Back to School Anxiety? Here are some tips.

The waning days of August–its heat, brown grass, and long days–can mean only one thing: School is just around the corner! The start of the academic year can bring a mix of emotions–excitement, sadness, happiness; it’s an anticipatory time–what will the year bring? How will it be different from last year? For all of us–whether we are parents, educators, or students–this time of year can bring feelings of Anxiety. It’s important that we pause and consider how to constructively process that Anxiety so that all of us can greet the year feeling emotionally strong.

One thing is for sure: Anxiety is on the rise. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, over 40 million adults in the U.S. (19.1%) have an Anxiety disorder and 7% of children aged 3-17 experience issues with Anxiety each year.  While these numbers are daunting, we can use them as data points showing that no one is alone when feeling anxious. While Anxiety is an unfortunate shared experience, it can show up differently for different people. In children, we may see more physical symptoms (belly aches, for example) or behavioral signs (emotional outbursts). Older kids or adults may show similar symptoms and be able to articulate their feelings of Anxiety by describing racing thoughts, perseverating on one topic, or an inability to demonstrate cognitive flexibility. No matter how Anxiety shows up, the rates of Anxiety indicate that our community response is integral to our collective strength and working with our Anxiety, as adults and children, is paramount. 

The first step to working together is showing up together. When it comes to school, this has been a massive challenge since the COVID-19 pandemic. Attendance has dropped precipitously and we see less of our students than ever before. As a fellow parent and as a School Psychologist, I know this is partly due to increased Anxiety around school. Here are some tools to draw on as the year ramps up:

  • Make friends with your Anxiety. Ok, I know, this sounds odd. But reframing Anxiety as feedback is a way to make it less of an overwhelming feeling in your body and more of a thing to get curious about: Write or journal around what is making you feel anxious. Talk to a trusted friend about what is coming up for you when you consider your Anxiety. Then, ask yourself: What is within my control? How can I take some kind of action to regain a sense of agency?

    • Work with your student to talk through what is making them feel anxious about the start of the year: Friends? Academics? Use compassionate and active listening (“What I am hearing you say is…”) and affirm their feelings while moving the conversation towards problem solving (“What is one thing we can do today to help you feel better about this?”). You may need to offer some potential solutions but try to make the conversation collaborative.

  • Get in your body. You may be thinking that not all sources of Anxiety can be problem solved. So true. Identify strategies that support you in turning your unproductive and ruminating thoughts off (or at least down) and turn your cortisol levels down in your body. This may be exercise, art, or a cold shower; anything that engages your five senses will do the trick.

    • Work with your student to identify where in their day they take time to “get in their body.” If your student is young, this may be making sure they have plenty of play time in the sprinkler or finger painting. If your student is older, this may mean sports activities or working with clay. Call out the importance in regularly doing these activities and make a list of the strategies your student can employ when Anxiety overwhelm takes hold.

  • Put boundaries around technology, social media use, and exposure to the news. We all reach for a phone as a convenient way to break an Anxiety thought cycle. Unfortunately, we know that being constantly bombarded by the world’s news is counterproductive to getting Anxiety in check. And social media only enhances feelings of inadequacy and lack of agency.

    • Know what your student is doing on technology. Talk with your teen about social media use, have posted expectations for the entire family around technology, and build compassionate awareness around how technology is impacting your student. 

  • You are not alone. Modeling healthy management of Anxiety is key for your child. This may mean putting the above tips into action and/or seeking mental health support. Most importantly, turning to your community is crucial to the health of all of us as the year starts.

    • Reach out to your school now if you are anticipating that your student may struggle with Anxiety. Reviewing a schedule with your student will help them picture their day, a meet and tour with staff before school starts can be helpful, and problem solving with school staff will help you and your student feel better. School offers routine and predictability; two mitigating factors in long-term management of Anxiety. 

Most importantly, do not punish yourself or your student for feelings of Anxiety. Remaining responsive rather than reactive is key. And making your school team part of the solution is also important.  Remember, everyday your student is at school, they access supportive relationships, key resources to their success, and skill building opportunities—school is a critical part of their emotional health!

If you or someone you know is experiencing Anxiety or other behavioral health challenges  in a way that feels unmanageable and/or urgent, please call 911 or reach out to Clackamas County Urgent Mental Health Center at 503-655-8585.

Other resources around Anxiety include:


Attendance Works handout on Anxiety around school

Kate Bonilla

School Psychologist


OCHS Football players Visit Elementary Schools


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