How Can I Help With Back-To-School Anxiety?
Identifying the thought distortions at work.
Posted August 19, 2019
The night before the first day of school followed a similar pattern for me every year from elementary school through high school.
I would get in bed early in hopes of feeling refreshed and energetic on my first day. As every 30 minutes clicked by on my clock, I would become more concerned that this was not a possibility. I didn’t typically fall asleep until somewhere around 2 or 3 in the morning.
At that point, I had one of two dreams. In the first, I would show up to my first day and realize I was naked. So much for planning my first-day outfit! The other dream involved realizing that all my finals were the next day despite the fact that I had forgotten to attend any classes or do any school work. Bring on the panic!
Both of these are pretty classic anxiety dreams. For me, they represented my fears of not fitting in, being judged, and not excelling academically. In my clinical practice, and as a mom, I know that neither my dreams nor my anxieties are uncommon for adolescents today.
My training in Cognitive Behavior Therapy has led me to take notice of several cognitive distortions that underlie many experiences of back-to-school-anxiety. Cognitive distortions are patterns of thinking that are inaccurate and misrepresentative. Recognizing these patterns in our children’s thoughts about returning to school can help us help them reduce their fears.
In order to identify these thought patterns, the first step is to get kids talking about what is making them nervous. Allow them some dedicated time to identify their fears with you.
They are likely to open up more if you can normalize their experience. Let them know that back-to-school anxiety is common and that their fears make sense even if you don’t think they will come true.
Once you and your child can identify specific fears, you can start looking for misguided thought patterns. Here are some common cognitive distortions (Beck, 1976; Burns 1980) that may play a part in back-to-school worries.
1. All or Nothing Thinking
In this distortion, people see things in extremes, such as black or white. They neglect to see options that fall into the gray area. When heading back to school, kids may fear they will dislike all their teachers, or that none of the other kids will like them. It can be helpful to assist kids in generating less extreme options, such as, “You may dislike some teachers and love others.”
2. Mental Filter
When we use a mental filter, we focus on a single negative and exclude the positive. Perhaps your child has heard that one class they are taking is extremely difficult, and they are filtering out positive information about that class, or all the others.
Socially, (s)he may have concerns because of an increased focus on one peer who has rejected them to the exclusion of all who are friendly. When this type of filter is in place, we want to be sure to validate their feelings about the negative, while also helping to identify the positives that have been filtered out.
Fortune-telling refers to the tendency to draw conclusions and make predictions based on little to no evidence and holding them as absolute truth.
Kids may develop these predictions about the first day of school or the whole year. We can help them identify their predictions as just that by asking them what evidence supports their fear. It is important to let them know that their predictions are understandable and also not based in fact.
4. Emotional Reasoning
This distortion style occurs when people accept their emotions as fact. In other words, “I feel it; therefore, it must be true.” Often, emotional reasoning is a precursor to fortune-telling. When school anxiety occurs, kids’ fears that something may happen are often used as evidence of likelihood.
Similar to fortune-telling, there may be a prediction of sitting alone in the lunchroom that is based in a fear of this happening rather than factual evidence. Once again, it can be helpful to assist your child in distinguishing between factual evidence and fear-based assumptions.
Also known as magnification, catastrophizing involves exaggerating the importance or meaning of things. Often kids think not only of the worst possible scenarios but also of the worst possible consequences: “No one will sit with me on the first day, which means I will never have friends,” or “I will be confused by something in class, which means I will fail the class.”
In order to de-catastrophize, help your child to identify the true likelihood of the catastrophe occurring, how terrible it would be if the catastrophe actually came to pass, and brainstorm how to cope with the events to avoid catastrophe.
As you can imagine, any of these cognitive distortions are likely to contribute to a severe case of back-to-school jitters. The more of these distortions that are at play, the more intense the anxiety.
We can help reduce that fear by validating that it makes sense to feel anxious when these thought patterns are involved. At the same time, we can help them change their thought patterns by challenging them to find evidence, generating less distorted versions of the thoughts and brainstorming ways to cope with feared events.
Just as importantly, talking through the anxiety allows your child to know they don’t have to face it alone.
Beck, A.T. (1976). Cognitive Therapies and Emotional Disorders. New York, NY, US: New American Library
Burns, D.D. (1980). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. New York, NY, US: New American Library