Pediatric Psychologist Offers Tips to Calm Your Child’s Back-to-School Fears, Anxiety

As kids prepare to head back into classrooms, they may be experiencing a bit of anxiety or back-to-school jitters.

Although this is totally normal, some children may exhibit signs that go beyond jitters and can indicate possible symptoms of clinical anxiety.

Moms with a Mic’s Julia and Marissa Bagg caught up with Pediatric Psychologist Dr. Marina Villani-Capo from Nicklaus Children’s Hospital and fellow working mom, Michelle Barney, to discuss the signs of back-to-school anxiety, what caregivers can do to help ease those fears, and when to seek professional help.

What is the difference between normal back-to-school jitteriness and clinical anxiety?

“I always tell families that a little bit of anxiety is a good thing because it can keep us on our toes, but when it starts to get a little bit out of hand, then I deploy the expertise of the caregiver because you are the expert of your child,” Dr. Villani-Capo said.

The doctor told Moms with a Mic that back-to-school jitteriness could be exhibited by physical symptoms in the absence of a medical diagnosis. Kids may experience headaches, stomach aches, vomiting and in some younger children, if they are very stressed out, they can even get fevers or become extremely fatigued or tired.

Clinical anxiety is when a child is exhibiting these symptoms for a prolonged amount of time.

“Some kids get very hyperactive and they might get confused with ADHD when in reality, it’s just nervous energy that they don’t know how to manage yet,” Dr. Villani-Capo said. “[Kids] can become very irritable as well — very cranky in the morning and snappy or talking back to parents.”

Typical in younger children, Dr. Villani-Capo noted that they might get scared ahead of their first day of school partly due to separation anxiety. Many kids might not be accustomed to being away from their caregivers and spending prolonged amounts of time with a new person in a new space.

What caregivers can do in order to help their children cope?

When preparing children for their first day back to school, Dr. Villani-Capo says “prevention is key.”

By creating a healthy and realistic routine that fits in within the family’s dynamic, kids can begin to get accustomed to the limits and boundaries they will face when they start school.

Dr. Villani-Capo recommends that ideally two weeks before school begins, parents set a bedtime, begin to limit screen time and creating healthy habits to encourage better sleep.

Among the activities recommended before bedtime is to take a shower, play some music, read a story with a parent or caregiver, and engage in guided imagery or guided meditations.

For children experiencing separation anxiety, a simple note or item that reminds the child of their caregiver can bridge the transition period for the child and give them a sense of comfort and validation that it is okay to feel that way.

The doctor also recommended going to teacher meet-and-greets, if they are offered, or taking a tour of the school before returning to class so kids can become familiar with their schedule and class routine. Getting children into a morning routine may also help ease their fears before heading to school.

When should you seek professional help?

When seeking professional help, it is important to first look at the resources at hand.

“It’s really important for me to also encourage caregivers to create a sense of tribe and support system within the school system,” Dr. Villani-Capo said. “If you have a child that has a history of struggling with anxiety or depression or learning difficulties, it’s really important that we keep the communication going with our tribe at school and make sure that that line of communication is always open because that teacher can also help you help your child with simple reminders or special accommodations.”

For children that do not have a history of clinical anxiety, parents should first contact their pediatrician if they begin to notice symptoms. The child’s pediatrician will likely have other resources in the community that can better help parents navigate the proper course of action for that child.

“If it’s an extreme situation where you’ve been going to therapy or counseling or school psychologists haven’t been very successful, sometimes medication for anxiety is needed, but it’s not always the common thing. That is just in extreme cases,” Dr. Villani-Capo said.

The importance of getting a diagnosis

After the pandemic began Dr. Villani-Capo noted that there has been an increase in mental disorders in children and it is possible for multiple to co-exist at the same time.

This means that it is possible for a child suffering from depression to also suffer from anxiety or a child with ADHD to also exhibit signs of anxiety and depression.

It’s very important that we know the red flags to look out for and help our children when we know there is a diagnosis,” Dr. Villani-Capo said. “Avoiding the problem will not make it go away.”