Helping Your Child Cope With Back-to-School Anxiety

September 01, 2022

While less likely than adults to experience severe illness and hospitalization due to COVID-19, children and teens have nonetheless felt (and continue to feel) the effects of the pandemic. The impact is evident at Lurie Children’s and other hospitals as the number of children and adolescents needing hospital care for mental and behavioral health issues has increased over the past year, as has the number of families seeking outpatient treatment for their children.

Despite efforts by teachers and parents, the past few school years posed a myriad of challenges to learning for so many students. They will need empathy and support through the transition back to school.

Prepare Children to Go Back to School Now

“The toll on children and teens is not surprising. Relationships with friends, participation in sports and extracurricular activities, and connections to family, school, and spiritual communities are some of the most essential factors that protect youth health,” says Dr. Lisa Simons, Attending Physician in the Potocsnak Family Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine. “There’s also much to be said for daily schedules, getting bodies up and moving, routine human contact and sleep, all of which, for many, were disrupted by COVID-19. So, for a million reasons, preparing for returning to classrooms this fall is imperative.”

The degree of adjustment depends on the child, but Dr. Simons provided eight ways you can help.

Anticipate Your Children's Needs

Keep an eye on those at highest risk for back-to-school anxiety. This includes youth who have an existing anxiety disorder or who experience other mental health problems; had a really tough time with school last year; experienced loss of a parent or loved one during the pandemic; and whose household has experienced significant distress (emotional, physical, financial) during the pandemic.

Back-to-School Preparation

Talk about what school might look like this year. Answer questions about safety measures the school is taking and discuss the ways school may be different or the same compared to previous years. If you don’t have all the answers, it’s okay – make a list of questions to explore together.

Provide Reassurance

Offer validation of reasonable concerns. Reassure your child that it’s normal to be nervous about starting something new. Remind them of their strength, that they can do hard things, and that they’re not alone and you’ll be here for support. This type of reassurance may be hard to muster, especially if you’re feeling stressed. Be optimistic and do your best to calmly provide reassurance.

The Back-to-School Routine

Regular, high-quality sleep is essential for youth to function at their best – emotionally, physically and academically. So start inching back to a regular sleep schedule and practicing the commute to school. If your child is especially anxious, ask if you can take a school tour or meet with someone on staff.

Be Realistic

Help your child set realistic expectations for their classwork, extracurricular activities and socializing with friends. Being mindful of their schedule helps to prioritize their mental, emotional and physical well-being.

Practice and Model Self-care

Children need reminders to schedule activities that support their health every day – whether it be 10 minutes of alone time, 30 minutes chatting with a friend, taking a walk outside or playing the guitar. Children take in everything they see, so the best way of teaching is by modeling self-care.

Ask for Help

Take deep breaths and when you need help, reach out to your support system – neighbors, medical providers, teachers, school counselors, and spiritual communities.

Get the COVID-19 Vaccine

We strongly urge all who are eligible to get vaccinated. The CDC recommends COVID-19 vaccines for everyone ages 6 months and older, and boosters for everyone ages 5 years and older if eligible.

And for children too young to be vaccinated, we recommend continuing to take precautions we know have worked throughout the pandemic – including masking, hand hygiene and physical distancing.

For more information on vaccine appointments available at Lurie Children's, visit our COVID-19 vaccine page.

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