“Every Sunday night looks the same around our house,” says Christie, a mom of two. “Or rather, it sounds the same. My sixth-grade son will start moaning ‘I don’t wanna go to school tomorrow’ on repeat.”
The next morning, a reprise. “He complains that he doesn’t want to go to school and begs to stay home,” she says. “Sometimes he works himself into such a frenzy that he makes himself physically sick.”
But by Monday night, she shares, his stomachache is gone and he’s no longer complaining about going to school. “Until the next weekend, when his Sunday Scaries and Monday Morning Moaning will undoubtedly return. It’s been happening for years,” Christie says.
What are the Sunday Scaries?
“No, it’s not a new horror series on Netflix,” says Leesha M. Ellis-Cox, MD, MPH, a board certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist and a Happy Family Organics’ Happy Baby Expert. “Rather, the Sunday Scaries is the sense of dread that begins on Sunday afternoon in anticipation of a new school [or work] week, also known as anticipatory anxiety.”
As a middle school student, Christie’s son might seem too young to be affected by the Sunday Scaries—after all, there are no looming work deadlines, long board meetings or the potential for tricky coworker interactions filling up his Monday calendar.
But anxiety is highly common and can affect children of all ages—even preschoolers, Dr. Ellis-Cox notes. Kids aren’t immune to these types of anxiety monsters any more than adults are.
“The Sunday Scaries more often affect school-aged youth from elementary up to middle and high school,” Dr. Ellis-Cox says. “Like work for adults, school is where children spend the bulk of their day. They must navigate social pressures, balance academics and extracurricular activities, cultivate their evolving identity, and find their friend group—tasks that present an array of challenges. Add social media to that list, and it is easy to understand how our children could really struggle on Sunday afternoons.”
Symptoms of the Sunday Scaries
The hallmark symptom of the Sunday Scaries is anxiety and worry that set in on a Sunday afternoon or evening, usually before a return to routine, like school.
“It may come with a feeling of dread, mental heaviness, or impending doom,” says Sharifa Glass, MD, IBCLC, a pediatrician and certified lactation consultant based in Houston.
Symptoms that arise with the Sunday Scaries tend to be similar to the physical and emotional feelings of anxiety, including:
- Poor sleep
- Tight muscles
- Nausea or stomach upset
- Rapid heart rate
- Fast breathing
- Depressed mood
These feelings tend to diminish as the week progresses—sometimes even resolving moments after your child gets to school Monday morning. But if they seem to stick around for longer, it’s worth speaking to your child’s pediatrician to see if there’s a bigger issue with anxiety going on.
What causes the Sunday Scaries?
Although the typical root cause of Sunday Scaries is a form of anxiety; not all children who experience the Sunday Scaries have an anxiety disorder, Dr. Glass remarks.
But there are certain conditions that can make some kids more susceptible than others. “Children who have an anxiety disorder, mood disorder, autism spectrum disorder, or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) tend to be more prone to experience the anxiety associated with Sunday Scaries,” Dr. Glass says. Recent life changes like a move, a new school, a loss or trauma may also be underlying risk factors.
Fear may also play a role. “While fear and anxiety are closely related, they are not the same,” says Dr. Ellis-Cox. “Fear recognizes a threat while anxiety imagines one. For some children, fear stems from a bully they must face, feeling unprepared or learning challenges that make school difficult. For others, the mere anticipation, the expectation of the worst, is scarier than what actually happens.” It can be helpful to try and determine if your child is experiencing this phenomenon due to a fear-based threat or anticipatory anxiety.
Because anxiety tends to run in families, kids with a higher risk for the Sunday Scaries may also have more anxious parents. Which is why examining our own relationship with anxiety can be so insightful. As parents, our own methods of coping with anxiety—or lack thereof—may have a trickle-down effect on our children.
“In households with anxious parents, avoidance may be the primary strategy—we don’t talk about Bruno or our feelings or we avoid rather than work through anxiety-provoking situations,” says Dr. Ellis-Cox.
The Sunday Scaries may get worse with longer breaks from school
As you might guess, the feelings may be heightened when returning from winter or summer holidays. “During these breaks, routines often change. Sleep schedules shift. Peer pressure, bullying, and the unpleasantries associated with the social hierarchy are on pause. Homework and class projects stop,” says Dr. Ellis-Cox. “Kids may feel like they can finally relax and breathe without all the stress which can make it extraordinarily difficult to return to school and back to the literal grind.”
The key here? Keep routines and sleep schedules consistent as much as possible while on break—or at least in the two to three days before school starts again—to avoid a big shift in your child’s everyday life and easily get them back on track.
How can you help your child cope?
Both Dr. Ellis-Cox and Dr. Glass note that there are several strategies that parents can implement to help kids of any age ward off the Sunday Scaries—or any other big changes in routine. Here are their best tips for managing fear and anxiety before they set in.
- Manage your own emotional response. “As parents, we set the tone in our homes and our children often mirror our response. If we are tense and on edge, then our children feel tense and on edge. But, if we are calm and reassuring, then our children feel calm,” says Dr. Ellis-Cox.
- Lead with love. Children need to feel seen, heard and valued, reminds Dr. Ellis-Cox. Connect with them by leaning in and getting close. “Listen, validate and normalize their feelings, both big and small, instead of shaming or minimizing,” she adds.
- Try breathwork. For younger and older kids, deep belly breathing to calm nervous tummies and quell anxious thoughts can work wonders. An app or podcast may be useful to guide kids into getting back to their breath or start a meditation practice.
- Prioritize sleep. Adequate sleep may be a big factor in helping kids cope with anxiety. Kids should try to go to sleep at the same time every day, even on the weekends, says Dr. Glass. Try to incorporate a relaxing bedtime routine for little ones, including a calming bath and bedtime story, or set a screen time limit for older kids 1 to 2 hours before bed to help them wind down.
- Show them the plan. Some kids may benefit from seeing their weekly schedule in advance so they know what to expect from their day. Helping kids select their clothes the night before and even their breakfast can help them better anticipate what’s going to happen the next morning, too.
- Encourage releasing feelings. Whether through a worry jar for elementary school kids, who can write out their fears and keep them in a contained place, or a journal for older kids and teens, either method allows them space to safely express big emotions.
- Get outside. Going for a Sunday afternoon run or walk together can promote bonding time with your child and also works to release stress-busting endorphins.
- Confront fears. “Gently challenge ‘stinkin’ thinkin’ by helping older children identify and confront their irrational fears and look for the good things about the upcoming week. It’s never really all bad; it’s just that anxiety preferentially highlights the negatives and what ifs,” says Dr. Ellis-Cox.
- Keep Sundays low-stress. Low-key activities like drawing, building, family-focused time and outdoor play are good ways to engage both mind and body on Sundays, says Dr. Glass. Older children can also help someone else by volunteering for a local organization, which can help with anxiety, too.
If these options don’t help reduce your child’s reticence and worry, reach out for professional help. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician or school counselor, who may be able to provide names of therapists. By getting to know your child and your family, a therapist can suggest more specific solutions that suit your home life and will hopefully help ameliorate those fears.
Leesha M. Ellis-Cox, MD, MPH, a board certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist and a Happy Family Organics’ Happy Baby Expert.
Sharifa Glass, MD, a pediatrician and certified lactation consultant based in Houston.