Pencils, Books and Dirty Looks: Helping Your Child Handle Back-to-School Stress

From nursery school to college, going back to school can be a source of stress. Young children may have separation anxiety, and students of any age can face bullying. High school students may worry about their GPAs, and freshmen college students may struggle with entering a new phase in life. Here is an overview of the stressors your children may face, and how you can help them adjust.

Back to School Stress

Separation Anxiety
In nursery school, pre-K and kindergarten, it’s normal for a child to be anxious and homesick in a new environment. When you drop him off, he may cling to you, cry, or beg you not to leave him. What would you do if, for the first time in your life, your parents left you alone with a bunch of strangers? This behavior usually diminishes with time, as the child adjusts to a new environment and makes friends. But in some cases the behavior can be more persistent and severe. If your child refuses to attend school for weeks, constantly talks about feeling sick or withdraws from his social circle, he may have separation anxiety disorder.  Separation Anxiety Disorder is a condition that refers to when a child experiences fear and disproportionate worry about the idea of separation from a parent or guardian.  If this is the case, the best option for everyone  is to seek professional help.


Of all the challenges that school age children have to face, coping with a bully is one of the most difficult. Every child yearns to be accepted and liked, and being picked on and ridiculed can be a blow to anyone’s sense of dignity and self-worth. Bullying has even contributed to suicide in extreme cases; it should not be dealt with alone. Signs that your child is being bullied may include moodiness, irregular eating or sleeping and avoidance of everyday situations like taking the school bus.

If you see these or other signs of bullying, make sure your child knows that she should talk to you about it, and that you’re there to help. Being bullied often carries a stigma, and your child may feel embarrassed or ashamed, so be quick to comfort her and tell her that the bully, not her, should feel ashamed. Then tell a school nurse, counselor or teacher about the situation, so that they can take steps to monitor and prevent it.

Academic Stress in High School
College admissions is more competitive than ever, and the pressure to excel is being felt even in middle school students. It’s one thing to encourage students to do their best, but sending a message that one’s worth and potential are measured in grades and scores can be a formula for toxic stress. Parents should be on the lookout for exhaustion from late nights of studying, for headaches and for symptoms of depression. Above all, keep the lines of communication open by having casual one-on-one time with your child each week, and listening to what he says (and does not say).
Symptoms of depression include:
  • Fatigue, chronic tiredness, lethargy
  • Changes in weight (gain or loss)
  • Loss of interest in acts of pleasure, hobbies or socialization
  • Focus and concentration problems
  • Guilt feelings
  • Suicidal ideation
If over-scheduling is part of the problem, help your child limit his extracurricular commitments to the few he most enjoys. Also teach him time-management skills and stress-relief tips, like studying early in the evening and in a distraction-free location.

Starting College

Any life change can be stressful, and the change experienced at the start of college can among one of the most drastic. Freshmen must not only handle a more challenging academic workload, but also create a new support system from scratch. Since the ability to cope with anxiety is often limited by physical health, your child should keep a healthy diet, get enough sleep and make time for regular exercise. And even while she’s making new friends and exploring the social scene on campus, you should encourage her to stay in touch.

Most stress in children and teens is somehow connected with school, and should never be downplayed. Always be attuned to your children’s feelings, and be attentive to signs of tension, so that you can help them develop healthy coping strategies when they needs them. It is often impossible to avoid stress, but the right interventions can make it manageable for you and your child.

How have you helped your child cope with stress at school? Please share your tips with us.

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