As kids return to classrooms across the country, back-to-school stress is certainly on the minds of many students and parents alike.
And while each age brings its unique set of challenges, there are two back-to-school stressors that experts see affecting a range of students.
“All of this is normal,” says Jennifer Kelman, licensed clinical social worker and mental health expert with JustAnswer. “A lot of parents and kids, whatever the ages, feel that they are the only one that feels as if they are nervous, worried, anxious, reluctant — but I think if you go to most kids and most parents, everyone feels something with the return of school.”
The first stressor that can impact any age? Change in routine.
“It’s not just the child but it’s the entire family system that has to adjust to the schedule of going back to school and expectations,” says Dr. Jessica Gomez, executive director and clinical psychologist at youth mental health organization Momentous Institute.
The best way forward: Plan, communicate and, if necessary, practice.
“Don’t have a plan the Sunday before Monday starts — that’s going to be really hard for everyone to pivot, and you’re not really setting yourself up for the most success,” Gomez says. “We all do better when we have clear expectations.”
For example, with elementary students, try communicating what to expect when it comes to the bus or drop-off and pickup lines. For middle and high schoolers, practice how to get to each class.
“The younger the child, the more planning, practice and communication it takes,” she adds.
Another major back-to-school stressor: social pressure.
Across ages, Gomez has heard worries including “Am I going to be liked?” and “Am I going to have a friend circle?”
This is especially important as many kids’ social skills wereimpacted by the COVID pandemic.
“Give them as many opportunities to practice being a good friend, because those are learned skills,” Gomez says. “The more practice children have, the better they can be at navigating social skills, friendships and how to deal with bullying.”
If they’re bullied, that’s a whole additional stress factor that may have been avoided during the summer, she adds.
According to an annual survey by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, school bullying has increased over the past five years — with 40% of youth reporting they were bullied on school property in the past year and 18% saying they’ve experienced cyberbullying.
Of those groups, 38% and 55%, respectively, didn’t tell an adult.
Having a good relationship with your child can help in a situation like that.
“Be curious,” Gomez suggests. “Ask more questions than giving lectures so that you get to find out what their experience is like at school.”
If bullying is an issue, Gomez says it’s also important for parents to educate their child on setting a boundaries and when to elevate their concerns to a trusted adult.
No matter what your child is struggling with at the start of the school year, Kelman says to make sure your kids know they’re being heard. While being positive comes from a place of good intentions, pushing their emotions aside without acknowledging them can feel invaliding to their feelings or fears.
“Especially for the younger ages, we as parents tend to rush in… to make it automatically and immediately better,” she says. This include reassurances like “You’ll be OK,” “It won’t be so bad” or “You’ll have lots of friends.”
“I’m not judging (this approach) as wrong or bad, (but it) doesn’t do much in the way of losing the anxiety,” Kelman explains. “I prefer to say let’s lead with some empathy and understanding.”
For example, this sounds more like: “I know it could feel scary… but I also know you to be strong and resilient. We’ll see how it goes tomorrow or the next day, and we’ll talk about everything and we’ll work through everything.”