Back To School: Acknowledging and Understanding School Stress

By Katelyn Siebert, MSW, LCSW
“Back to School”… three words that typically hold some level of both excitement and worry for children and parents alike. Parents are excited for some return to “normalcy” while also feeling worried about all the new hurdles the school year could hold for their family. Children on the other hand are usually excited to see friends but also aware that going back to school might mean more stress or anxiety in their life. It’s safe to say that school stress is a very real thing for both children and their adult caregivers.
So, what do we do with these mixed emotions about going back to school? Specifically, the feelings that are causing us some level of emotional discomfort. The answer here is to first acknowledge it. Acknowledging these feelings allows us to start to process them. For adults, we may be able to acknowledge these emotions on our own but for some children, guidance may be needed in starting this conversation and self-reflection. As the adult, it is encouraged to provide a safe emotional space for your child to discuss how they are feeling about going back to school. A safe emotional space is created by using active listening and non-critical conversation. It is also important to recognize the importance of not trying to “fix it” but more so being present with the child as they acknowledge these feelings that exist. Practice sitting in the uncomfortableness of these feelings together. Acknowledge the feelings then move forward to processing.
When we think about processing our back-to-school emotions, specifically the negative ones, we can benefit from writing them down. After writing down our worries or concerns we can prioritize them to determine which worries hold the most weight for us or are causing the largest amount of stress. We then tackle those “big worries” first. Many times, children’s worries are about the unknown or based on past school experiences. With some problem-solving skills, together, you can support your child in answering questions or figuring out who they can go to if they need more clarification about something. Some questions may not have quick or easy answers. If that is the case, it’s important to consider what strategies could be used to reduce anxiety when there is a lingering “unknown”. Many times, when there are too many “unknowns” for children they begin to show signs of needing more control through undesired behaviors. Answering questions and providing a space to figure out as many stressors as possible can reduce some of that back-to-school anxiety as well as a potential increased need for control.
It’s important for parents and caregivers to remember that children’s brains are still learning how to navigate difficult or confusing transitions. They need frequent guidance and support in learning how to handle difficult emotions and situations in a healthy way. School can be looked at as a child’s full-time job. They are there 7-8 hours a day Monday through Friday. They have expectations they are expected to meet and are evaluated daily on their performance and increase in skill. They may encounter peer struggles and have difficult or confusing interactions with their teachers. For most adults, the demand of their job is at times stressful so it’s only natural that children would feel this way too about their “job”. Considering this perspective allows us, adults, to have ongoing empathy for a child and their return to school. It helps parents and teachers understand how children may be viewing school and the stress related to it.
With this said, it is also important that parents and educators are taking appropriate measures to handle their own back-to-school stress. Believe it or not, using the same strategies as noted above for supporting children, will also help you. Acknowledge the emotion and allow yourself space to process it with a friend, spouse, family member, or therapist. Then begin to problem solve to the best of your ability. Recognize what you DO have control of and what may take some time to figure out. For example, one thing parents do have control over is how they discuss their own back-to-school stress in front of children. It’s important to be mindful of the way adults talk about school as it can set the tone for a child’s opinion of it too.
By acknowledging and processing back-to-school feelings, you are allowing yourself and your child the opportunity to understand both the thoughts and the feelings that are currently present. When we can better understand our thoughts and feelings, we are more in tune with what supports or strategies we may need to utilize to get us through the situation at hand. School is undoubtedly both a source of happiness and stress for children and parents. By working together, the upcoming school year can be approached with courage, optimism, and excitement for all of the good things this year could bring.