Back to school anxiety? – Key tips to prevent negative effects on sleep.


Little hands drawing between school supplies and apples

Feelings of worry an anxiety are common and expected during times of change, particularly when returning to and starting school. These feelings can lead to issues with sleep and sleep – or lack thereof – plays a major factor in how children and teens react to this stress.

When children and teens are deprived of sleep, the physical symptoms associated with anxiety also intensify. Headaches, nausea, and hyperactivity are common responses in sleepy children.

The solution may be as simple as getting kids to bed earlier. However, even when put to bed early, children with anxiety may lie awake at night with negative thoughts, perpetuating a cycle of sleeplessness.

Below are some strategies you can use to help deal with back-to-school worries.

Look after the basics. 

Nobody copes well when they are tired or hungry. Anxious children often forget to eat, don’t feel hungry, and don’t get enough sleep. Provide frequent and nutritious snacks for your child. During this time, you also need to build in regular routines, so that life is more predictable for your child. These routines can involve the morning and bedtime habits, as well as eating schedules.

Encourage your child to share their fears. 

Ask your child what is making them worried. Let them know that it is normal to have concerns. Before and during the first few weeks of school, set up a regular time and place to talk. Some children feel most comfortable in a private space with your undivided attention (such as right before bed, or during mealtime). Teens often welcome some sort of distraction to cut the intensity of their worries and feelings (such as driving in the car, or taking a walk).

Avoid giving reassurance…instead, problem-solve and plan! 

Children often seek reassurance that bad things won’t happen in order to reduce their worry. Do not assure them with “Don’t worry!” or “Everything will be fine!” Instead, encourage your child to think of ways to solve his or her problem. For example, “If (the worst) happens, what could you do?” or “Let’s think of some ways you could handle that situation.” This gives you the opportunity to coach your child on how to cope with (and interpret) both real and imagined scary situations. You will also be giving your child the tools he or she needs to cope with an unexpected situation that might arise.

Role-play with your child.

Sometimes role-playing a certain situation with your child can help him or her make a plan, and feel more confident that he or she will be able to handle the situation. For example, let your child play the part of the demanding teacher or bullying classmate. Then, model appropriate responses and coping techniques for your child, to help them calm down.

Focus on the positive aspects!

Encourage your child to re-direct attention away from the worries, and towards the positives. Ask your child, “What are three things that you are most excited about on your first day of school?” Most kids can think of something good, even if it’s just eating a special snack or going home at the end of the day. Chances are that the fun aspects are simply getting overlooked by repetitive worries.

Pay attention to your own behaviour.

It can be anxiety-provoking for parents to hand over care and responsibility of their child to teachers. Children take cues from their parents, so the more confidence and comfort you can model, the more your child will understand there is no reason to be afraid. Be supportive yet firm.  When saying goodbye in the morning, say it cheerfully – once!  Ensure you don’t reward your child’s protests, crying, or tantrums by allowing them to avoid going to school. Instead, in a calm tone, say: “I can see that going to school is making you scared, but you still have to go. Tell me what you are worried about, so we can talk about it.”  Chances are, your child is anxious about something that requires a little problem-solving, role-playing, planning, and/or involvement from the teacher.

Timeline Leading Up to the First Day of School

(You may not need to take all of these steps)

At least one week before:

Start your child on a school-day routine – waking up, eating, and going to bed at regular times.  Explain that everyone in the family needs to adjust to the new schedule, so he or she doesn’t feel alone with these changes.

For older children who having troubles getting up and out of bed, give them a “big person” alarm clock, and let them practice using it.

Ask your child to help plan school lunches for the first week.

Create a list of school supplies together and plan a fun shopping trip.

Teach and practice coping skills to use when feeling nervous, such as how to Do Calm Breathing

A couple days before school:

Go to school several times – walking, driving, or taking the bus. For young children taking the school bus, describe and draw out the bus route, including where the bus goes and how long it takes to get to school.

For new students, take a tour of the school. Show your child the classrooms, the cafeteria, and the bathrooms. If possible, meet your child’s teacher with your child present.

Ask your child to help choose the outfits for the first week of school. Let your child wear his or her favourite outfit on the first day.

Together with your child, pack up the schoolbag the night before, including treats.

For younger children who are nervous about separating, suggest taking a special object to school that reminds him of home. A reassuring note in a child’s lunch can also help ease separation anxiety.

The first day of school:

Have your child go to school with a friend for the first couple of days.

Tell the teacher that your child is having some separation anxiety – most teachers are experts in this area, and have years of experience!

Most importantly, praise and reward your child for brave behaviour!