5 Tips for Meeting Your Child’s Emotional Needs as they Return to School

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Heading back to school in the fall can trigger big emotions for children with ADHD. Even typical back-to-school excitement and anticipation can be overwhelming for children who have difficulty managing their emotions. Layered on top of this are more complicated feelings that stem from struggles your child may have had academically or with friends and teachers in past school years. These feelings are confusing to children who aren’t able to connect their current emotions with their past experiences. In fact, depending on their age and level of emotional maturity, many children can’t articulate why they are feeling sad, uncertain or even excited about the new school year. Instead of talking about their feelings, they may express themselves through emotional or behavioral outbursts or by becoming withdrawn or tearful.   

It is hard to know how to support your child when they are struggling emotionally. Here are five simple tips to help you get started: 

  1. Take steps to manage your own levels of anxiety and stress. The back-to-school transition is difficult for parents too. In fact, many parents are even more worried and stressed than their children are at the start of a new school year. This is especially true of parents whose children have struggled during past school years. It is very difficult to help your child manage their emotions when your own levels of stress and anxiety are high, so take care of your own emotional health in the coming weeks. You’ll help yourself and your child in the process.  
  2. Prioritize sleep for yourself and your child. Every parent knows that children (and parents) who are sleep deprived have a harder time coping with feelings of anxiety and frustration. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, school-age children should get between 9-12 hours of sleep and teens need 8-10 hours of sleep each night. Help your child cope with the back-to-school transition by starting them on their school sleep schedule about two weeks before the first day of school. This will ensure that they are getting the sleep they need and will take some of the adjustment stress out of the first week of school. 
  3. Talk to your child about how they are feeling. Hectic family schedules don’t often include time for unhurried conversations about our feelings. Start by casually checking in with your child about how they’re feeling about heading back to school. It can also help to share how you felt when you were a child who was starting a new school year. You may find that at first your child doesn’t have much to say, but if you check in regularly, they’ll likely start to open up over time.  
  4. Remind your child about the non-school activities that they enjoy during the school year. It’s important for children with ADHD to remember that they are not defined by their school experience. The start of the school year also means a return to clubs, sports, and activities that they enjoy. These experiences tap into talents and interests they have that aren’t engaged during the school day, and often include friendships that aren’t burdened by the stress and pressure of school. 
  5. Identify key people in your child’s support system. Your child is not alone in their return to school. They have the support of their family and friends outside of school, and there is plenty of support at school as well. Talk to your child’s school counselor, administrator or teacher to find out who your child can turn to at school when needed. Then, work with your child’s school to set a meeting up between your child and their support person the first week of school. Let your child know that you’ll check in with that person as well to find out if there are things you can do to help them at home.   

As a parent, you are your child’s number one source of emotional support, and there is a lot you can do to help them feel better as they return to school this fall. Remember that you don’t need to do it alone. If you feel overwhelmed by your child’s big emotions, reach out to a counselor or therapist for help. Not sure where to begin to find a therapist? Your child’s pediatrician is a good starting point for a referral. In the meantime, try to enjoy the last days of summer and spend some quality time with your child doing the things you both enjoy most.  


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.