Ask the expert: How to handle back-to-school stress

Carolyn Snell, PhD

My child has expressed some anxiety about going back to school. How can I help?

Anxious in Andover

Back-to-school can be a stressful time for children of all ages, as well as for their parents. Children and teens may worry about practical things such as being able to find their way around the school building, may have concerns about their ability to get work done and receive good grades, or may experience anxiety related to friends and peer relationships as the year begins.

One way that parents can help is by giving children information or experiences beforehand that allow them to have a clearer idea about what to expect. For example, sharing information with a young child about what the classroom schedule and routine will be like, or about the child’s teachers, can help kids feel prepared.

Read more, and watch this video interview with Dr. Snell to learn how to help your child.

Taking a walk or drive to the school before the first day can be helpful, particularly if it is a new school building for the child. That way, children have a sense of the route to school, and can even sometimes go in to look around and familiarize themselves with the space. If children are experiencing more anxiety, or if they have a history of difficulty with the transition back to school, it can also help to ask the school if the child could meet his/her teacher before the year begins, or take a tour of the building or classroom.

When talking to a child about the first day of school, it can also be useful to remind them of times they were able to handle new situations or new people well in the past. If they transitioned into school successfully the year before, and/or were able to navigate a new summer activity or camp, children can build upon those successes when returning to school.

Finally, parents can make the transition back to school easier by helping their children take care of basics. Having children gradually adjust to the earlier bedtime and wake time of the school year before the first day can ensure they get a good night’s sleep and feel rested when they return. And of course, a good breakfast is also important in helping children feel calm and also have the energy to successfully navigate the first day.

Carolyn Snell, PhD, is a staff psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital.