In September of 2022, I took what felt like the world’s biggest step when I dropped my 2-year-old off for his first day of nursery school. It was a half day, which for them meant one hour, and then I’d be back to pick him up. It felt like an eternity to be without my early-pandemic baby.
At drop-off, he let out a whimper that shattered my heart.
I wasn’t alone.
“Even as a child and adolescent psychiatrist—my wife is a psychiatrist, too—we weren’t fully prepared,” admits Zishan Khan, MD, a board-certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist with Mindpath Health. “Even though he was starting back up for Pre-K [after a pandemic-induced break], I could tell he had some anxiety: How am I going to handle this on my own?”
“It’s the fear of the unknown,” Dr. Khan says. “The things they worry about at different stages change, but the fear of the unknown is the same.”
Preparation can help with transitions
Preparation is important for more than just math tests.
“When it comes to a school transition, parents and kids do better when they know exactly what to expect and when they’ve practiced a few coping skills to manage separation,” says Becky Kennedy, PhD, a child psychologist.
Think about it: Would you rather your boss give you a week to prepare for a public presentation or dump it on you without notice? Probably the former.
But while a 3-year-old and a 14-year-old may share similar fears of the unknown, their understanding, specific anxieties, and language skills will vary.
For children entering preschool, it may be their first time separating from a parent or trusted caregiver, which can cause anxiety. Role-modeling coping skills can help.
But it can be challenging to ascertain what’s worrying a child as they enter preschool because they may have never experienced “back-to-school” before. Jennifer Katzenstein, PhD, suggests taking advantage of tours and open houses if they’re available or calling ahead to see if you can schedule one.
Kendra Fogarty, M.Ed, an author and school counselor who focuses on anxiety management says these steps may elicit questions little ones didn’t know they had, like “What time will you be back?” or “Where’s the potty?” and “Who will help me if I get a boo-boo?”
“Keep it simple and general. ‘When you are at school, your teachers will help you,’” Fogarty says.
Not all children go to preschool, but many will have some experience separating from their parents by the time they hit kindergarten. Still, just the word can feel big and scary to a 5-year-old.
“Hearing the word kindergarten over and over and not having a sense of what this means, not knowing what a new school looks like, not understanding the length of their day—things like that provoke lots of anxiety,” says Dr. Kennedy, who developed a 10-day back-to-school checklist to help parents and children with the transition.
An elementary school could mark the second big move in two to three years for a child.
“It could be jarring for them,” says Dr. Khan. “The lack of stability can be difficult. And then, if it’s an elementary school with second, third, and fourth grade—that’s huge.”
At this stage, it’s common for kids to start finding a niche and comparing themselves to peers. They may notice if a classmate is better at them at soccer or math, and they may relay these feelings of inferiority to parents in vague terms rather than questions, such as “I don’t want to go to soccer practice. I don’t feel good.”
Get curious. “Rather than waiting for the child to ask questions, it’s better for the parent to ask their child about this transition,” says Kimberly Berens, PhD.
Simply asking a child how they feel about returning to school might spark a conversation.
Middle school can bring a whole lot of new. For Dr. Katzenstein, it was the first time she’d have to use a locker. Her mom brought her a lock and had her practice before the first day. Dr. Khan notes students may begin puberty at this stage and may have questions like, “What do I do if I get my period in gym class and don’t have a pad?”
Preparing children with strategies like going to the nurse’s office or keeping a pad in their locker can help ease these fears.
Fogarty says other common fears include friendship, bullying (particularly cyberbullying), getting lost in a new school, lunch box politics, and teacher struggles.
Finally, consider drawing on your own experiences with similar anxieties or situations they may face. For example, you might discuss a time you were bullied, how it made you feel, and who or what helped you handle the situation.
“At this point in their life, they are feeling lonely and out of place, thinking, ‘What is going on with me? Why is everything changing?’” Dr. Khan says. “A lot of times, if a child knows that you went through something, it makes them feel less alone.”
Teenagers may already have an idea of what high school is like from books, movies, television, and social media. They may be concerned about more challenging academics and have their eyes on what happens after high school, such as getting a job or applying to colleges. It’s a lot.
“There are significant stressors and anxiety for our kids as they enter high school years – the social pressures, the societal pressures we are putting on kids sooner and sooner really affect them across all areas,” says Dr. Katzenstein.
Carve out time daily to sit and talk to them without devices.
“Just say, ‘Tell me about your day,’” Dr. Katzenstein says. “Listen to your kids. Be there so they know that when they need to talk to you, there’s time carved out.”
Re-emphasize coping skills like taking deep breaths, taking mental health days, and being kind to yourself. Dr. Katzenstein suggests, “Remember, no one talks to you more than you talk to yourself, so be kind with the words we use to ourselves.”
Finally—and this goes for all age groups—be aware of symptoms of anxiety and depression, such as withdrawal from previously-loved activities, changes in sleep or eating patterns, and academic decline. A child of any age might benefit from mental health treatment, such as speaking to a therapist.