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The ABCs of Back-to-School Anxiety

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

It's that time of year again! The beginning of the new school year can be a time of excitement, as well as dread - depending on who you ask. Either way, it's usually a stressful time for kids and their parents as they prepare for new teachers, new schools, new friends, new life lessons... In other words, uncertainty. From what we know about anxiety, it's an emotion that emerges from anticipation of the unknown, and sometimes it can be overwhelming - especially when there are multiple uncertain factors.

As you and your child(ren) prepare for the new school year ahead, there are some things you can do to help them manage their anxiety. Remembering them is as easy as A-B-C:

Attune and acknowledge

Be sure to notice any shift in your child's mood a day (or few) before their first day back. Are they more withdrawn or more excited than usual? What about physical complaints - headaches, tummyaches, restlessness during the night? These are all possible signs that your child may be experiencing anxiety. Attune to their needs by asking them how they are feeling - it helps to give them multiple choices so they can narrow it down.

(Sidenote: If you haven't yet done so, you may also find it useful to develop a feelings chart or a feelings vocabulary list for your child to help them become aquainted with identifying and expressing their emotions.)

Talk to your child about what they are anticipating that makes them feel this way. Remember to validate and normalize their emotions. What they feel is real, even though it may be in response to an irrational fear.

You can read more about talking with your child about their mental health and wellness here.


Next, help your child calm his/her anxiety by engaging in activities that are self-soothing. One very effective and accessible method to calm down is deep breathing - inhaling slowly through the nose, holding the breath for a few seconds, and exhaling through the mouth. You can use the chart below to guide the exercise.

You can explore with your child other tools s/he can use to calm down, and create a "calm-down toolbox". For example:

- drawing

- listening to music, nature sounds

- colouring

- playing with clay, slime

- smelling pleasant scents (lavender, rose)

Create a plan

When we plan ahead, we reduce the level of uncertainty about the future because we feel more equipped to deal with what may lie ahead. As a result, our anxiety levels go down when we make a plan. After talking with your child about what they anticipate or dread, support them in making a plan to address it if it does become reality. Will they need to contact a grown up? Can they take a version of their "calm-down toolbox" to school and use when needed?

It is also recommended that you develop a schedule with your child ahead of time. Structuring their day helps to create routine, which helps to reduce instances of uncertainty and feelings of anxiety. Ensure they have a consistent time for homework, fun time and family time. During family time, be sure to check-in with them about their day, giving them room to talk about their highs and lows.

Back-to-school is indeed a stressful time of the year, but following these steps and supporting your child(ren) as they navigate this period may help make it the most memorable!


If you feel that you or someone you know may benefit from therapy, feel free to contact me for a brief complimentary by calling 416-688-5274, or booking an initial consult here.

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