Back To School Anxiety

Understanding and easing Anxiety in School Children during a challenging time.

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Going back to school after summer vacation always produces a little bit of anxiety – for students and their parents. No to mention the teachers! The whole family has to wake up early, pack lunches, arrange for transportation…then there’s homework, school activities, social engagements, and countless other things to keep track of and find time for. It can be jarring after 3 months of just going with the flow.

Returning to school this year is likely even more stressful than usual for most of us; some kids have been out of school for a year or more. The Coronavirus pandemic has turned many people’s lives upside down, and it might feel a little strange to just go back to school like everything is normal. Especially since things are definitely not “back to normal”.

This year kids will have to contend with pandemic safety and health guidelines, on top of all the other new things they are expected to learn and adapt to. The pandemic was scary, is still scary, and we are definitely not out of the woods yet. It is perfectly normal for your kids (and you!) to feel particularly anxious this year as school doors open and classes begin.

Recognizing Your Child’s Anxiety

Young children and even pre-teens and teenagers don’t necessarily have the experience or language to express how they’re feeling. Their minds and personalities are still developing, and so are their coping skills and ability to recognize and deal with anxiety and stress.

This is why it’s important for you as a parent to be able to recognize when your child is feeling anxious. They may be acting out or shutting down for reasons unknown to you. Your child may not even know their own reasons for behaving differently than usual when they’re feeling overwhelmed. Here are some of the clues your child may exhibit to let you know that they’re feeling anxiety:

It’s perfectly normal for children to act out in these ways occasionally (some more than others), but if these symptoms have lasted for two weeks or more and are interfering with daily activities, your child may need some extra attention and care.

Speak with your doctor or pediatrician if your child’s symptoms of anxiety are ongoing. Untreated anxiety can lead to a myriad of other problems, including poor school performance, difficulty in relationships, or even depression. The sooner you address the anxiety, the sooner they will learn coping tools that they can utilize for the rest of their lives. 

Communicating About Anxiety with Toddlers

Children aged 4-6 need help identifying their feelings. Children at this age may perceive and voice their emotional struggles in terms of physical ailments. Stomachaches may actually be feelings of anxiety. Headaches may be a sign of depression.

Consider teaching your child the words for emotions the same way you teach them words for colors or shapes. Understanding that “happy” or “sad” is not necessarily “good” or “bad” at a young age sets them up to manage their emotions later on down the line. Talk with your child about the nature of feelings; they come and go, they change, they are temporary, and won’t last forever.

Children at this age shouldn’t be told how to feel, or how not to feel – even though it can be quite tempting to do so at times. When you tell them a particular emotion isn’t appropriate, you’re telling them that their feelings don’t matter. 

Talk with your child about ways to manage their uncomfortable emotions. Would a hug help? Does drawing a picture help? Do you want to go outside and play for a little bit, and see if that helps? Children should be praised when they effectively use a coping skill to deal with a tough emotion.

Communicating About Anxiety with Grade Schoolers

Children aged 7-10 have learned by now that some of their emotions aren’t always acceptable to adults. They may have gotten in trouble for acting out in anger or been told to “cheer up” when they were struggling with depression. 

It isn’t your child’s job, or yours, to diagnose your child with anxiety or depression. What you can do is talk about emotions. Ask your child to tell them stories about their day – you can learn a lot about how they’re feeling this way. 

One technique is to have a nightly ritual where everyone talks about a highlight and a lowlight of their day; parents too. This teaches your child that we all have highs and lows and that they have a safe place to express and talk about both.

Communicating About Anxiety with Middle Schoolers

When your child reaches ages 11-14 they’ve likely heard terms such as “depression” or “schizophrenia”. Talk to them about what they’ve heard and what they understand. You can use examples from movies, TV shows, or books, and ask your child “have you ever felt this way?”.

Kids at this age may roll their eyes and look at you like you’re the one who needs help. Persist. Let them know that you’re asking because you love them. Even if they don’t seem to embrace what you’re saying, they will hear you.

“Mirroring” works well with this age group. Tell them about something that happened to you at work and say “That made me feel…have you ever felt that way?”. Asking them for their opinions gives them an opportunity to share. Don’t criticize or judge what they share; just listen. Let your child know that they can safely talk to you about their opinions and feelings. 

Communicating About Anxiety with High Schoolers

Kids aged 14-18 absolutely need to be talking with a trusted adult about their feelings on a regular basis. It’s easy to dismiss moodiness and irritability in teens; it’s expected to some extent. Emerging hormones are brutal.

This makes it even more necessary to talk to your teens as openly and as often as possible. “Normal” moodiness may actually be a symptom of something much more serious, such as bullying, depression, or self-harming. 

When your teen is isolated or withdrawn, they may be communicating with you that they need help (without even realizing they’re doing so). 

Don’t take it personally if your teenager doesn’t open up to you the way you wish they would. That’s just the nature of being a parent to a teen. Make sure there is an adult in their life that they do feel comfortable talking to; an aunt or uncle, a neighbor, a family friend. 

Be upfront and honest about this with your teen. Ask them which adults they would feel comfortable with if they needed someone to talk to. Let them know that you understand that talking to your parents about uncomfortable feelings and situations isn’t always easy.

Just make sure that you also know and trust the adults they turn to. 

Helping Your Child Manage Anxiety

As a parent, it is agonizing to see your child suffering. It is tempting to try and eliminate or avoid anything that may contribute to your child’s stress or anxiety. In the long run, though, it’s better to teach them how to manage emotional difficulties, not how to avoid them. 

Being Proactive about your Mental Health

There may come a time when you realize you are out of your element, and you don’t know how to help your child. This is not a bad thing – this does not make you a bad parent. And it certainly doesn’t mean that there’s no hope for your child. It is ok to ask for help. In fact, asking for help can be quite empowering. 

There are some situations where it is absolutely imperative that you get your child help as soon as possible, including:

Family History

If there is a history of mental illness in your family, and you’re concerned about your child’s behavior and moods, seek out a professional opinion. Know your family history and consult with your pediatrician or a therapist. Maybe you’re being overly cautious, but a family history of mental illness does increase the odds of your child developing a disorder. 

Cutting and Self-Harm

Even if your child or teen claims their act of self-harm was a one-time thing, get an appointment with a therapist. Your child may be being honest, but self-harm is dangerous, and possibly a sign of a bigger issue, such as depression.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders can be life-threatening. The sooner your child receives help for an eating disorder, the sooner they can start to recover. Even if you just suspect an eating disorder, seek out an opinion. You could save your child’s life. 

When to Wait and See

Moving, starting a new school, gaining a new sibling…these are all situations that may provoke changed behavior in your child. This is perfectly normal. Kids are just like adults, in that change can be scary and hard. 

Sometimes it’s ok to wait and see how things go for a period of time. But do so mindfully and actively. Talk to your child often, using the tips listed above. If your child’s moods and behaviors start to affect the whole family, or they stop sleeping well or eating normally, stop waiting. Reach out for help. 

It’s natural for there to be an adjustment period after a big change, such as a divorce, but once things start to seem unmanageable it is definitely time to reach out for help.

Taking Care of Your Own Mental Health

We’ve all heard the saying, “Put on your own oxygen mask first”. The idea is that you can’t help others when you yourself are struggling.

It may be a cliché, but there is a lot of truth to that statement. And when it comes to your children, it is a win-win for you to take care of your own mental health first and foremost. Not only will you be in better shape to help your child when they are struggling, but they will see and absorb the things that you do to keep yourself mentally sound. 

Tell your child that you’re taking a time-out for a few minutes before you make dinner. They will start to understand that a “time-out” isn’t necessarily a punishment, but an opportunity to regroup.

Go on hikes or to a swim class with your child. Teach them at a young age that exercise can be fun, and makes you feel energized and happy.

Share your love of reading with your child. Read together, or if you need some quiet time once in a while, go to the library or a bookstore, then go home and read. Your child will learn that reading is not only for school and education, but a way to relax.

Prepare healthy, nourishing meals (maybe not every day, but sometimes!) and let your child help you. They will learn that cooking can be fun, and healthy food can be comforting.

Anxiety is a part of life, for adults and children alike. It’s pretty much unavoidable (for most of us), but it doesn’t need to lead to a meltdown or more serious mental health challenges down the line. It is possible to use your own and your child’s anxiety as an opportunity for growth. 

Managing and overcoming stress and anxiety is one of the most important things we can learn and teach our children.