Does your child seem stressed to be back at school? Fear not

It is normal for some students to experience back-to-school stress. Many challenges come with the start of a new school year. This article is geared toward the typical stressors of starting or returning to school, and is not intended to focus on students showing severe cases of anxiety or depression. Many of the school-related challenges described below can cause students distress, irritability, reduced focus or academic performance. Though many of these changes simply take time to adapt to, others are readily addressable.

New grade/school

Maybe your child or student has moved to a new grade, or even (gulp!) to a new school. Remember how daunting it was to go from elementary school, where you had one teacher all day, to middle school, where there were new teachers and peers? Some students have a hard time adapting to switching rooms every 50 minutes, as well as to having multiple teachers – each of whom has his or her own teaching style, and is teaching a different subject. With this change in grade or school level also comes a whole new cadre of peers and thus a whole new social environment to navigate (more on that, below). For older grades, there are also numerous extracurricular activities to contend with, particularly as college application season approaches. It is normal for students to feel overwhelmed by any or many of these challenges.

If your child is younger, it may be that they are having a hard time adjusting to being away from home if they are starting pre-K or kindergarten. They also may find it difficult at first to adapt to a new adult in charge and her way of instructing and disciplining.

What you can do: Recognize that many of these difficulties will fade with time, and that it is typical for students to feel some apprehension as they adjust to new teachers, new schedules, and new social environments. Offer your student time to decompress at the end of each day with some quiet activities like reading, drawing, or even a short nap. Also be sure to regularly check in with your child to talk about their day and their adjustment to school. Sometimes just having a safe person to hear them talk is what’s needed most. If you continue to be concerned, talk with your child’s teacher or your school psychologist.

Social stress

Did you know that dominance hierarchies don’t just exist in animal societies? They actually exist in children, too, even as early as kindergarten! Also, be assured that research shows it can often be stressful at the top for both animals and people – so don’t feel like your child must be an “alpha.” Depending on their age, the particular peers they are engaging with, and past experience in social groups, some children may have a harder time adjusting to new peers and figuring out where they fit in their social group while others seem to adapt with ease. This is normal. Do not be overly concerned unless your child shows anxious or depressive behavior that interferes with their daily activities.

For older students, like those in middle and high school, social relationships can extend to dating and puberty. Their bodies and brains are undergoing so many normal developmental changes that it can be difficult to recognize them from one day to the next! In addition, the typical feelings of anxiety or anticipation that accompany dating can result in distressed behavior at home. Again, this is typical. Similar to peer relationships, you should be concerned if you notice changes in your child’s behavior that interfere with daily activities.

What you can do: It will likely be easier to talk to younger students about their changing social environments than older students, because it is typical for teenagers to seek out their peers, and to move away from their families and parents as their primary source of social support. For all ages, however, keep the lines of communication open, and be there to listen when they start conversations about these difficult situations. Many times, you can brainstorm solutions with younger students (e.g., “Tell that friend your feelings were hurt” or “Go to a teacher for help”.) It is normal, however, for older students to not come to you for a solution (as they grow older and more independent, they don’t want to be told what to do!), but to seek out a sympathetic ear. Often, telling them a similar story of experiences you had in your youth will go a long way toward easing their minds. If your child seems severely withdrawn or anxious, consider talking with your child’s teacher, the school administrator, or seeking resources or help from the school psychologist or a licensed psychological professional specializing in adolescents.

Poor self-care habits

Is your child going to bed too late? (Maybe this is a leftover habit from the summer.) Getting enough physical activity? (Sweating is not always necessary, just moving around regularly increases physical and mental health!) Children, even teenagers, need between 9-11 hours of sleep per night to function well, 1 hour of physical activity per day to stay healthy. Is your child eating balanced meals? Eating too much or not enough?

What you can do: Minimize screen time, and turn off the phone! It’s now known that the blue light emanating from phones disrupts the brain’s normal circadian rhythm – meaning, if the last thing your child does at night is scroll through their phone, their sleep will suffer. Consider having a phone basket where phones and tablets “sleep” at night, and set a regular “bedtime” for devices – which should be at least an hour before your kids’ bedtime. Also, be sure to stock your fridge and pantry with healthy snacks, and keep them out and available – we eat what’s in front of us, and if it’s an apple or banana versus candy or chips, that’s what’s going into our bodies. You can also make dedicated family physical activity time – even 30 minutes per day will do wonders for the whole household. Plus, your kids may even start opening up to you about their new school and friends while you’re walking the dog together!

Academic pressure

These days, it seems like college resumes are being built in preschool. There is ever-increasing pressure for kids to stand out amongst their peers at earlier ages. This pressure comes from many sources – schools, the county (think standardized testing time), peers, and parents – but the only source of pressure you can control is you. While it is healthy to encourage your child to always try their hardest, and to produce work they are proud of, ask yourself if you are pushing your student too hard, and what your motivations are. Psychological research shows that intrinsic motivation is a strong predictor of academic and professional success, and that parent involvement is associated with intrinsic motivation.

What you can do: Be involved in all aspects of your child’s schooling – benign issues and positive issues alike, not just when problems arise. Advise your child in their academics while also providing them resources to seek out further aid on their own. Perhaps most importantly, emphasize the hard work and determination your student has, and that these traits will set them up for success no matter where they are headed next.

About the Author

Amanda M. Dettmer, PhD, is a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, hosted by the American Psychological Association, at the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education. She was formerly a Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She is a member of the American Psychological Association (APA) Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education, representing APA Division 6, the Society for Behavioral Neuroscience & Comparative Psychology. She holds her PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience and spent more than 15 years studying risk and resilience to chronic stress, and associated cognitive and social outcomes, in nonhuman primate models of child development.