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Back-to-school anxiety amid COVID-19

Back-to-school anxiety amid COVID-19

Back to school means catching up with friends, making new ones, and resuming learning and activities. But this autumn will be anything but normal because of COVID-19. Whether students are learning in-person in a classroom or virtually at home, school can cause stress. What are typical stressors? How is coronavirus compounding them? Michele Jenkins, LCSW, LiveWell Counseling therapist, has answers.

What are typical back-to-school stressors for students?

The beginning of school can be an exciting time, but it can also be accompanied by stressors, which differ as a child ages.

For very young students, returning to school can create worries and fears about being away from family and other caregivers. If a child has a genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders, this is a common time for possible onset of separation anxiety. Older elementary-school students might have more general worries, such as whether they will be able to handle schoolwork and make new friends, especially with safety measures in place because of COVID-19.

The anticipation of academic pressures may create stress for middle- and high-school students, who may be facing the additional stress of applying for college. The new school year also dramatically increases peer-to-peer, socially distant interactions. Young people tend to socialize with close friends over the summer. Returning to school means that they will experience more numerous social interactions, which can be stressful as they navigate the complexities of peer-to-peer communication. These years can be a burgeoning time for the onset of social anxiety, which creates fear of speaking to peers, being called upon in class, or walking into classrooms when everyone is already seated, and can cause extreme discomfort.

College students face unique challenges, especially during freshman year. Those who have never been away from home for an extended period of time will be immersed in a completely new experience in every way. For those who previously struggled with generalized, separation, or social anxiety, college may cause those feelings and symptoms to resurface.

How does COVID-19 factor into back-to-school stress?

Although engaged with schoolwork in the spring, students were not physically present. There was a prolonged period of being home and escaping those stressful, yet character-building, exchanges with peers. This could amplify separation and social anxiety.

The status of and regulations related to COVID-19 change quickly, so those unknowns can be a big stressor at any age. The presence of the virus can also spur a common worry about getting sick in school without parents there. Students will most likely need to practice social distancing and wear masks, and those requirements can make it somewhat harder to communicate and make connections with people.

Parents experience back-to-school stress, too. What stressors do they typically face?

When back-to-school time rolls around, parents may be stressed as they thrust back into preparation mode, fielding requests and requirements, completing forms, etc. Parents may also experience their own anxiety regarding how their child will cope with a new school year if he/she already has anxieties, and they may worry about their child contracting COVID-19.

At what point would professional therapy be recommended?

If feelings and symptoms are interfering with normal functioning, professional help may be beneficial. Can the child get to school, or adapt to online learning again? Focus on schoolwork? Is he/she complaining about feeling unwell? Is the child very irritable and having daily outbursts or difficulty managing anger?

Other symptoms warranting professional therapy include changes in sleeping and eating habits; physical symptoms, such as stomach upset; difficulty concentrating; excessively worrying or thinking negatively; and disruptions in relationships.

How can LiveWell Counseling help?

Currently, all assessments and counseling it taking place virtually. An individualized outpatient treatment plan is developed following an initial assessment. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one therapeutic modality that is very effective. Through CBT, young people learn skills and techniques to help reduce anxiety. Some youth do require medication to alleviate disruptive symptoms that are interfering with daily life.

What advice can you offer for both students and parents?

Students should remember that their friends are likely experiencing the same feelings. They should try to express their feelings to their parents, trusted friends, and other trusted adults and relatives.

Parents should have a conversation with their child regarding concerns about COVID-19 and how the school year may unfold because of the virus. Try to anticipate possible scenarios, such as preparing for another round of school closures and how to make the best if situation arises. Parents can provide reassurance that school will guide them and help them catch up with skills that might be underdeveloped due to homeschooling.

Parents should model a calm, positive energy. Being surrounded by confidence can help kids cope better. Being surrounded by anxious energy can be detrimental. Parents are a child’s most important role model of how to best cope with anxieties.

LiveWell Counseling provides virtual outpatient treatment for children, adolescents, adults, seniors, and families. For more information, contact Karen Hockstein at (201) 848-4463 or, or visit