Helping Your Kids Handle Back-to-School Anxiety

a mother holds her daughter's hand as they walk into the elementary school together


 In this article:

  • Roughly 32% of teenagers experience some type of anxiety.

  • Worries about school shootings and lingering COVID-19 fears can increase stress levels as school approaches.

  • A Swedish medical social worker explains that helping kids navigate these fears requires an age-appropriate approach.

Come August, the carefree summer days by the pool, at the playground or even camped in front of the TV are due to end soon for school-age kids. Many happily await the opportunity to see their friends again every day or to meet the cool new teacher they’ve heard about. Others, though, may grow more stressed as the first day of school inches closer.

If your child falls into this second category, they aren’t alone. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one-third — 32% — of teens experience some type of anxiety. It’s too early in the year to worry about classwork, but there are plenty of things going on in the world that can weigh on their minds. Whether it’s school shootings or COVID-19, your child may have several concerns.

To help you and your child address these anxieties, we talked with Swedish medical social worker Kelly Barton, MPH, LICSW, about what your child might be feeling and how you can tackle these problems together.

“For many kids, anxiety builds around doing things they haven’t done before. With new things, they’re kind of blazing a trail. That can feel scary and overwhelming at times,” she says. “The best way to overcome that is to face it. As soon as we give ourselves the chance to experience the unknown, it becomes the known.”

The growing worry: Talking about school shootings

With school shootings happening more frequently, more than half of teens say they worry it can happen at their school. To help your child, it’s important to get a good idea of what they’re thinking. Sometimes kids aren’t ready to have an in-depth discussion, Barton says, and that’s OK.

“The idea of school shootings can be really overwhelming, and teens just aren’t ready for lengthy conversations yet,” she says. “Still, it’s good to reach out and hear from them what’s on their mind. Find out what they’ve heard and what they’ve been exposed to.”

If the topic really upsets your child when you talk, you can suggest:

  • Taking several deep breaths
  • Drinking a glass of water
  • Holding an ice cube in their hands during the conversation to help stay present in the moment

It’s also important to identify people within the school — teachers or counselors — that your child trusts and can talk to during the school day when they feel anxious.

Younger children may be more uncomfortable with active shooter drills. If that’s the case, Barton says, you may need to use a different approach called reflective listening. Ask them what happened during the drill, how it made them feel and what they thought about the experience. Be aware that sometimes letting your child talk is all you need to do.

“As parents, we feel pressure to explain everything, and your child may not be looking for that,” she says. “They may very well just want to share what they’re thinking at that moment, and then they’re on to something else. Don’t overthink or overanalyze — just hear them out.”

Addressing the lingering COVID-19 concerns

This year marks the second first day of school since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most schools have returned to in-person instruction, and many parents feel better now that kids can get vaccinated, Barton says.

“I hear from a lot of families that they’re relieved that most kids now have access to the vaccine,” she says. “I think families are feeling pretty good about this school year.”

It’s important to note, though, that not all children are vaccinated — so there’s still a reason to be careful and cautious, she says.

Most older teens who still want to wear a mask worry about whether classmates will criticize them, she says. Reassure your child that it’s OK to protect their health and that they’re still allowed to mask up if they want to.

For most younger children, their biggest worry is whether getting the COVID-19 vaccine shot will hurt. Overall, getting the shot itself only causes minor discomfort. Be honest with your child, however, and tell them they might feel a small pinprick. If they’re still nervous, Barton says, coping strategies can help them get through the experience.

These suggestions can help if your child is nervous about getting the vaccine:

  • Breathe deeply: Take three to five deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth.
  • Squeeze hands: Let your child squeeze and release your hand either before or during the shot.
  • Picture something fun: Think about an activity they enjoy or a favorite place to visit — focus on anything other than being in the doctor’s office.

Finding support as parents

When your child feels anxious, it’s easy, as a parent, to take on those same feelings. That isn’t always helpful, and it can significantly increase your own anxiety level. Fortunately, Barton says, there are things you can do to minimize your stress, as well.

“Don’t borrow trouble,” Barton says. “You don’t want to add more to your plate than is necessary.”

If you find yourself worrying most of the time, these steps can help:

  • Talk to the school about existing safety protocols.
  • Reach out to other parents to talk about your concerns.
  • Practice self-care, such as mindful meditation.

You can also set aside some “worry time,” Barton says. For 15 to 20 minutes, let yourself focus on everything that bothers you.

“This is a time where we can honor our concerns and see if there’s an action plan we can form around them,” she says. “It’s a time to identify the things that are within our control, diffuse those issues and then give our brains a break.”

Find a doctor

If you have questions about helping children with anxiety, contact the Pediatrics department or Behavioral Health and Wellbeing at Swedish. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Additional resources 

Five ways to care for yourself in the aftermath of a national tragedy

Back to school during COVID-19

Talking to teens about stress

Promoting resilience in kids: 5 tips for parents

Helping kids face change and uncertainty

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

Whether it's stress, anxiety, dementia, addiction or any number of life events that impede our ability to function, mental health is a topic that impacts nearly everyone. The Swedish Behavioral Health Team is committed to offering every-day tips and clinical advice to help you and your loved ones navigate mental health conditions.

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