Back to School: Anxiety

Back to School: Anxiety

by Dr. Paulo Pires, psychologist, McMaster Children’s Hospital

The start of school can be a stressful time for both children and parents. It’s natural for children of all ages to have some level of anxiety at the beginning of a new school year. Separation from parents, concern over making friends, and anxiety over academic performance can contribute to feelings of nervousness.

Anxiety is our body’s natural response to perceived danger or risk. Sometimes it can be a positive thing, and can push us to do our best. Other times it can be overwhelming. Evolution has equipped our bodies to respond physically when we are afraid, and because of this, anxiety can even cause an upset stomach, sweating or fast breathing.

So, how much is too much?

“Normal” anxiety varies depending on a number of factors including a child’s age. Generally, as kids get older, they will experience less anxiety about being away from their parents. At the same time, anxiety about social situations can increase with age. Anxiety may be turning into a problem for your child if it:

  • Happens when they perceive danger or risk
  • Happens frequently
  • Feels very intense
  • Stops them from doing fun and important things
Time for school

Kids spend a large part of their lives at school where they learn and build relationships. School-related anxiety can interfere with that important part of growing up. It doesn’t always look the same, so you should pay close attention to your child’s behaviour for signs of anxiety, like:

School avoidance/refusal: Sometimes children will avoid going to school or say they are too sick to attend because they are anxious.

Acting out: Children who misbehave or lash out in school may be doing so for emotional reasons, including anxiety.

Invisible anxiety: Sometimes children who are anxious about academic performance will be very focused on school and will excel, even though they are experiencing extreme distress due to anxiety.


Anxiety is the body’s way of shielding us from harm. It triggers something called the “fight-flight-freeze” response that causes our body to leap into protection mode.

The ‘flight’ part of that response can cause us to avoid things that scare us, like school. Sometimes, school avoidance can express itself as physical illness. How can you tell if your child is physically ill or anxious? First, try to rule out physical causes for their symptoms. If you suspect they are anxious about school, look for patterns in their illness that match up to the school schedule. If their symptoms improve when they don’t have to go to school, they may be avoiding school due to anxiety. Try talking to them about what aspects of school they find challenging.

If you suspect that your child is suffering from serious anxiety related to school, it’s important to get professional help. Serious anxiety can affect sleep, appetite, concentration and relationships. Talk to your family doctor about the options that are available.


Dr. Pires will be hosting a Facebook Live Q&A session on school-related anxiety September 12th at 7pm. To take part, visit

You can get more back to school information and tips, from our booklet below.