Back to school anxiety can affect anyone – from a 4-year old about to start kindergarten, a prep student or child starting at a new school, to a pre-teen commencing high school. Even adolescents about to start university experience first-day jitters. Although back to school anxiety is common, the stress it creates can be very disruptive to your family routine. Back to school nerves can be especially distressing when the symptoms of anxiety linger long past the first bell.
The transition to school can be challenging for families. Kids often worry about separation from their parents, whether they will cope with schoolwork, catching public transport, and fitting in with their peers.
Although going to school can be an exciting prospect for some children, adjustment difficulties are very common. Of course, parents and carers can feel anxious about their child’s transition as well! The recommendations and stress-busting strategies we’ve recommend below have no age restrictions. If you’re experiencing worry or disrupted sleep, try our suggestions for yourself.
The benefits of a back to school routine
According to the 2015 Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, 6.9% of children aged 4 to 11 years old have an anxiety disorder. By acknowledging and validating your child’s back to school concerns – and supporting them with effective coping strategies – you can significantly decrease the likelihood that normal jitters develop into an ongoing anxiety issue.
Common symptoms of back to school anxiety include:
- Lack of appetite
- Obsessive, negative thinking loops
- Stomach aches or other physical complaints
- Bedwetting and tantrums in younger children
Research into the phenomenon of back to school anxiety suggests that it’s absolutely essential that you and your children establish a positive pre-school routine. This will prepare them to tackle the back to school transition with confidence. Seeing their parent or carer adopting and modelling an optimistic approach to the start of school also helps kids develop their own resilience to stress and fear.
The two most important factors in successfully addressing back to school anxiety are alleviating your child’s fears and concerns, and ensuring they are well-rested as the school year begins. Here are some suggestions to reduce worry, and improve sleep:
Coping with anxiety: Balloon Buster exercise
Clinical family therapist Michele Kambolis has published Generation Stressed, an excellent, evidence-based guide to helping kids cope with anxiety. The techniques she recommends are based on principles of positive psychology and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). The most popular technique in her book is the ‘Balloon Buster’ exercise.
You’ll need a few balloons and a permanent marker.
- Talk to your child about their school-related concerns, and encourage them to express their fears.
- Select a balloon and have your child state a worry.
- Ask them to blow up the balloon, exhaling their fear into it (you may need to start inflating the balloon for younger children).
- Once the balloon is full (your child needs to pinch the opening closed), write their fear on the balloon.
- Then ask your child to come up with a positive, counter-thought to the fear.
Fear: I won’t make any friends
New thought: There will be other kids feeling just as nervous as me, and we’ll become friends
Finally, ask your child to release the balloon. Chances are they’ll laugh as the balloon sputters around the room, dissipating any anxiety.
There’s a physiological benefit to this exercise as well. Research shows that blowing up a balloon involves using the diaphragm, which deepens and slows breathing. This exercise activates the parasympathetic nervous system, relaxing tense muscles and reducing your child’s heart rate.
The other advantage to this technique is that it develops your child’s problem-solving skills, and resilience to stress. Rather than getting lost in catastrophic thinking, you are helping your child replace negative thoughts with positive beliefs, grounded in reality.
Sleep routine: The benefits of sound therapy
Sleeplessness is the most commonly reported parental concern in the lead-up to back to school. A 2014 meta-analysis of the relationship between music therapy and sleep issues found that listening to music can significantly decrease the symptoms of insomnia and other sleep disorders.
The research suggested that the benefits of music therapy on sleep quality have a cumulative effect. That is, improvements in sleep quality were observed after study participants had been listening to bedtime music for at least 3 weeks. These are our top picks for improving sleep quality, for children and adults alike:
Deep relaxation: The ‘world’s most relaxing song’
In 2011, the band Marconi Union was commissioned by neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis-Hodgson to create the world’s ‘most relaxing song’. In collaboration with music therapists from the British Academy of Sound Therapy, Marconi Union recorded the track ‘Weightless’.
This 8-minute piece of ambient music helps to slow the heart rate, reduce blood pressure and lower levels of stress. Dr. Lewis-Hodgson’s initial study reported that the relaxing effects of the song demonstrated that ‘Weightless’ induced a 65% reduction in anxiety for study participants.
If your child is feeling nervous or anxious about any aspect of going back to school, try talking to them about what they’re feeling first. Once you’ve discussed their concerns, listen to Weightless together in a quiet space to ease the emotional and physical effect of their anxiety.
You can also create a relaxing new sleep routine by playing this each night as your child is going to bed:
Bedtime story with a twist: Sleep With Me podcast
Librarian and writer Drew Ackerman has created a brilliant podcast called ‘Sleep with Me’. This podcast draws a weekly global audience of over 3 million people who struggle with getting to sleep. Drew tells extremely boring, nonsensical stories that lull the brain into a relaxed state. Although the podcast lasts for 1 to 2 hours, most people report falling asleep within 20 minutes of listening to his deep, gravelly voice.
This is a great resource for older children and adolescents experiencing back to school nerves and sleeplessness. The podcast is widely available online, and as a free smartphone app.
Here’s an extended sample of Drew rambling his way through a few fairytales:
The back to school journey can be exciting if anxiety is managed appropriately and kids are well-rested before they start. Children are incredibly resilient, and cope well with change when they have effective support.
Usually, back to school anxiety abates after the first few weeks. If your child is still showing signs of anxiety after the school term commences and you’re concerned, it’s best to speak with your child’s teachers, and the school’s student wellness officer or counsellor. If the issues still persist, specialist anxiety counselling may also be helpful.
Back to school anxiety research resources:
Cervellin, G., & Lippi, G. (2011). From music beat to heartbeat: A journey in the complex interactions between music, brain and heart. European Journal of Internal Medicine, 22(4), 371-374.
Fletcher, F. E., Conduit, R., Foster-Owens, M. D., Rinehart, N. J., Rajaratnam, S. M., & Cornish, K. M. (2016). The association between anxiety symptoms and sleep in school-aged children: A combined insight from the Children’s Sleep Habits Questionnaire and actigraphy. Behavioural Sleep Medicine, 1-16.
Peterman, J. S., Carper, M. M., & Kendall, P. C. (2015). Anxiety disorders and comorbid sleep problems in school-aged youth: Review and future research directions. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 46(3), 376-392.
Thirlwall, K., Cooper, P., & Creswell, C. (2017). Guided parent-delivered cognitive behavioural therapy for childhood anxiety: Predictors of treatment response. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 45, 43-48.
Wang, C. F., Sun, Y. L., & Zang, H. X. (2014). Music therapy improves sleep quality in acute and chronic sleep disorders: A meta-analysis of 10 randomised studies. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 51(1), 51-62.
Marcus Andrews is the founder and director of Life Supports, which was established in 2002. He has extensive professional experience working as a counsellor and family therapist across a broad range of issues. The core component of his role at Life Supports involves the supervision of other counsellors, including secondary consultations. Marcus has worked in many sectors, including private, government, non-profit, health, forensic and community practice.