Back to School Fears As Schools Reopen

Back to school fears are affecting many schoolchildren as they get ready to attend in-person classes for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Kids may be worried about germs, having been drilled at length by their parents in social distancing and hygiene measures. They may not be quite ready to leave the comforts of home and find the thought of being in large crowds of peers alarming after being without friends for so long. Parents can help get children over their back to school fears by encouraging them to talk about the things that worry them. Together you can come up with a plan of action to make those back to school fears much less daunting and far more manageable.

Parents no doubt look forward to having their children back in the classroom after all this time. Now they can work undisturbed without overseeing their children’s education and entertainment. It may be with some dismay that parents watch their children becoming anxious, perhaps even having nightmares, in the run up to the new school year. Some parents may also be anxious about their children returning to school as the Delta variant rears its head.

proud parents in background as young boy wrestles with back to school fears
They’re so proud of their boy. He, on the other hand, terrified.

Uncertainty and Back to School Fears

Leading child, couple, and family psychotherapist Fran Walfish, says that uncertainty is the key trigger for the back to school anxiety that may be affecting both parents and children. “Most parents are feeling the uncertainty of the current state of affairs regarding COVID-19 and now the Delta variant. Uncertainty is an anxiety trigger for most people. Young children thrive on the repetition of a regular routine so they know what to expect, and when it’s delivered this builds their sense of internal security and trust. The same is true for adults.  But, the coronavirus has turned the world as we know it upside down. The only thing we can count on is an ever-changing environment,” says Walfish.

“One day we are told to stay at home hunkered in lockdown and the next day we’re informed that schools will reopen for in-person classes. Everyone is anxious: teachers, administrators, parents, and kids. Naturally, there are ambivalent feelings because kids have been driven stir-crazy while parents are pulling out their hair trying to juggle working from home while balancing parenting and teaching their own children virtually online.”

mom reassures daughter wrestling with back to school fears
Parents and children may be excited about the return to in-person classes, but along with the excitement is some trepidation.

Ease Anxiety by Talking About School

Amanda Levison, a licensed mental health and cognitive behavioral therapist at the Neurofeedback & Counseling Center in Harrisburg, PA, says that returning to in-person learning after the COVID-19 shut down is a new challenge: one that children have never had to deal with before. Levison suggests several pathways that parents can take to prepare their children for returning to the classroom. “One step to ease the anxiety is to start talking about school more often to get the child used to the idea.

“It may also be helpful to have children talk to their new teacher and some of the friends they will see at school through video chat,” says Levison. “Answer any questions children may have about school or COVID-19 openly and honestly. As a parent, stay calm and normalize your concerns to help your child feel at ease. Lastly, make sure to validate their feelings of anxiety and have them speak to a therapist if necessary.”

high school student walks alone
After all the months of loneliness, the prospect of being with peers can be daunting.

Five Signs of Back to School Fears

Dr. Carole Lieberman suggests that children going back to school will be carrying a lot of fears in their book bags along with their new pencils and notebooks. The psychiatrist and author of Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror outlined five signs of the back to school fears that children may be experiencing right now.

  1. Separation Anxiety—After spending many months at home with their family instead of going to school, children may miss their parents and be fearful that they cannot make it in the world alone. They have, indeed, lost some of their independence.
  2. Depression—Many kids will be depressed. Just like adults miss the world as it used to be, kids feel even more overwhelmed by this loss. Most don’t have the experience of going through such challenging times and coming out the other end, so they are stuck feeling sad.
  3. Germophobia—Kids who normally pay no attention to dirt or mud, unless it’s to play in it, may now have some degree of germophobia, and worry about touching desks, crayons, pens, or other things at school.
  4. Agoraphobia—Some kids will have agoraphobia, fear of crowds or groups of other kids. These kids will be torn between wanting to see their friends again, after feeling lonely for so long, and fear of being swallowed up by them in a classroom or the hallway.
  5. Aggression—Since many kids have spent their time playing violent video games when they were kept home from school, some of them may be aggressive or fear aggression from others when they return, because research has shown that the more hours of violent media a child consumes, the more aggressive they become and the more fearful of a “mean world.”
girl facing back to school fears ahead of boarding bus
It may help her separation anxiety to have a transitional object, such as a small stuffed animal or a photo of her mother, in her backpack.

A Transitional Object Can Help

Lieberman notes that parents need to be on the lookout for back to school fears, addressing each one with a combination of logical explanation and affection. “For example, for separation anxiety, parents should give their kids a ’transitional object’ to take with them to school every day. This can be anything from a small stuffed animal to a photo of the family,” says Lieberman.

Preparing children, well in advance, seems key to helping them navigate and conquer their back to school fears. Dr. Walfish likes the idea of role play between parents and children. “Pretend you are their classmate and come very close to them asking to borrow a pencil. Ask your child what she would do in that situation. Question your son how he would handle it if his buddy runs up to him and grabs his basketball out of his hands. Make up real life situations and get your kids to think in advance about what they would say or do to protect themselves while preserving a friendship.

“Equip them with the necessary self-care tools and strategies they will need before the real situation arises. Your child and you will be glad you did!” says Walfish.

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.

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