5 Sneaky Signs Your Kid Is Anxious About Going Back To School

From outbursts to changes in imaginative play, here's what to look for.

The run-up to the start of the next school year has been unbelievably stressful for parents across the U.S. Are our kids going back to the classroom? If so, is it safe? If not, how can we possibly get through another full year of remote learning? (Here are some tips.)

Our kids are feeling it, too. For months they’ve stayed away from friends and battled Zoom fatigue, all with the distant promise of things returning to some degree of normalcy in the fall school sessions. Now those sessions are just around the corner and our children are either not going back, or “back” looks nothing like what they expected.

Worried your kiddo might have some anxiety heading into the new year? Here are five signs to look out for.

1. They’re grumpy.

If you notice as the school year creeps up (or swings into full gear) that your children are “acting out, yelling or being defiant” those can be clues that they’re actually grappling with some real anxiety, Dr. Mary Ellen Renna, a pediatrician with ProHEALTH Care told HuffPost. In younger kids, you might notice more tantrums or meltdowns.

There’s a good biological reason for it. As the Child Mind Institute’s website explains: “Anxiety manifests in a surprising variety of ways in part because it is based on a physiological response to a threat in the environment, a response that maximizes the body’s ability to either face danger or escape danger. So while some children exhibit anxiety by shrinking from situations or objects that trigger fears, some react with overwhelming need to break out of an uncomfortable situation. That behavior, which can be unmanageable, is often misread as anger or opposition.”

2. Their routines are way, way off.

Between the pandemic and summer, children everywhere are really off their typical schedules — and that’s pretty normal.

But if you’re finding that your child’s routines and preferences seem dramatically different, that’s something to pay attention to.

“One of the best things parents can do is compare their child’s current behavior to their baseline behavior,” said Frank Ghinassi, president and chief executive officer of Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care and SVP, RWJBarnabas Health.

So, has bedtime changed a lot? Are they suddenly having a hard time falling asleep or waking up periodically throughout the night? They might not be eating what they usually do at school, but are their meal preferences really different? Are they significantly more or less active than they used to be? These are all things to pay attention to so you can sort out what’s behind those changes.

If you’re finding that your child’s routines and preferences seem <em>dramatically</em> different, that’s something to pay attention to.
Nitat Termmee via Getty Images
If you’re finding that your child’s routines and preferences seem dramatically different, that’s something to pay attention to.

3. They’re avoiding friends and things they typically enjoy.

One sneaky way that anxiety can manifest itself in children is what Ghinassi described as the “absence of pleasure.” Kids are more limited in what they can do these days, but have they totally thrown in the towel on activities they once loved or let friendships really languish? Those are red flags that are worth looking out for. (Here are some other red flags from a story HuffPost Parents wrote on this topic last spring when this was all just starting.)

4. They’re asking the same questions again and again.

Kids have a lot of questions about what’s going on with COVID-19 and how the virus — and everything it brings with it — will continue to affect their lives. They might have a lot of specific questions about school, like why things are a certain way in their community, or why they’re going back into a classroom after months of staying home. But curiosity is different than worrying about things that you, and they, cannot control.

“Repeatedly asking the same questions and continually requiring reassurance about certain issues” could be a sign your child is grappling with some anxiety, Renna said. So when they ask those questions, take some time to dig down into why they’re really asking — and what you can do to help.

5. Their imaginative play has changed.

Kids use play to grapple with complex ideas and emotions and to understand the world around them. So it can provide valuable insights into what’s going on internally.

“Their creative minds are always at work,” said Renna. “If you notice your child who was making tea parties with her dolls has now changed to having the dolls fighting with each other, this could be a sign of anxiety.”

She added that the same goes for a kid who used to engage in really aggressive, physical play (think pretend sword fighting) and is now only playing much quieter, more mellow games.

Of course, all of this could just be a shift in play, Renna said. But it can be helpful to really tune in so you can try and figure out what’s driving the changes. Also, this is a relatively easy thing to pay attention to throughout the upcoming academic year.

Lastly — some good news...

While some children are absolutely dealing with serious trauma around COVID-19 — particularly those who’ve dealt with mental health issues in the past, or whose families have been touched by financial stress, lack of childcare and illness — experts who specialize in children’s emotional development stress how resilient people, and particularly kids, are.

“We have encountered many, many stressors,” said Ghinassi, referring to humans’ collective history of surviving plagues, famines, wars — and on. Children have an “enormous reserve of resiliency” that is “deeply embedded in our genes,” he said.

Parents can help kids tap into that natural resiliency by both managing our own anxiety, and by giving children an opportunity to talk to us about what they’re experiencing as they head into a new, strange academic year.

“Now is the time for parents to listen,” Ghinassi urged. Keep it simple, trying something like: “We’re preparing for a new year of remote learning or a hybrid return to school. What do you think about that? What are your thoughts?” he suggested.

“Give the child space to talk about it,” Ghinassi added. “That child will tell you what they’re excited about, they’ll tell you what they’re frustrated with. They’ll tell you what they’re anxious about.”

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