Expert advice: Five tips to help ease your child's back-to-school jitters

Johns Hopkins Children's Center psychologist: Parents should know difference between normal anxiety, behavior warranting clinical attention

The transition back to school as summer ends can be stressful for children and parents alike. Some anxiety is a normal response, but parents should know the difference between normal back-to-school jitters and anxiety that warrants clinical attention, say psychology experts from the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

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Anxiety symptoms that continue beyond the first few weeks of school and that seem excessive may require consultation with an expert, says Johns Hopkins Children's Center psychologist Courtney Keeton, who specializes in the treatment of childhood anxiety and selective mutism.

Many children, for example, have some difficulty separating from parents to attend school. But tantrums when separating, problems sleeping alone, or refusal to attend activities without parents may suggest a problem requiring intervention.

Similarly, some shyness or worry about schedules, schoolwork, or friends is natural during the back-to-school transition, but ongoing withdrawal or worries may signal a problem.

"If a child's anxiety is causing a great deal of distress in her or his daily life, or if getting along with family members or friends becomes difficult, normal activities in and outside of school are avoided, or there are physical symptoms like stomach aches or fatigue, these 'red flags' indicate that the child's anxiety should be evaluated by a child psychologist or psychiatrist," Keeton says.

However, it is normal for nearly all children to experience mild back-to-school jitters that gradually diminish over a few weeks.

Here are a few tips to help ease your child's back-to-school anxiety:

  • A week or two before school begins, start preparing children for the upcoming transition by getting back into school-year routines, such as an earlier bedtime and selecting the next day's clothes ahead of time.

  • Arrange play dates with one or more familiar peers before school starts. Research shows that the presence of a familiar peer during school transitions can improve children's academic and emotional adjustment.

  • Visit the school before the school year begins, rehearse the drop off, and spend time on the playground or inside the classroom if the building is open. Have the child practice walking into class while the parent waits outside or down the hall.

  • Come up with a prize or a rewarding activity that the child could earn for separating from mom or dad to attend school.

  • Validate the child's worry by acknowledging that, like any new activity, starting school can be hard but soon becomes easy and fun.

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