Your Back-to-School Anxiety Questions Answered, Part One

Anxiety is a normal emotion that helps us throughout life: it can motivate us to study a bit more for a test, be more careful in traffic and wash our hands more often during flu season. Anxiety, however, can become problematic and even debilitating at certain points in life, including during childhood, adolescence and young adulthood.

Many students and caregivers report a heightened level of anxiety before and during the first weeks or months of a new school year. This is understandable and natural. After all, returning to school means a change in routine and schedule, more time away from family, academic pressures and social challenges.

The child and adolescent psychologists and psychiatrists at Weill Cornell Medicine are experts in anxiety in children of all ages, including back-to-school anxiety. Our team believes that when parents and caregivers understand back-to-school anxiety, they are better able to identify it and support their student in overcoming obstacles, developing resilience and enjoying a successful school year.

In this two-part series, Dr. Angela Chiu answers questions that parents and caregivers frequently ask about back-to-school anxiety. She is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in Clinical Psychiatry and practices at the Center for Youth Mental Health at New York-Presbyterian, where she helps children of all ages, adults, parents and caregivers with anxiety conditions.

How does anxiety in children and adolescents differ from adults?

She explained that children and adolescents often struggle to communicate their anxiety using words. Instead, they may verbalize their displeasure about a situation by saying, “I don’t want to go,” “I hate it,” or showing reluctance to participate in situations that provoke anxiety.

“Often, children, adolescents, and young adults will show other signs of anxiety,” said Dr. Chiu. These include:

  • Physical complaints, including stomach aches, headaches, nausea, pains and digestive problems
  • Strong reactions (i.e., explosive outbursts or tantrums) that appear disproportionate to the situation
  • Sleep disturbances, difficulty falling asleep, awakening in the middle of the night and early-morning awakening, often due to worrying
  • Reactivity to change or to novel situations
  • Avoidance or uneasiness about leaving the home or school activities
  • Increased irritability
  • Greater need for reassurance

When is anxiety a problem?

Distinguishing healthy anxiety from problematic anxiety or an anxiety disorder can be challenging. Dr. Chiu explained, “The child or adolescent should seek treatment when avoidance or distress begins to interfere with functioning at school, with family, with peers or activities of daily living.”

If unsure if their child’s anxiety is a problem, parents and caregivers should consider an evaluation from a clinical psychologist or board-certified psychiatrist, ideally, one who specializes in child and adolescent anxiety disorders.

Parents and caregivers should be especially vigilant about seeking help if the child’s symptoms become more severe quickly, if signs of depression begin or if the child expresses thoughts of harming themself.

Learn more about helping children manage anxiety by listening to a recent Kids Health Cast episode.

Our doctors are here to help with expert, compassionate care for anxiety. Learn more about the Pediatric OCD, Anxiety and Tic Disorders (POCAT) Program at Weill Cornell Medicine.