Ask! Coping with start-of-school anxiety

Q: My daughter is starting sixth grade in a few weeks. She loved elementary school, but she has been very nervous about starting middle school. She cries at night and tells me that she is afraid that no one will like her at her new school and that it will be “too hard.” What can we do as parents to help her through this transition?

A: Your daughter’s nervousness is not uncommon. Heading back to school can be an exciting but scary time for children, particularly if they are starting a new school. If a child is anxious to begin with, starting school can represent a particularly challenging time. A child’s anxiety can often be contagious, triggering a parent’s own anxiety and confusion regarding how much to push a reluctant child. However, there are some important steps parents can take to assist children in overcoming fears about starting new activities so that they can have fun and rewarding new experiences and meet the various demands in their lives.

Identify the nature of the anxiety and get help if it’s needed. As I noted above, some nervousness about starting new activities such as school is perfectly normal and developmentally appropriate. If anxiety has not popped up previously in school, then your child may just need to navigate the initial stress of starting a new school. Other common events that can illicit fears in children include the first sleep-over away from home, first quiz at school, a big music recital or play, or a first summer camp experience. If a child has overcome his/her fears in the past and does not remain highly anxious after he/she has overcome the initial distress, then his/her fears and worry may be developmentally appropriate or “normal” and may not necessitate outside intervention. However, if the fear and worry seems excessive and significantly and negatively impacts the child’s life, then treatment may be advisable. For example, if a child starts to refuse school, has serious tantrums when he/she separates from his/her parents, or consistently has stomachaches from worry, then it would be advisable for parents to seek assistance from a mental health professional (i.e., a psychologist or another type of mental health counselor) who can evaluate the child’s symptoms and provide appropriate therapy aimed at addressing the anxiety issues.

Provide encouragement support and gentle “nudging” and point out successes. When addressing their children’s anxiety, parents must find the right balance of encouragement and comforting. By encouraging or “nudging” their children to do things they are afraid of, parents can foster self-confidence, maturity, self-efficacy, and autonomy in their children which are good things. This may cause trepidation in some parents, but it can ultimately benefit their children. When asking their children to overcome their fears, it is important to balance these “nudges” with affection and reassurance. Parents should provide verbal encouragement and reassurance (e.g., “I know you can do this!” or “You will be okay.”) and positive praise after they do something scary. Verbal (e.g., saying “I love you.”) and physical (e.g., hugs) affection can help the child feel more secure and ready to start something new. Parents can also point out past successes to help their kids get over the hump. For example, a parent can tell a child who is scared about starting sixth grade, “You were nervous before fith grade too, and you ended up doing GREAT and loving it! So we know you can do it!”

Talk, normalize and model positive anxiety management. Parents will want to let their children know that that they can talk to them anytime about their anxiety. Parents should also remind their child that some anxiety is normal. “Normalizing” his/her fears in this way can make them less scary or confusing. Also, it is important for parents to know that their own behaviors are observed closely by their children. Parents act as “models” for how to handle everyday situations and anxiety. Therefore, if a parent is clearly anxious about his/her child starting school, the child may very well become anxious as well. For this reason, it is important for parents to talk to their child about school in a calm, positive ways (even if they are nervous themselves) in order to send the signal that there is nothing to be scared of.

Help your child prepare ... an appropriate amount. Anxiety in children is often due to fear of the unknown. What will happen if I get lost between classes? What if no one will sit with me at lunch? How much homework will I have? Often, this anxiety will dissipate after a child starts the new activity and gains a better understanding of the new environment. And while this is not a replacement for real-life experiences, parents can go over some possible scenarios and plans of action with their child before the activity to help reduce some initial anxiety. This may involve asking him to “walk through” his day on a map, reviewing with him his list of needed materials, or role-playing interactions with new people. It should be noted that parents may want to limit these interactions (although more of this may be appropriate for young children) because learning some of these skills on their own will help children build confidence and lead to quicker mastery of new scary situations in the future.

Good luck!

Dr. Daniel Sheras is a clinical psychologist at Orenstein Solutions in Cary, N.C., specializing in helping children and teens with anxiety, depression and ADHD. Dr. Sheras can be reached by phone at 919-428-2766, ext. 9, or by email at