School Anxiety Is More and More Common — Here's How to Help Your Kid Through It

As summer draws to a close and the school bells begin to ring, a familiar yet daunting wave of back-to-school anxiety can start to creep in for kids of all ages. The return to classrooms, routines, and new experiences and challenges can trigger a range of emotions. And while this anxiety is a common response to change, as parents, it can be hard to navigate our kids through it — so we've asked the experts.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), worries and fears are typical in childhood, but when those fears become "persistent or extreme" and interfere with daily life, it's more likely to fall under the category of anxiety. Statistics show that 9.4 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 17 were diagnosed with anxiety between 2016 and 2019, a percentage that is growing yearly.

Despite anxiety in school-aged children being a growing concern, recognizing when fear turns into anxiety isn't always easy to spot. "Children who have always had anxiety may not realize that this is not a normal experience, and they need a trusted adult to help them identify the need for help and support," Willough Jenkins, PhD, a child psychiatrist at Rady Children's Hospital-San Diego, tells POPSUGAR.

How Can You Tell If Your Child Is Experiencing School Anxiety?

While it may be a struggle for kids to recognize signs of school anxiety, it's important for parents to be aware. "If anxiety is not recognized and goes untreated, it can have effects on all aspects of a child's life – like school performance, ability to socialize, and general well-being," Dr. Jenkins warns.

Since it's not always simple for kids to vocalize if their worries and fears have morphed into anxiety, it's important for parents to be dialed into their kids to watch for any signs. And one of the biggest and most common signs this has happened is when kids start to refuse to go to school.

"Usually, the biggest red flag about school anxiety is school refusal or school avoidance," Amy Mezulis, PhD, cofounder and chief clinical officer of Joon, tells POPSUGAR. "But this can manifest in subtle ways and show up the first few times as mystery headaches, stomachaches, or other symptoms that seem like illness and legitimate reasons to miss school."

Dr. Ellen Braaten, executive director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of "Bright Kids Who Couldn't Care Less," agrees, telling POPSUGAR that school performance can also be a key sign of anxiety.

"In terms of signs that are missed by parents, poor performance in school such as disorganization, missed or incomplete assignments are common," Dr. Braaten shares. "Finally, frequent trips to the school nurse, the bathroom, or wanting to stay in from recess are common."

Dr. Jenkins adds that although many signs of anxiety in children may involve physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach pain, parents must take these signs seriously. "What is important to remember is that even though the physical symptoms may be a result of school stress, this doesn't mean that the child is feigning the symptoms," she says. "Stress can cause legitimate headaches and stomach pains."

What Are the Most Common Causes of School Anxiety Among Kids?

There isn't a universal reason why a child will experience school anxiety. Instead, there are various factors, both at-home and at-school reasons, Dr. Mezulis explains.

For example, being bullied, struggling with a particular subject, or being socially isolated may lead to anxiety, Dr. Mezulis says. Another potential stressor? "Maybe there's stress at home that is showing up as anxiety, for example, parent conflict or divorce or a recent major change," she suggests.

Back-to-school anxiety tends to be more common in younger children, particularly those first starting school, Dr. Jenkins warns. But that doesn't mean older kids aren't susceptible. School anxiety can look different in different children and "stem from a multifactorial combination of genetic predisposition and their environment," she explains.

Some general reasons for school anxiety include:

  • Separation anxiety, or feeling anxiety from being away from a parent or caregiver
  • Traumatic anxiety, resulting from a traumatic event at school, like threats or bullying
  • Fear of failure usually related to tests or tasks at school
  • Conflict anxiety, typically resulting from ongoing issues or conflicts with peers or teachers at the school
  • General social anxiety or feeling overwhelmingly uncomfortable around others
  • Fears and phobias like anxiety over toileting in public, public speaking, or certain activities

It's also worth noting that kids with a family history of anxiety, or those who are more shy or reserved by nature, are also more vulnerable to anxiety, Dr. Mezulis says.

What Can Parents Do to Help Their Kids With School Anxiety?

Dr. Braaten says the first thing parents need to do to help their kids through school anxiety is to name and acknowledge what they're feeling. "Parents need to remember that anxiety is actually a healthy emotion — it is the emotion that tells us something isn't right," she continues. "The most important thing to teach your child is to make sure the anxiety matches the threat."

In terms of actionable steps that parents can take to help their child navigate school anxiety, the experts offer seven tips:

  1. Understand the source."It is important to understand the source of the anxiety; if there is something happening at school, such as bullying, then you need to deal with that directly," Dr. Mezulis says. "Often there is not — the child is simply anxious — but we don't want to miss a solvable problem."
  2. Regularly attend school. "It is very important that your child returns to school even if they are feeling anxious," Dr. Jenkins shares. "School anxiety is reinforced the longer a child stays out of school, so this is another area where it is necessary that parents intervene."
  3. Don't accidentally reinforce. "If your child is not able to attend school, ensure [the] home is comfortable," Dr. Jenkins says, "but not unintentionally reinforcing the habit of staying home (such as having unlimited snacks, video games, or time with parents)."
  4. Have a few dry runs. "For children new to school, we recommend doing dry runs of school days to familiarize the child with the new routine," Dr. Mezulis suggests. This involves actually driving to the school, getting out, and going to the front door.
  5. Set small goals. "Small goals might be things such as handing your homework to the teacher when you walk in the door; identifying what you're going to do at recess (play on the bars, walk three laps around the playground); one social activity (say hi to a certain kid)," Dr. Mezulis explains. "Something that is small and obtainable can build confidence."
  6. Offer a small reward. "I don't recommend bribing children to go to school, but having a small reward at the end of the week — a family movie night or going out for ice cream — can be a nice way to celebrate your child pushing through the anxiety and being successful with school attendance that week," Dr. Mezulis says.
  7. Develop an anxiety toolbox. "It can be a physical box where they put things that help them with anxiety," Dr. Jenkins says. "The box may include a family photo, a nice-smelling soap, a puzzle, and reminders of coping skills like box breathing or a grounding technique."

When supporting your child through their school anxiety, "parents need to thread that needle carefully," Dr. Mezulis says. You want to make sure that you're validating and respecting your child's anxiety, but also ensuring that it does not dominate their life to the point of avoidance (like refusing to go to school altogether).

By acknowledging the reality of school anxiety and having some tricks and tips up your sleeve in anticipation, parents and caregivers can help kids get off on the right foot during school and continue to feel supported throughout the year.