10 Red Flags a Kid Is Anxious About Starting School & What to Do About It

10 Red Flags a Kid Is Anxious About Starting School & What to Do About It
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Some parents may consider back-to-school season the most wonderful time of the year -- a la that famous Staples commercial of the dad gleefully shopping for school supplies with his glum kids in tow. The summer was undoubtedly filled with endless "I'm bored-s" and snack requests. Indeed, a return to structured schedules may seem like bliss for some.

The truth is the kids may be more than just sad abut going back. This transitional time can be very stressful for children, particularly if they’re entering a new school. To make matters even worse, kids don’t typically have the ability to verbalize when they’re feeling anxious and explain what exactly is troubling them — even if there’s a communicative and open relationship with the parent.

“While kids’ behavior is easily visible, it’s important to think of it as the visible part of a huge iceberg of feelings and experiences,” says Erin McCarthy, a licensed independent clinical social worker. “Our goal is to look at what the behavior is communicating.”

Such behaviors are many and varied and can easily be mistaken for a child having a bad day. So, parents need to be observant for certain behavioral red flags that may indicate a child is going through undue stress. And the first step in relieving stress in a child is taking note that it is there. Here, three mental health professionals walk us through 10 signs of stress in children and give the best parental responses for dealing with each.

“Our goal is not to eliminate the stressor -- with the exception of abuse -- but to support the child in meeting the stressor and achieving mastery,” McCarthy says.

  • Problem: They’re Experiencing Changes in Sleep


    Your child has a drastic change in sleep habits — such as the inability to fall asleep, stay asleep, or wake up on time — before the new school year starts.

  • Response: Fix Their Sleep Schedule


    About a week or two before the new year, start slowly re-adjusting your child’s bedtime so they can adapt to their new schedule, says Dr. Marnee Schneider, a pediatric clinical neuropsychologist. Then, keep to a strict schedule as normalcy and structure are good for kids.

  • Problem: They’re Moody


    Your child becomes suddenly very moody and emotionally charged, perhaps crying more than usual or responding unusually defensively to situations.

  • Response: Let Them Feel Their Feelings


    “Be with your child in their emotions,” says Eliza Kingsford, a licensed psychotherapist. “Reflect to them what you see: ‘I get it. You’re really sad right now.’” Allow them to completely feel their feelings. After they’ve calmed down, and if your child is old enough, try to have a conversation about what you’ve observed about their behavior, she says.

  • Problem: They’re Acting Clingy


    Your child becomes suddenly clingy and doesn’t want you to leave -- such as when you’re dropping them off at school.

  • Response: Spend One-On-One Time Together


    They could be experiencing separation anxiety, says McCarthy. Spend some fun one-on-one time with your child for 15 to 30 minutes a day. “Don’t ask questions; just let them lead,” McCarthy says. “This special time is like gold for children.” Additionally, it’s important to teach your child that, even if you go away, you’ll always return.

  • Problem: They’re Emotional Eating


    Your child is showing signs of emotional eating, such as binging, hiding food, and sneaking food.

  • Response: Model Appropriate Eating


    They’re likely turning to food for emotional comfort because they don’t know how to properly cope with their stress, Kingsford says. “Food can be used to soothe, numb, or distract.” Try to model appropriate eating behaviors, and consult with your pediatrician if things get out of hand.

  • Problem: They’re Complaining About Returning to School


    Your child seems scared or anxious about going back to school and constantly complains about it.

  • Response: Visit School Before The Year Starts


    Before the school year starts, Dr. Schneider suggests finding a reason to visit the school, such as dropping off a form or checking out the library. “Exposure will decrease the anticipatory anxiety,” she says. “If your school has a day or time to drop things off before school starts, take advantage of it!”

  • Problem: They’re Acting Aggressive


    Your child seems more aggressive than usual, such as fighting with siblings or lashing out at you.

  • Response: Talk About Feelings and Behavior


    “It’s important kids learn that expressing anger is okay and normal, but aggressive behavior is not OK,” McCarthy says. She encourages establishing an empathetic atmosphere in your home in which all feelings are OK — but aggressive behavior is not. This allows children to communicate their experiences and feel understood and heard.

  • Problem: They Often Feel Sick


    Your child frequently complains about stomach aches and headaches — and your doctor can’t find anything tangibly wrong with them.

  • Response: Visit Your Doctor


    This could indicate significant stress, according to the American Psychological Association. Visit a pediatrician or a child psychologist.

  • Problem: They Act Withdrawn


    Your child has become more quiet, often appears lost in thought, spends too much time alone, or finds little interest in activities they used to enjoy.

  • Response: Give Them Some Space -- at First


    First, let your child have some time alone to process what’s going on, McCarthy says. If the issue lasts for more than a few days, it’s time to intervene. “Spending some quality time together, one on one, and gently sharing an observation about the change [in their mood or behavior] may encourage the child to open up about what’s bothering them,” she says.  

    Make sure you’re watching for signs of more severe depression, and seek professional help if you’re concerned, Kingsford advises.

  • Problem: They’re Self-Harming


    Your child is engaging in forms of minor self-harm, such as biting cuticles, biting lips, and pulling out hair.

  • Response: Get Professional Help


    Don’t punish or shame your child for these behaviors, even if they’re upsetting, McCarthy says. They indicate that the child needs help. “These signs of stress could show that the child may benefit from some play therapy to learn how to express themselves without harming themselves,” she says.

  • Problem: They Just Seem Off


    Your child just generally seems off — but you can’t quite put your finger on it.

  • Response: Listen and Observe


    “Don’t over-react, and don’t assume,” Dr. Schneider says. Parents of school-aged children need to practice being attentive, active listeners. “Observe and take note, looking for patterns before addressing issues at hand,” she says.

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