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9 Signs Your Child May Be Experiencing Back to School Anxiety

9 Signs Your Child May Be Experiencing Back to School Anxiety

Anxiety in children can have a lasting effect on their mental health. Here, we highlight 9 signs your child may be experiencing back to school anxiety.

It’s that time of year again – back to school. As a parent, let’s face it, as much as you love your children, you’re probably somewhat relieved. Trying to find endless activities or day-care to occupy smaller kids, or trying to encourage older ones to do just a little bit of summer study, can be exhausting and stressful. But how is your child feeling about it?

As adults, it’s easy to forget how excruciating school is at times. Increasingly challenging exams, pressure to fit in, and the possibility of bullying (not to mention cyber bullying), can for some kids make for a miserable time. Plus, for children who already have behavioural or psychological issues, it can be even harder.

While some kids can’t wait to start the new term, many aren’t jumping for joy – that’s to be expected. However, for some young people ‘back to school blues’ can become depression.

The London Psychiatry Centre’s Dr Su Sukumaran, a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist with 20 years’ experience, explains what to look out for.

Some anxiety about school is common, particularly if they’re starting a new school. The change of routine from the holidays back to early morning starts and getting the bus may be stressful too. However, most children will settle after a few days or weeks. Or the anxiety may not be about school itself but about something at home, such as a parent who is ill.

If any of the behaviours below persist they may be signs of serious anxiety, or even depression

1) Clingy behaviour – especially in younger children
Even though they’re not saying it, it’s quite possible they’re experiencing some separation anxiety.

2) Physical symptoms like tummy pains and headaches
These are often real and not necessarily ‘faked’, but without a physical cause. Dr Sukumaran told us. When a child is frequently presenting with symptoms with no discernible cause, there might be something more than a physical ailment going on.

3) Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
Is your child coming into your room at night complaining that they can’t sleep? Or if they’re older, are you walking past their room to find the lights blazing and the tablet on?

They may also be oversleeping. If they don’t seem to be able to get out of bed or are always tired, it could be a sign that something is wrong.

4) Poor appetite or overeating
Depression and anxiety can affect appetite – for example feeling unable to eat because of a churning stomach or binge-eating as an escape. You might notice your child leaving food or insisting on eating in private, or you might find that larger than normal amounts of food are suddenly disappearing from the kitchen.

5) Trouble concentrating, making decisions or remembering things
“Depression isn’t just about a ‘low mood’,” Dr Sukumaran said. “It can make it difficult to focus. So if you find yourself becoming frustrated that your child doesn’t seem to be ‘with it’, try to pause, look closer and think ‘could they be depressed?’”

6) They seem tired all the time
This is not just as a result of sleep problems, Dr Sukumaran told us. “Depression drains energy, and often people with depression have what appears to be unexplained tiredness.”

7) They seem to have little confidence
Is your child suddenly saying ‘sorry’ all the time, even when it seems there’s no reason to? Or do they say they’re no good at things? Are they reluctant to try anything new, or speak up for themselves? Depression can create unwarranted feelings of guilt and low self-worth.

8) Becoming withdrawn and losing interest in things they used to enjoy
Mustering enthusiasm for usual leisure and social activities can can become harder and harder. If suddenly they seem reluctant to spend time with others, or they don’t want to play their cherished sport or don’t like their favourite subject at school any more, there may be more to it than having simply just ‘gone off it.’

9) Being irritable or overly ‘grumpy’
“Sometimes when a child is having a difficult time they can struggle to speak about it directly and so may ‘act out’ as a cry for help,” Dr Sukumaran said. In younger children this could mean a spike in tantrums, and in teenagers it might mean rule-breaking, and general ‘boundary-pushing’. Occasionally this may include alcohol or drug use.

“Around this time of year I do see plenty of ‘back-to-school’ anxiety,” Dr Sukumaran said. “It’s easy to tell kids to ‘toughen up’. Yes, encouraging resilience is important and the apprehension usually does pass within a few weeks for most children. But at the same time it is crucial to be watchful of the signs because if left
unchecked, it can get worse in some children.”

If you suspect your child may be feeling troubled about the prospect of heading back to school, talk with him/her about it and explain you’re here to help. Explain that most people get worried about school at some stage and that it will get better. If they won’t talk to you, encourage them to chat to someone else close to them – your partner or a family friend for example. Speak to others to find out if they have any concerns – their other parent, older siblings or the school for instance. The school counsellor or mentor may be able to help, offering a confidential space within school for the child to talk.

How Can I Help My Child’s Anxiety?

  1. Try to get into ‘school routine’ before school actually starts, with getting up early, practising the journey to school, etc.
  2. Encourage them to reconnect with school friends.
  3. Do something fun in preparation – shopping for a new school bag or trainers.
  4. Plan fun after-school activities, especially for the first few days e.g. their favourite meal or watching a movie, or having a friend over, and something special for the weekend.
  5. Having a good routine generally, including meal times, homework, and relaxation time, is important. ‘Screen time’ should be limited, and screens switched off ideally 2 hours before bedtime.

For further help, you could see your doctor, or call The London Psychiatry Centre for an appointment with a member of our expert Child and Adolescent Team on 020 7580 4224.