Going back-to-school is an exciting time for many children. But for some it also increases stress and anxiety. Will they like their new teacher? Are they going to enjoy their new school? Will his friends be in his class?
It is normal for young children to experience anxiety when separated from parents or caregivers. When you layer a pandemic on top of the general tension behind school, many kids will be struggling more than usual.
In everyday parlance, it is common for people to talk about children (or pets) experiencing separation anxiety.
When children experience more intense fears and anxieties that interfere with attending school for longer periods of time, or that interfere with the way they function and/or interact with others at school, it is referred to as Psychologists call separation anxiety disorder. Separation anxiety disorder is the most common anxiety disorder in children under the age of 12.
Even when children are experiencing specific levels of anxiety – whether they are starting kindergarten, transitioning to a new school – or returning to a more familiar environment, how parents react. Giving it is important.
Anxiety and Epidemic
After prolonged social isolation with family members, it can be difficult for some children and parents to separate from them after the school bell rings. Especially after our pandemic year, some kids and parents may still feel some anxiety about moving into unfamiliar places. They may also worry about pandemic safety which makes going back to school stressful.
In a typical year, around one in 10 children experience an increase in anxiety levels. However, research shows that anxiety levels in children have doubled during the pandemic, with one in five experiencing significant anxiety.
In the past year and a half, most children spent more time at home than usual, especially when schools were closed. Even when children were allowed to spend time with friends, there were often restrictions, such as staying outside or wearing masks and social distancing.
For some children, these restrictions can increase the tension associated with interactions outside their family.
what separation anxiety can look like
Separation anxiety can manifest in different ways. Children may refuse to go to school or participate in new activities in the absence of a parent. They may refuse to go to bed without their parents or sleep away from home.
Some children experiencing separation anxiety have physical symptoms such as abdominal pain and nightmares, while others may experience headaches or a rapid heartbeat. Others may have persistent thoughts that something bad is about to happen to them or their parents.
Read more: How to help your child cope with the transition back to school during COVID-19
Some children may be worried, especially when it comes to the pandemic. Going back to school may pose some risks to unvaccinated children, and some may fear contracting COVID-19 or transmitting it to their friends and family. Also, children, like adults, can feel a little “rusty” when it comes to interacting with people outside the family, especially with strangers like a new teacher.
Strategies to support your child
Whether you know that your child has struggled significantly with anxiety before, or they are anxious or worried about going back to school, we offer several strategies below to help you navigate these feelings with them.
Validate your child’s fears and concerns. Feeling anxious about being separated from the comfort of caregivers is a normal reaction to stressful events. When children express concern, let them know that you hear and understand them. You can validate and normalize their feelings by saying: “I think you feel anxious. I’m sure many other kids are feeling the same way.”
Encourage positive self-talk. Help children develop a growth mindset that includes positive and productive statements such as: “I am brave, I can do this.” Positive self-talk has been linked to increased self-esteem in children. Try practicing this at home before school, so it’s familiar and easy for kids to use these statements when they’re apart from you or worried at school.
Plan to take small steps through the fall. Asking kids to go from limited social interactions during the pandemic to extended social interactions in a small space at school has a lot to offer. During the first few weeks of school, try to resist the temptation to fill the evening weekend with excursions and events. Consider doing home-based activities that help children add some stability to their environment. As your kids become more comfortable with social interactions, start adding progressively more activities to your calendar as pandemic restrictions allow.
Stick to the routine. Transitioning to a new school environment may seem unexpected to children. This can increase anxiety. One way to reduce such anxiety is to adopt a regular routine at home. For example, stick to a consistent schedule when it comes to eating, bath time, screen time, and bedtime. Research has found that this has helped children experience better health during the pandemic.
Talk about the positive aspects of going to school and getting out in new ways. Children (and adults!) can have a hard time seeing the positive aspects of anxiety-inducing situations. Parents can help children see the positive side of back-to-school, including learning new things, time with friends, or participating in extra-curricular activities.
Model positive behavior. Kids aren’t the only ones who have seen an increase in their anxiety this past year. There has also been an increase in parental anxiety. Even with regard to school, many parents may be concerned about being separated from their child. When parents discuss their anxiety and stress, children can internalize these concerns. Try to avoid discussing the stresses of your life in front of your child, and also avoid exposure to dangerous media, which has been shown to increase children’s anxiety.
It is understandable that children may struggle to separate from their loved ones as they experience a more unconventional back-to-school. Still, these strategies can help parents play an important role in reducing their children’s anxiety and making going back to school more enjoyable for them.
Read more: Children’s resilience amid the coronavirus unknown, and how to build your own
If you have questions about whether your child could benefit from additional support, you may consider reaching out to professional support, including talking to your family doctor. Concern Canada provides a directory of professional services available throughout Canada.