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How to help kids with back-to-school anxiety at any age

"It doesn't help to tell your child how to feel, like 'Don't be scared' or 'There's nothing to be worried about.'"
/ Source: TODAY Contributor
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Christine Burke is dreading the last few weeks remaining in her daughter's summer vacation, but not because she's ready for summer to end. Instead, she is worried about how to ease her daughter's anxiety about the new school year.

"We spend the weeks leading up to school discussing situations that make her nervous: the lunchroom, the first day in the new classroom, new teachers," said Burke, a mother of two in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. "We talk about strategies to help start conversations with other kids — a comment on a book someone is reading, maybe a shirt with a cute saying that makes her smile, an activity she notices that she enjoys as well."

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Back-to-school season can generate a lot of nervous energy for children of all ages, from preschool to high school. TODAY Tastemaker and child development expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa has three key tips for parents to remember while working with agitated, anxious children who are not looking forward to the new school year, no matter their ages:

1. Accept your child's feelings as true and valid.

"It doesn't help to tell your child how or how not to feel, like 'Don't be scared' or 'There's nothing to be worried about," said Dr. Gilboa. "It's disrespectful to your child, and worse — it doesn't work."

2. Acknowledge the feeling, and then move toward action.

Emphasize the fact that children can do something about their emotions. "The point isn't actually about how you feel, it's about how you behave," said Dr. Gilboa. "So ask your child what might help to do."

3. Remember the life skill you're teaching here.

"This isn't — mostly — about getting your child on the bus or in the door that first day with as little trauma as possible," said Dr. Gilboa. "This process is about learning what works and doesn't to help your child with all the 'firsts' they'll encounter in the years to come."

The coping skills you give your kids now are skills they can use forever, long after graduation. "Life is full of first days. You're helping them figure out how to manage their feelings and still thrive. And if they don't rock it this year, that's OK. Learning skills takes time and practice," she said.

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Dr. Gilboa also has age-specific suggestions for parents, based on the worries that plague the specific age sets.


Most of their focus is on being away from you, Dr. Gilboa noted. "So ask, 'What makes you feel better when we're not together for a little while?' Then try to put one or more of those strategies into play," she said.


For this age, the focus for children is often on a change in their setting and schedule. "Try reading books about kindergarten and going to see the physical space they will be in to build familiarity with location and routine," said Dr. Gilboa.

Elementary school

"Change is hard, and this next grade will have lots of differences from last year," said Dr. Gilboa, who suggested parents ask their children what they already know — or think they know — about this grade and what they think will be hard. "Then you can brainstorm strategies together to manage the rough spots."

Middle school

For middle schoolers, it's all about their social world, said Dr. Gilboa. "Encourage your child to do what they can to connect with friends before school starts so they can go in feeling solid," she recommended. "Having a few strong connections — even if they don't end up in classes together — will make the roughest times, like lunch and before or after school, feel more manageable."

High school

"Talk about pressure. These are the years when students feel the heat about what courses they're taking and how they do in them, and if they play sports and participate in extracurricular activities and how they 'measure up,'" said Dr. Gilboa. "As their parent, make sure you're not the biggest stressor, and ask them to set reasonable expectations for themselves. Talk about their goals. This will give you some context for their experience and help you mentor them without getting too involved in the day-to-day details of their lives," she said.

Finally, remember that these nervous feelings will pass. "We remind our kids that at any given moment, they only need three seconds of courage, as nothing is permanent," said Newthe Campbell, a mother of two in Lake Nona, Florida. "What's new today becomes routine tomorrow."

Editor's Note: This story was originally published on August 13, 2017, and has been updated.