By Adair Parr, M.D., J.D.
The arrival of September signals back to school for most children. It is an exciting time of year, as it means meeting new teachers and classmates, starting fall sports and getting back into the swing of the classroom. Most children have some degree of anxiety about starting school, especially when they are just starting school, entering middle or high school or are changing schools.
Despite such worries, many children adjust to a new school year fairly easily. Other children have some initial anxiety, which they overcome in the first days or weeks of school. These feelings are particularly common among elementary school children but may be experienced by middle school or high school students as well.
School-aged children and even teenagers may express feelings of anxiety through frequent headaches or stomachaches, rather than overt worries about school. For tips on how to help transition your child to the new school year, see “The ABCs of Starting School” on Healthy Minds.
When should you seek help if you suspect that school is making your child anxious?
For some children, feelings of anxiety associated with back to school interfere with functioning either at home or at school or socially. If your child continues to have difficulty with school more than a month after school has started, it is important to seek help.
*Talk to your child’s teacher or counselor to see what they have noticed.
*If your child has significant physical symptoms, like recurrent headaches or stomachaches, schedule a visit to the pediatrician.
*Talk to your child and ask whether anything is happening at school that frightens them or worries them.
*Ask your child about bullying, which may be contributing to your child’s anxiety.
After exploring these concerns, some children will need further help and may require a visit to a mental health professional for an evaluation. A school counselor or pediatrician can help with a referral if this is the case. A child’s main job is to learn; untreated anxiety can interfere with social and academic development.
Anxiety is commonly treated with cognitive behavior therapy but some children require medication. By being attentive to the many changes associated with starting school, you can help your child with this important transition.