Expert explainer: Back-to-school worries for kids

The back-to-school countdown is on, and parents may be looking for ways to support their children through the anxiety and worry September can bring.

Colin King is an associate professor with the Faculty of Education at Western and is a registered school and child clinical psychologist. He provides tips for parents to help their kids navigate this transition.

What are some of the challenges the back-to-school transition presents for kids?

Transitions can be challenging for many children and youth as well as adults and we know they can bring a lot of mixed emotions. Practical challenges, like getting back into routines, can be difficult, in addition to school-specific demands like separating from caregivers and going back into a learning environment.

How can parents distinguish between worries and problematic anxieties?

I often refer to the four "D’s” when I’m thinking about problematic anxiety. Duration – how long has the child been struggling with these feelings? Disproportionateare these feelings misaligned with what is happening in their context? Distress – how much anguish is the child and family experiencing due to these feelings? And disruption – how much are these feelings getting in the way of their lives – are these anxieties impacting other areas of functioning? If a parent has concerns about their child’s anxiety (or emotional functioning more generally) in any of these areas, this can be a clue that additional resources or professional support may be required.

When should parents intervene with their children’s worries?

I help families make the distinction between what is a "worry” versus what is a "problem.” Parents need to be mindful and curious about what are problems for some children, like not having a friend at school, experiences of bullying or difficulty with learning. These types of problems require different types of solutions, which are often collaborative action plans with parents and their child’s school. Parents can help distinguish between a worry and a problem by listening and validating their child’s feelings and behaviours and continuing to be curious about what they are feeling and thinking about.

Colin King, associate professor in the Faculty of Education at Western University (Colin King photo)

How can parents prepare for back to school with their children?

This is a great time to be starting conversations with children and teens about heading back to school and their feelings about this transition. What are they excited about? What do they worry about when thinking about going back to school? What can they do together to help make this transition a bit easier?

Parents can also start preparations that show this transition is upcoming and that as a family, they will be ready. This might include looking at back-to-school supplies, talking about sleep schedules, visiting the school playground and providing a space to be curious about their feelings about going back to school. Taking small steps now can pay big dividends later as we provide the space to talk about our anxious feelings and still move forward in preparations and discussions.

How might back-to-school anxiety differ for elementary versus high school students? 

For anxious children and teens, you will often see their concerns be developmental in nature and driven by their unique context and stage. Younger children may worry about leaving their parents or have a lot of questions about the nature of school or what will happen once they are at school.

For older children and teens, their concerns may be more specific to the demands they are dealing with, like fitting in socially or worries about being successful in a particular class. What is common across all anxious children and youth is the worry associated with the uncertainty of this transition, but the nature of these worries are often personalized to their age and context.

What resources are available to parents?

I strongly recommend parents reach out to their child’s school if they know their child is going to struggle with the transition back to school. If additional support is needed, there are school-based mental health professionals who can assist or parents can also reach out to children’s mental health agencies to gain support.

At the Mary J. Wright Child and Youth Development Clinic, we also frequently offer workshops, groups and individual services to children, youth and families who are struggling with problematic anxiety and stress. Interested parents can sign up for our mailing list. Anxiety Canada also has a wealth of evidence-based