Back-to-School: Dealing with anticipation & anxiety

For many kids, the anticipation of going back to school is exciting. It’s a chance to see friends, share stories about summer break, and re-engage in the activities and sports they love. But at the same time, preparing for the new school year can also bring on stress and anxiety as worries creep in about bullying, romantic relationships, academic stress, LGBTQ issues and more.

Peer and social issues are among the most noted by connections made to the National Runaway Safeline (NRS). Because many youth see their friends as playing the most crucial role during this period of life, the issues that arise in these relationships can feel that much more pressing.

These social stressors are a likely reason NRS receives a rise in connections during the back-to-school season. And it’s why involvement from parents and educators is paramount in preventing children from experiencing harmful behavior and even running away.

Being a parent isn’t easy, and it can feel particularly overwhelming during stressful seasons such as this. However, during the hustle and bustle of this busy time of year, it is particularly important for parents to pay attention to warning signs that may indicate their child is considering running away. While no one can say for certain which teens will run and which won’t, a few signs parents can watch for include:

  • Changes in behaviors or patterns: Teens who suddenly stop eating or begin to overeat, sleep all day or never sleep, spend all their time with friends or never want to leave their room can be warning signs. Sudden mood swings signal that teens are unsettled, restless and are not coping well with stress.
  • Rebellious behavior: Dropping grades, truancy, breaking rules at home, picking fights with the family are all symptoms that your child is having problems.
  • Disclosure of intentions to run away: Some teens will hint that they want to run away and some will outright threaten their family with running. Never take these threats lightly.
  • Accumulation of money and possessions: Some runaways prepare for their run by slowly withdrawing cash from their savings accounts. Keeping a bag or backpack of clothes in the closet might mean they are waiting to make a quick exit.
  • While monitoring behavior is an important step, perhaps more important is for parents to work to ensure that there are open lines of communication with their child. Youth contacting NRS often cite communication, or a lack thereof, as a front and center issue in their families.

If you suspect that your child is planning to run away, it is important to confront your suspicions right away. Clearly and calmly share your concerns and work to have a conversation through active listening. Active listening is a way of listening where you focus entirely on what the other person is saying and confirm your understanding of both the content of the conversation and the emotions and feelings underlying the message.

When parents are having serious conversations with their children, it is important to remember to use three active listening tools to explore the child’s feelings – open-ended questions, closed-ended questions, and paraphrasing and clarifying statements. Close ended questions are used to gather facts. For example, “Who was there?” or “When did this happen?” Open-ended questions are used to get a narrative response, such as, “Can you tell me about the last time someone was mean to you at school?” Paraphrasing can be used to make sure you understand what your child is saying, such as, “I understand you felt scared when the boy teased you.”

For parents whose children are not willing to talk to them about their situation, it may be helpful to remind kids that there are other people they can talk to, such as teachers or counselors. If a child seems intent on running away, it is imperative to make information for valuable resources easily available so they can find safe options while on the street. But most importantly, let them know you do not want them to run away and that you’re committed to helping your family work things out.

While the start of the school year can be an incredibly stressful and busy time of year, it’s critical for parents to remember that this is an important time in the life of their child. Invest the time to watch how the children in your life are responding to the changes associated with going back to school, and regularly ask how their day was and how they are feeling. It will open up communication and let the children in your life know that you are available to listen when they are having a problem, and when things are going well.

Maureen Blaha is the executive director of the National Runaway Safeline (NRS), the communication system for runaway, homeless and at-risk youth in the United States. NRS makes more than 250,000 connections to help and hope through its hotline, online and offline resources. For more information, visit The 1-800-RUNAWAY hotline and services are free, confidential and available to youth and families 24/7/365.