specifically they are worried about. Make sure it is during a time that they can have your undivided attention. Teens particularly appreciate these conversations while driving or walking. This time can give a break from the growing intensity of distressing feelings as well as the soothing that can occur from being actively listened to.
  • Focus on Coaching not Reassuring: Instead of saying “Oh everything will work out, you’ll see!” or “Don’t worry things will be fine!”, try normalizing and problem-solving strategies. For example, “That situation can be troubling, what are some ways you can think of to handle this?” or “That’s scary to think about that happening, let’s think of some ways you can handle that if that worry happens” (planning for their catastrophic thought).
  • Manage Worry: If you are finding your child and teen obsessing or seeking excessive reassurance from you, help them designate a focused time for worrying. Without focused time on specific problems, these intrusive thoughts can become a vicious cycle.

Pick a time in the evening to practice Worry Time. Make sure there is ample space between Worry Time and bedtime so not to interfere with sleep. Find a quiet place that your child/teen chooses to minimize being disturbed. Set a timer for 5-10 minutes. Establish that this is the time they are allowed to worry for. You don’t want to make the time too long so that they cross over from worry to ruminating to worsening anxiety. Let them sit down with drawing material or a pen and paper or computer. Start the timer. Let them draw or write down all their worries. No worry is too big or too small for this exercise. When the timer goes off help them STOP; even if they are in the middle of a sentence. Help them move to another predetermined activity to soothe their mind away from the trail of worried and anxious thoughts. Let them know and remind them that when worries come, gently and compassionately take note and say “it’s ok, worry showed up and it’s something I can come back to later during my Worry Time”. They can even write down the thought/feeling on a post it to come back to later. If moving away from Worry Time is difficult, a breathing exercise that you do together can support with the practice of soothing distress.

  • Establish Healthy Habits: Often appetite diminishes when worried and anxious. In the weeks prior to school starting, if you don’t already have these routines, establish regular nutritious snacks, meals, bedtime and morning routines. Incorporating small amounts of protein in the morning is known to support anxiousness.
  • Role Play: This strategy incorporates acting out the worrying situation and expand upon the possible reactions. Let your child choose the character they would like to play; then encourage them to switch to experience both. Talk about the experience and review their options. Ask them how it felt to try a new strategy; model emotional language to support their development.
  • Soothe yourself and breath: It is highly distressing to see your child struggling. Every part of you will want to throw in the towel, scoop them up and take them home! When dropping them off, try to be supportive and firm by saying goodbye in a positive tone and having one hug. Use strategies above such as role play and coaching to help them to identify their fears and soothe them. You may try: “I know you’re scared right about going in to the school but you have to. Let’s talk about that so I can help you to go in.” It’s important to follow through and know that this is difficult to do.”
  • Support Network: Help build your child’s support network by collaborating with their teacher(s) or establish a buddy system with other classmates. Let them know which adults they can go to for support and share your strategies with the staff at school for consistency.
  • Praise, Cheer and Reward: You are your child’s cheerleader!  Notice, praise and cheer any brave behaviours. This includes their willingness to engage in problem solving and try something new.

These are but a few strategies to try in supporting the emotions and fearful thoughts that can occur with the back to school transition. You may want to research additional logistical strategies such as visiting the school, doing the walk to school, practicing packing up their backpacks the night before etc. to support the adjustment.

If difficulties persist, become more intense and frequent, it may be time to seek help from your health care provider, school team and/or community based mental health practitioner.