Children and the Back-to School Jitters

Jennifer Naparstek Klein, Psy.D.

Children and the Back-to School Jitters

It is that time of year when the children return to school. As parents, we prepare by purchasing pencils, folders, rulers, a calculator, and perhaps there is a haircut and a new pair of sneakers. What is sometimes more complicated to gauge is how ready our child is to return to the academic and social rigors of school. Some children can be quite vocal about their feelings, “Ugh!! I hate school!” Or maybe there is a more subtle version of a similar sentiment, such as, “I can’t believe the summer is over already.” However, not all children are disappointed to return to school. Some enjoy the social environment and the daily ritual of school and extracurricular activities. Even parents feel a mix of reactions- some sadness to see the end of glorious summer days, and some relief to have the children back to their busy lives. The key to helping your child adjust to the change is simply to listen and attend to his or her particular reaction.

Signs that a child is experiencing some anxiety around the return to school generally come in two forms, somatic and behavioral. Somatic signs of anxiety could include headaches, nervous stomach, difficulty sleeping, change in appetite, or fatigue. If one has difficulty articulating feelings, somatic symptoms can be quite common. Helping your child put feeling to words can be of great relief, so posing questions like, “Is it possible these headaches have to do with school coming around the bend?” could facilitate conversation about the jitters. Behavioral symptoms may include irritability, sadness, tearfulness, vivid dreams, fidgetiness or nervous energy. If you notice more argumentativeness in the house, for example, in the days leading up to school, or in the first few weeks of school, it is advisable to step out of the content of the arguments and wonder aloud if there is a reason for it, such as school starting up.

Once the jitters are identified, then comes the hard part–how to assist your child in coping with this stressor. The natural, reflexive response is “Don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine.” Perhaps this is true, but the first step, before reassurance, is to hear what the particular worries are. Empathy and validation are important components to the listening process, so responses such as, “Oh, I see,” or “O.K., I can understand that” are comments that encourage the child to elaborate on his or her feelings. After hearing the full battery of concerns, then going through them with encouraging and supportive reassurances can be helpful.

Questions a parent might ponder are:
1. Is anxiety at transition points usual for this child?
2. Are there valid social concerns?
3. Are there valid academic concerns?
4. Is there a stressful situation at home or in his/her life that is heightening his/her anxiety?
5. Is your child displaying school refusal?

If the anxiety or the level of distress is unusual for the child, further exploration may be necessary. Asking the child to think back to the prior year to find the source of anxiety is useful, as is a conversation with a school guidance counselor or social worker who might know your child. Slight adjustments to the routine may help your child, such as how he or she is transported to school, or how homework time is managed, etc. If your child is experiencing unusual stress at home, or is displaying school refusal, more help is indicated.

The most important point to remember is that back-to-school jitters are usually temporary, and reflective of the anticipation accompanying a new experience. If your child has enjoyed school in the past, it is likely that the nervousness will subside, and the enthusiasm for school and fall activities will reignite.