Dealing with Back-to-School Anxiety

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Everyone feels anxious on the first day of school. Even kids who love school and look forward to the first day feel some butterflies in their stomach as they wonder what their new teacher and classmates will be like. For kids with ADHD who have struggled with school in the past and whose relationships with classmates have often been challenging, the back to school jitters that they experience are often more intense than most. Even if they don’t talk about feeling nervous, the anxiety will still be there and may show up in other ways – like uncharacteristic irritability, difficulty sleeping, and complaints about stomachs and headaches. As a parent it can be hard to know how to help your child cope with his or her anxiety. In addition to strategies that help with everyday anxiety, like taking deep breaths or distracting yourself from anxious thoughts, there are a few important things you can do to help your child cope leading up to the first day of school.  

Help your child know what to expect.  Anxiety often stems from not knowing what to expect when we’re doing something new for the first time. While you can’t predict everything that will happen on the first day of school, there are things you can do to make the day feel more familiar and predictable for your child.

  • Visit the school ahead of time and walk with your child to his or her new classroom. Allow your child to have some fun playing on the play structure or shooting hoops on the basketball court.
  • Talk to your child about his or her new teacher. Share some of the good things that you’ve heard from other parents and kids. If it’s possible, have your child meet the new teacher ahead of time or create an opportunity for him or her to talk to a former student who enjoyed having that teacher in the past.
  • Make sure your child is introduced to at least one classmate before the first day of school. If you’re new to the area, talk to neighbors or someone at your child’s new school to get tips on reaching out to some of your child’s peers ahead of time.
  • Create a back-to-school morning routine and start practicing in the week leading up to the start of school

Encourage your child to share their feelings.  Some of our greatest fears can lose their power when we share them out loud. Not all kids are eager to talk about their anxiety, so some gentle encouragement may be needed.

  • Ask your child questions about how he or she is feeling. Avoid emotionally loaded questions like, “Are you nervous about starting school this year?” Instead, ask neutral questions that allow your child to set the tone of the conversation. For example, “What do you think the first day of school will be like this year?” If he or she doesn’t respond to your direct questions, avoid pushing your child to talk. Instead, be on the lookout for times when your child casually mentions how they are feeling about the upcoming school year. Use those moments as an opportunity to listen and respond with empathy and encouragement.
  • Empathize when he or she expresses feelings of anxiety, or when he or she shuts down and seems walled off. Let your child know that you understand that it can be hard to go back to school, and that he or she might wish that summer could go on forever. Normalize his or her feelings by sharing some of your own personal experiences with back to school jitters.
  • Create space to focus on the positives. Anxiety causes us to naturally focus on the negative aspects of a situation. Remind your child about the things he or she enjoyed at school last year – even if he or she says that recess and art class were school’s only two redeeming qualities! It’s important for your child to have something to genuinely look forward to when he or she heads through the school doors on the first day.

Help your child feel in control of some aspects of his or her day. When kids return to school they have very little control over how their day will go. They are more or less told what to do and when to do it from the moment they wake up in the morning until school ends for the day. You can help you child feel more in control by allowing him or her to make choices and decisions about small things that will impact his or her day. Here are a few ways that you can build in some choices:

  • Allow your child to pick out the snack that will be included in his or her lunch.
  • Ask your child if he or she would like to get to school early to play on the play structure for a few minutes, or if he or she would prefer to arrive right on time and head straight into the classroom.
  • Let them pick out his or her first day of school outfit.
  • Ask if he or she would like to choose the radio station in the car. If you walk your child to school, ask if he or she would like to choose the route that you take.
  • Engage in conversations about choices that your child will be able to make throughout the school year. For example, he or she may be able to choose a musical instrument to play, a sports team to join, or sign up for a special afterschool activity.

As a parent you can’t take away all of your child’s back-to-school anxiety. In fact, some anxiety is normal for everyone in the family at this time of year. But you can help your child cope with his or her anxiety by helping him or her feel more in control, creating space for him or her to share his or her feelings, and helping him or her know what to expect on the first day back at school.



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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