How to Deal With Back to School Stress

Transitioning from summer vacation to back-to-school can be an adjustment for both parents and children. With the carefree days of summer gone, getting back into a school year routine can be overwhelming and stressful but it doesn’t have to be.

“Transitions for anyone can be stressful. Kids often react to stress in different ways from adults, and parents should watch for any significant changes in mood or behavior,” says Devin McNulty, PhD, Pediatric Psychologist in The Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health

“The anxiety of beginning the academic year tends to be the hardest when kids are starting a new school or during transitions, such as from elementary to middle school or middle school to high school,” says McNulty. “A lot of anxiety can be related to the unknown and uncertainties like, ‘Will I know anyone in my class?’ ‘What’s my teacher going to be like?’ ‘Am I going to have friends?’”

Back to School Stress from Change in Routine

Stress can come not only from the fear of a new school but from the change in a child’s routine. “It’s important for parents to recognize that some anxiety with a new school year is normal,” says McNulty. “If there are no additional stressors, kids should adjust after a few weeks.”

McNulty suggests that parents or caregivers prepare their child for the new school year by engaging in conversation before the first day. “Help prepare your child ahead of time so the first day of school and first few weeks aren’t as overwhelming. See what questions they might have. Ask them what they are looking forward to most. It’s important to balance the negative with the positive,” says McNulty. Other tips include ensuring healthy sleep habits, eating well and exercising– mental and physical health are closely related.

In addition, McNulty says, “Parents should model healthy coping and stress management skills. Kids learn from adults and being a good role model sets a positive example.”

Social Media and Back to School Stress

Another common stressor, especially among adolescents, is the constant need to stay connected to friends and peers through social media. “This new digital age that kids are growing up immersed in can add anxiety and stress. Social media doesn’t allow kids to disconnect,” says McNulty. “Social media creates a constant need to feel part of the conversation and heightens the worry you might be missing out on something.” Again McNulty urges parents to lead by example, to set screen time limits and model behavior. Disconnect and engage in face-to-face dialogue.

Transitioning Back to School

The important thing for parents to keep in mind is that the stress of a new school year should be brief and your child should adjust within a few days or short weeks. “Remember to prepare, keep organized, talk to your kids and engage in positive, fun and relaxing activities when you can. If you think something more serious is going on, talk to their teachers and pediatrician.”

For more resources on managing anxiety in children, visit The Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health.

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