Back to School Jitters or Signs of Real Anxiety? How Parents Can Tell the Difference

Just nervous energy or something deeper? Read this to find out.

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The start of a new school year can be exciting, but it’s also an anxiety trigger for many kids. Sometimes, it can be hard to distinguish typical transition jitters from something more serious. Often I field questions from concerned parents who want help determining what’s normal and what is cause for concern. How much anxiety can we expect from our kids, and how much is too much?  

The answer is of course not black and white, but there is a threshold. Anxiety is a perfectly normal, healthy human response, and a certain amount is to be expected. We call this functional anxiety, and the start of school is a natural spark for this in a lot of households. New routines, teachers, friends and schedules are anxiety-producing changes, and plenty of kids lose sleep because of the excitement laced with fear of the unknown.  

Some kids experience more severe, persistent anxiety that spikes at the start of school but never really subsides once the new normal takes shape. More than 2 million American children have been diagnosed with anxiety disorder, but 80 percent of youth with a diagnosable anxiety disorder do not get any treatment. This is especially difficult for kids who develop anxiety early and navigate their entire childhood without adequate support. While the median age for diagnosing an anxiety disorder is six, one in four teens still meet the criteria for anxiety disorder, including generalized anxiety, specific phobias, separation anxiety, social phobia and panic disorder, and their symptoms are likely diminishing their ability to function and perform well in school and social situations. The problem is so pervasive that this hidden disability affects one in eight children – or a few in every classroom.   

So how do you know if your child’s back to school anxiety is cause for concern? How do you tell the difference between your child’s temperament and signs they are struggling to cope? The answers may be less obvious than you think, but there are ways to tell the difference. Here are five signs you may need to see a provider to get to the bottom of your child’s anxiety:  

  1. It doesn’t go away. Nearly everyone feels anxious from time to time, but some people experience constant unrest. Most kids feel anxious over specific things, like the start of school, but if their anxiety is constant, they may need help coping.   
  1. They overreact to common situations. Excessive reactions to everyday things like waiting for the school bus, showering or going to bed can be signs there is an underlying problem.   
  1. They feel anxious and they don’t know why. Sometimes kids can identify stress without being able to pinpoint a cause.  
  1. They worry too much about the past or future. Typical anxiety usually stems from concern over a specific thing, but some kids experience a lot of worry about death or other catastrophic events, even when they are unlikely to happen.  
  1. They avoid trigger situations. Many kids don’t realize they are anxious, but go out of their way to avoid situations that make them feel bad, like skipping school or heading to the nurse to miss math class.  

Anxiety, of course, isn’t all bad. It’s this fight or flight response that motivates us, or helps us avoid danger; but when this response becomes too overwhelming, or even paralyzing, it quickly transitions to destructive. Kids can have a harder time identifying anxiety and often do a good job of masking it. As parents look to help their kids ease into the school year, be on the lookout for signs your child is struggling with anxiety, and if you suspect more than just typical back to school nerves, make an appointment to have them assessed. To learn more visit

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