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Winifred Lender: Helping Children Cope with Back-to-School Anxiety, Depression

By Winifred Lender, Noozhawk Columnist |

We often think about the beginning of the school year as a “fresh start,” a “clean beginning” or a time to learn new things. It holds the promise of endless possibility, growth and exploration. The beginning of the academic year signals a time to renew friendships, see teachers from the past and learn from new teachers. And yet, the start of school can also lead to anxiety and depression for children and teens.

Starting school entails a loss of freedom, separation from parents, social pressure, more demands on time, academic evaluation and a change in sleeping schedule. The new school year also brings many unknowns (i.e., who will my teacher be? will the class be hard?) and potential interaction with unfamiliar people such as new teachers and peers.

All these factors conspire to make the back-to-school period a time that can be anxiety provoking and even lead to some depression for children and teens.

While some anxiety about a new situation is actually beneficial — it helps motivate us to perform and try hard — too much can be counterproductive. Butterflies in the stomach on the first day of school or some general worries before school starts fall along the continuum of normal. If the back-to-school worry becomes more chronic, the worry can transform into anxiety. This anxiety can lead to psychosomatic complaints such as headaches, stomachaches, and difficulty falling asleep and remaining asleep.

Likewise, the feeling a child has that he or she will miss the relaxed pace of summer and not looking forward to homework is normal. However, a child’s preoccupation with this change and ongoing depressed effect can indicate a problem. It is the persistence and severity of the anxiety and/or “blue” feelings over time that may signal cause for concern.

Helping a child minimize anxiety and depression about the back-to-school process entails normalizing, preparation, modeling and validation.

Normalizing: Normalizing the fact that many children feel anxious and down about the start of school is important. While children and teens may not readily share these feelings with their peers, it is important they know these feelings are normal. Not everyone is excited to return to school. While normalizing these feelings, it is important to let your child know that these feelings typically subside once the newness of school wears off and the school schedule becomes routine.

Preparation: Preparing in advance for the start of school by developing a bedtime and wake-up time that will allow your child to transition easily back to school is very important. Sleep is essential for academic and social success and is one of the best ways to help your child manage anxiety and depressed feelings.

Preparing can also involve ensuring your child knows when he or she is returning to school and has a plan to get any required reading or work done prior to school starting. Likewise, organizing a plan to do any school errands (i.e., clothes shopping, school supplies) well in advance of school starting can help minimize the anxiety of rushing around at the last minute.

For some children, school preparation can also involve visiting the school, spending time on the playground, meeting new teachers and reviewing the new school schedule. Organizing play dates with friends or peers who will be in your child’s class can also be helpful. Children will benefit from these activities that make the new and unknown more familiar. In addition, preparing for a transition to school that gradually phases in after-school activities can ease the transition to school; don’t fill a child’s schedule all at once.

Preparation for school also involves minimizing decisions a child will need to make the morning before school starts as this can lead to anxiety. Early in the afternoon the day prior to school, ensure that the backpack is all ready and near the door, clothes for school are laid out and a breakfast option is selected. Organizing and practicing the morning routine to ensure your child will have enough time to eat a good breakfast and feel prepared to leave the house is also essential. Children who are hungry, rushed or feel as though they are not prepared for school may experience more anxiety. Consider a trial run the day before school starts where the family gets ready as though there was school and then goes out for a special activity such as a walk or breakfast.

Modeling: Modeling is another important part of supporting your child’s transition to a new school year. As a parent, you can model a calm, organized approach to the new school year and to new activities in general. Verbalize to your child how you prepare for new events and focus on the positive elements of new experiences. Work on minimizing your own stress related to the change of schedule so you can demonstrate a clam approach to the transition.

Validation: Validation is another important feature of easing your child’s transition back to school. Negating a child’s anxiety and fears about school can cause more anxiety, but validating that your child’s anxiety is real and knowing that many children experience anxiety related to school is helpful. You should listen to your child’s concerns and help him or her problem solve around activities that could target the fears. Remind your child of instances when he or she was anxious yet overcame the anxiety. Reminding your child that anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and that the best way to combat anxiety is to engage in the activity that creates the anxiety can also be helpful.

While the back-to-school process can cause anxiety and “blue” feelings for many children, a successful transition to a new school year is empowering. The ability to enter a new situation, perform well and find some pleasure in something that might have initially been anxiety producing is a growth-enhancing experience.

Wishing you and your child a positive back-to-school experience!

Things to remember:

» Normalize the fact that many children feel anxious and even a little depressed about the start of school.

» Transition to a school sleep schedule that allows for sufficient sleep (optimally, 11 to 13 hours for elementary school children and 8.5 to 9.25 hours for middle and high school tweens and teens). Move bedtime earlier by 10 to 15 minutes each night until you arrive at the time that allows for enough sleep prior to the school wake-up time.

» Schedule quiet digital-free time 45 minutes before bed to encourage a child to relax in order to facilitate better sleep.

» Consider visiting the school, playground and teachers prior to the start of school.

» Review the new school schedule.

» Organize play dates with school friends.

» Take care of all school-related errands (i.e., clothes shopping, school supplies) as soon as possible to alleviate last-minute rushing around that could increase anxiety.

» Try a trial run the day before school starts where the family wakes up and gets ready according to the school start time and then engages in some fun activity.

» Organize the backpack, school outfit and select a breakfast option the afternoon before the first day of school.

» Consider gradually phasing in after-school activities when school starts to allow your child to transition to school prior to adding on the additional activities.

» Model calmness and a positive view of new experiences.

» Try not to show any anxiety you may feel.

» Validate your child’s anxiety as a normal part of entering a new experience and remind him or her of how they overcame anxiety before.

» If your child is having significant difficulty sleeping due to anxiety about school or appears to be persistently worried or depressed about school in a way that impacts his or her happiness, consider seeking professional help.

— Winifred Lender, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at [email protected]. She is the author of A Practical Guide to Parenting in the Digital Age: How to Nurture Safe, Balanced and Connected Children and Teens available at Chaucer’s and Amazon. Dr. Lender completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.


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