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Is Your Child Anxious About Going Back To School? Here's How You Can Help

It’s common for children to be anxious during the start of a new school year. After all, they’re worried about their appearance, who they’ll sit with at lunch, what their teacher will be like, and if they’ll understand their new classes. And, if they’re beginning the year in a new school, there’s even more for them to be concerned about, like becoming familiar with the building and meeting new friends.

Regardless of what they’re anxious about, common signs include:

  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits.

  • Headaches of stomachs.

  • Irritability.

  • Has become clingy.

  • Is struggling to concentrate.

  • Appears restless.

  • Has bouts of crying.

  • Expresses negative thoughts.

  • Refuses to attend school.

This year, however, could be even worse due to COVID-19. In addition to common worries, there’s uncertainty about what the school year will actually look like. Will anyone they know contract the virus? Will they have to wear a mask all day and socially distant from their friends?

While they may not convey these concerns with you, there are red flags that you should look out for, such as:

They’re grumpy or acting out.

Via The Child Mind Institute:

“Anxiety manifests in a surprising variety of ways in part because it is based on a physiological response to a threat in the environment, a response that maximizes the body’s ability to either face danger or escape danger. So while some children exhibit anxiety by shrinking from situations or objects that trigger fears, some react with overwhelming need to break out of an uncomfortable situation. That behavior, which can be unmanageable, is often misread as anger or opposition.”

Their routines are way off.

Between summer vacation and the pandemic, their routines have already been disrupted. But, if they’re dramatically different, like having difficulty falling or staying asleep, that’s cause for concern.

“One of the best things parents can do is compare their child’s current behavior to their baseline behavior,” Frank Ghinassi, president and chief executive officer of Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, told HuffPost.

They’re avoiding friends and the things they typically enjoy.

Ghinassi calls this appropriately the “absence of pleasure.”

They’re asking the same questions again and again.

“Repeatedly asking the same questions and continually requiring reassurance about certain issues” could be a sign your child is grappling with some anxiety, says Dr. Mary Ellen Renna, a pediatrician with ProHEALTH Care.

Their imaginative play has changed.

“Their creative minds are always at work,” said Renna. “If you notice your child who was making tea parties with her dolls has now changed to having the dolls fighting with each other, this could be a sign of anxiety.”

Thankfully, if you’ve noticed any of these signs, there are ways to help them cope.

Ease back into the new school new.

Johns Hopkins Children's Center psychologist Courtney Keeton recommends that prior to the new year, you do the following:

  • A week or two before school, start preparing children for the upcoming transition by getting back to school year routines, such as a realistic bedtime and selecting tomorrow's clothes.

  • Arrange play dates with one or more familiar peers before school starts. Research shows that the presence of a familiar peer during school transitions can improve children's academic and emotional adjustment.

  • Visit the school before the school year begins, rehearse the drop-off and spend time on the playground or inside the classroom if the building is open. Have the child practice walking into class while the parent waits outside or down the hall.

  • Come up with a prize or a rewarding activity that the child could earn for separating from mom or dad to attend school.

  • Validate the child's worry by acknowledging that, like any new activity, starting school can be hard but soon becomes easy and fun.

Additionally, you should sit down with your child and brainstorm ideas on how to make going back to school less stressful. Or, reminding them what they like about school, such as seeing their friends again.

Approach anxiety instead of avoiding it.

“It’s natural to want to allow your child to avoid situations that make her anxious, or reassure her that her worries won’t come true,” writes Julia Martin Burch, PhD., staff psychologist in the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program at McLean Hospital. “However, this can actually contribute to a vicious cycle that reinforces anxiety in the long term.”

“Instead, acknowledge your child’s emotion and then help her think through small steps she might take to approach, rather than avoid, her worries,” adds Dr. Burch. “For example, you might say, “It sounds like you’re feeling anxious about riding the school bus by yourself. Would you be up for checking out the bus stop with me this afternoon?” Give lots of attention and praise to any “brave” behaviors rather than to her anxiety. “I love how willing you were to take the bus this morning! Great job pushing back on the worry bully!”

Help them deal with the physical symptoms.

Teach them calming strategies like breathing exercises and mindfulness. Simply slowing their breathing down can help reduce anger, anxiety, and depression.

Reassure them.

“Reassure them that you know while we search for answers that this can be scary and confusing, but as their parent you are going to watch out for them,” says Dr. Michael Rubino, a psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience treating children and teenagers. “As soon as you hear news about what the plans are for school, you will share the information with them.”

“Also reassure them you will not place them in a dangerous or uncomfortable situation,” adds Dr. Rubino. “If you do not feel comfortable with the plans for returning to school, you will look at alternatives such as homeschooling. Remind them that as their parents you can make different plans for them if needed.”

Make sure they’re getting the mental health care they need.

Finally, know that you don’t have to do this completely on your own. If you feel overwhelmed or your child’s symptoms are getting worse, reach out to your support system like family members or educators.

You can also try out apps like Calm or Headspace. Or, please contact a mental health professional like DPS. In addition to our expertise in working with children, we also offer services like teletherapy.

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