Overcoming back-to-school jitters

Piper Pezalla loved school … right up until the week before second grade started. That’s when her back-to-school jitters began.

“She’d be up at night crying and would be inconsolable,” says her mom, Anne Pezalla. “She didn’t want to go to school—she just wanted to stay home with me.” 

When Amanda Simkin’s 5-year-old son, Logan, began his first year in his new preschool, his jitters came on strong the week before school began.

Logan started complaining of stomachaches.

“It got so bad that instead of going to the first day of school, we went to the emergency room,” says Simkin, of Arlington Heights. 

Anne Pezalla and Amanda Simkins aren’t the only mothers who have dealt with a nervous child—and they definitely won’t be the last to comfort a child anxious about returning to school. 

“This generation of children does experience elevated rates of stress and anxiety,” says Lisa Lowry, licensed clinical social worker at Lowry and Associates in Chicago. 

In fact, school-related anxiety affects 2 to 5 percent of school-age children, but it’s much more common in times of transition: when a child starts kindergarten, middle school or high school, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America.

In preschool, for instance, anxiety appears in the form of separation anxiety, says Colleen Napleton, executive director of Inner Life Psychological Services based in Hinsdale and in Chicago. 

“The first separations are often really difficult,” Napleton says. “It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid, and it’s not easy for toddlers to handle.”

But fortunately, these jitters tend to dissipate after a few weeks. 

For kids nervous about starting a new school or transitioning to a new grade, a few weeks is all it should take to adjust, as long as they don’t have bigger anxiety issues, says Dawn Huebner, author of “What to Do When You Worry Too Much.” 

Huebner explains that some children are prone to getting nervous before school starts, while others will walk confidently through those doors without a care in the world—and it has to do with how they’re biologically wired.

“Some children have more trouble coping with change, so each new school year feels like a minefield,” Huebner says. “These same children tend to have more easily triggered danger alarms.”

Many are also more prone to thinking about what can go wrong rather that what can go right.Some of the signs may be complaining about headaches or stomachaches or generally about not feeling well. Kids might also have a hard time getting out of bed during the week, but no problems on the weekends, says Gregory Chasson, licensed clinical psychologist and owner of Obsessive-Compulsive Solutions of Chicago.  

Fortunately, back-to-school jitters, or the absence of them, have little to do with how well students will do in school once the year is under way, Huebner says.

What to do

There are a few other ways parents can help ease jitters.

“A good first step is validating your child’s anxiety and letting him know that it’s OK to experience this emotion and that we all get anxious from time to time,” Chasson says.

“Perhaps the most powerful strategy for parents is to model effective coping. You can show your child that anxiety is not deadly and that we can choose healthier strategies than to avoid, escape or ritualize as a way to cope with that anxiety.”

Pezalla and Simkins came up with solutions that fit their kids.

When Piper, of Oak Park, became terrified of school, her mother tried talking about school, setting up playdates with her school friends and playing in the school playground—to no avail.

“What finally worked was getting a local artist to make matching lockets for us,” Pezalla says. “I put my picture and her father’s picture in hers; her picture and her brother’s picture in mine. She loved it.”

In Logan’s case, for the first few weeks of school, his morning routine included 20 minutes of bathroom time before school. But before long, he made a good friend and the situation resolved itself, his mother says.

Tamar Chansky, author of Freeing your Child from Anxiety, suggests parents help their kids take charge of their fears. Have them list out their worries and then fact-check each worry to create a more accurate version of what’s going to happen, Chansky says.

If the back-to-school jitters don’t dissipate, however, this may be more than a case of school nerves, says Ronald Rapee, author of Helping Your Anxious Child. 

Anxiety can begin at any age, but it usually emerges in the preschool years.

“Even when a child shows a serious level of anxiety at a later age, parents will often say that he has been a sensitive or emotional child for as long as they can remember,” Rapee says. 

The best question for a parent to ask themselves is: “‘Is the anxiety affecting my child’s life?’” Rapee says.

If the answer is, “Yes,” then it’s worth seeking help, he says.

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