Starting or returning to school can trigger anxiety in some children, but parents can help ease worried young minds, a mental health expert says.
“Anxiety is one of the most common mental health challenges for children. Uncertainty fuels the fears, especially during times of transition, like starting a new school year,” Dr. Theodote Pontikes, a pediatric psychiatrist at Loyola University Health System in Chicago, said in a university news release.
One way to limit anxiety is to establish a routine before the first day of school that’s similar to the one that will be used during the school year. This includes consistent sleep and wake times, no daytime naps, and scheduled meals and snacks. It’s important to encourage a pattern of physical activity, which helps children release excess energy and sleep better at night, she said.
It’s also a good idea to have children practice how they will get to and from school, meet their teachers and tour their school before classes start, if possible, she added.
“When it’s time to head out on that first day, consider putting a small trinket or photo in your child’s backpack, so they feel connected to home. You can teach your children relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, positive self-talk and visual imagery exercises, so they feel prepared to manage stressful situations,” Pontikes said.
The most crucial thing is for parents to talk to their children about their worries, connect with them and make them feel secure.
“It’s important for parents to be attuned to their child’s concerns regarding school, as they help their child cope with anticipatory anxiety,” Pontikes explained.
Anxiety and stress is also common among new college students.
“When a child heads off to college, they need to still feel connected to their parents. Parents should establish a schedule of communication on a regular basis via telephone and even texting,” Pontikes said.
“Participating in parents’ weekend and other activities for families, as well as just being available to listen, can help your college student realistically achieve short- and long-term goals,” she added.
But sometimes parental support isn’t enough, she explained.
“When anxiety becomes paralyzing and students aren’t able to look forward to learning and aren’t able to embrace the academic experience, parents must seek consultation from a mental health professional, to provide guidance and discuss recommendations for care and treatment,” Pontikes said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has more about preparing for a new school year.