By Aaron Jeckell, M.D.
The start of a new school year can be an exciting transition time for many children and young adults. For others, though, this is an annual time of stress and worry.
This fall adds a layer of pressure, as instead of spending just the summer out of the classroom, many have not participated in live learning for over a year.
If your child typically experiences some separation anxiety, you can anticipate that it may be more pronounced as they get back to school. Some may have become very accustomed to being at home around parents and learning from their bedroom. On top of that, they may be getting a lot of mixed messages regarding the safety of public spaces.
It is important to recognize that mild anxiety in proportion to the stressor that causes it can be normal and even helpful. Stress and anxiety are the reason that we prepare for tests, check our blind spots while driving, and prepare for upcoming events. However, out-of-proportion anxiety can get in the way of our ability to be successful.
If your child is struggling with back-to-school anxiety, there are strategies you can use to ease your child’s discomfort.
Ask and Listen
There are a lot of reasons your child might be worried about going back to school. Try not to assume anything. Create a communication plan and check in with your child about what they are experiencing. Ask what you can do to support them. Also, consider how you ask your child questions.
Instead of saying, “I know exactly how you feel. You are worried about being around other kids again,” try asking, “Do you want to talk about what you are worried about? I’d love it if you could help me understand what has been getting to you.”
Instead of saying, “You should try talking to the counselor, I’m really busy lately,” try asking, “What does support from me look like for you?”
Try being direct in your questions. For example, you could ask your child, “Are you more worried about COVID, being around other kids, being away from me, or is it something else entirely?”
Check in With Yourself
Perhaps you, as an adult, are feeling as much or more stress regarding return to school or work. Bring an awareness to that, and don’t allow your own experience to influence your kids, as they are attuned to the emotions of their parents and other guardians. Avoid leading with your own anxiety. Instead, use this as an opportunity to demonstrate distress tolerance.
Instead of thinking, “Wow, this is so stressful for my kid, I really need to focus on them,” consider, “What is my stress level at? Would a bit of self-care help me be a better support for my child?”
Validate, Validate, and Validate Some More!
Acknowledge that the back-to-school transition is stressful. Avoid language that minimizes their experience, and make sure they know they can feel safe bringing their worries to you.
For example, if your child says they don’t want to go back to school, acknowledge their concerns. Instead of saying, “Stop worrying, you’ll be fine! Your brother went back to school with no problem. You should feel lucky to be going back to the classroom,” consider saying, “I hear that this is scary for you. It has been a really wild year and this transition feels WAY bigger than usual.”
When Should You Get Help?
If a child continues to struggle after returning to school, they often just need time and patience from parents and teachers as they continue to adjust and get into a routine. However, if your child is experiencing severe meltdowns a few weeks into the school year without being able to recover or focus in school, seeking professional help can be beneficial.
Sometimes there are underlying reasons why a child struggles to reintegrate into the classroom setting. Getting to the root of the problem and putting a treatment plan in place gives your child a better chance at overcoming such barriers.
Dr. Aaron Jeckell, M.D., is a Child/Adolescent Psychiatrist at Broward Health Coral Springs. If your child is struggling beyond what you think is typical and you are interested in a psychiatric evaluation, call 954-753-8834 or visit www.BrowardHealth.org/DrAaronJeckell.
In addition, Dr. Jeckell will be hosting a virtual lecture on September 30 on “Myths and Legends of Youth Mental Health.” Click here to register.
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