School Anxiety in Adolescents

For many children, returning to school this year is akin to moving to a new country. There are new faces, rules, and paradigms to learn. Anxiety is a common manifestation of adjusting to any new environment, and children have unique ways of demonstrating their anxiety. Some would vocally discuss what feels “off.” Others would have more psychosomatic symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches, or poor sleep. Irritability, anger, and aggressive outbursts are also possible. To better support our children during this time, we must understand the potential challenges they may face. 

When we move to a new place, a common predictor of anxiety may be the “cultural distance.” When going back to school, “cultural distance” may mean the perceived similarity or difference between home and the classroom. Common questions may involve the amount of time we should wash our hands, how we should wear out masks, or even why can’t we move around the room while learning as we did at home? When a child’s home environment is vastly different than that at school, the difficulty of adaption may be more significant. Reassuring a child of possible changes would not only alleviate their anxiety but allows us to understand better the life changes they may embark on. 

The younger the child, the greater the percentage the pandemic took of their social development. A child may have developed tools to quell their anxiety, which has worked through a sizable part of their life. Yet, coping skills they had at home may not be usable at school. Pacing, taking short breaks, or yelling in a pillow is more difficult when others share your environment. As adults, we have made adjustments to our coping skills when we moved, attended new schools, or changed careers. However, this may be the first time our children need to modify their ways of resolving their internal restlessness. 

Lastly, our children’s support system would need to change also. Instead of relying on parents or siblings, there would be new teachers and classmates. Their teachers likely would not be giving our child the same attention they had at home as their focus would need to be on twenty other students. Their peers may have changed from when they last played with them over a year ago. New trusting relationships would need to develop, which of course, takes time. Our priority at this juncture is to have patience and establish a safe environment for our children to be open about their concerns.