Is your child exhibiting anxiety about going to school? They’re not the only one. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 4.4 million children are living with anxiety, and The American Academy of Pediatrics recently declared a national state of emergency in child and adolescent mental health.
According to Kate Parker, LCSW, vice president of clinical operations at Mental Health Partners, “Post-COVID anxiety has really increased in youth because of the social disorder from being isolated. Now that kids are back in school, they’re showing that they’re developmentally behind because social interaction is how they learn,” she says.
Kids may have had a fear of being watched or judged by others during virtual school. Now that they’re back in a school setting with 20 to 25 kids and different teachers, that fear has increased. Additionally, social media, world stress and parent’s stress are contributing to the general anxiety.
“I’ve seen things I’ve never seen before. Eating disorders and anxiety about going to school, behaviors that aren’t usually typical for a lot of kids,” says Parker.
What to look for
Anxiety and depression can look the same. Symptoms can be exhibited by feelings ranging from phobias about dogs or insects, to repeated episodes of feeling dizzy, irritable and angry. Separation anxiety and more acting act, as well as headaches, hyperventilation and a racing heart are things to be aware of.
WHAT CAN YOU DO AS A PARENT OR GUARDIAN?
Validate their feelings
“It’s important to validate kids’ emotions,” Parker says. “Their perceptions are their reality, whether it feels real or not to you as a parent. That helps them recognize what their feelings are and then the triggers come out. Practice meditation, use relaxation skills, or provide a fidget toy, anything for the child to reduce anxiety emotions.
“Younger kids won’t call it anxiety. But you can help them see what’s normal by play acting and using practice tools in various scenarios. Then talk about what’s going to happen when they go to school. For example, if your child is anxious about being alone, have them practice walking over to introduce him/herself. Then they can recognize what it is, and practice the tools with the situations they’re experiencing. Make it comfortable at home for that child to talk and walk it through,” she adds.
Reduce screen time and spend more time together
Screen time increases social anxiety. Make your child aware of how social media is impacting their life, and align with teens to negotiate together how much screen time is appropriate for their well-being so they feel they have some control.
Ask your child, ‘Do you really think that’s doing you any good?’ “Some kids are starting to turn off social media. I’m crossing my fingers that piece will disappear. Some of my kids’ friends do not use social media. There’s some movement going there,” says Parker.
WHAT CAN BE DONE AT SCHOOL?
Parker says, “It takes a village to take care of our kids. Educators can be thoughtful around online instruction, and incorporate a more hands-on approach. It’s important to not put pressure on kids who are anxious or don’t have friends because it increases anxiety.
It’s nerve wracking for kids who haven’t been speaking up,” she adds. “Instead of having the same kids participate, teachers can guide anxious kids by rewarding and incentivizing participation. Educators need to be really clear about expectations, bullying, discrimination and harassment, and to follow through on what those expectations are. For instance, a lot of bullying is happening due to social media. It’s important that educators hold that line and have a safe place for everyone,” she says.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Parker tells about a boy who graduated from a Mental Health Partner’s outreach support group. “He said, ‘I felt like I was all better.’ He isn’t all better, says Parker, “but he has the tools now and he has his parents to help. The biggest thing is to make sure people know they are not alone. When they feel vulnerable, they can ask for help.”
Mental Health Partners is the only organization providing comprehensive mental health services to residents of Boulder and Broomfield counties regardless of their ability to pay. For more information about anxiety outreach programs for teens and children, and one on-on-one assessment and counseling, call 303.443.8500 or visit: mhpcolorado.org/back-to-school. 24/7 Crisis Line: 1.844.493.8255.
Hydrate. Did you know that your brain needs water as much as your body does in order to function optimally? Get your child into the habit of drinking water throughout the day. Set an example by having every family member carrying a water bottle.
Exercise. Start young and start early. Start an exercise regimen as a family. Get up 15 minutes earlier (yes, it’s hard), and uplift everyone’s mood with some dance music and move your bodies. Or, take a walk together after dinner. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, a 10-minute walk may be just as good as a 45-minute workout for relieving anxiety and depression. Some studies show that exercise can work quickly to elevate a depressed mood in many people.
Have a healthy eating plan that includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and low-fat protein. Buy on the perimeter of the grocery store and skip the junk-food aisles.
Meditate. Mind-body therapies such as meditation and yoga have been proven to help children manage stress and anxiety. Practice mindfulness by meditating for 10 to 15 minutes a day. Sit in a comfortable position, close the eyes, and use an image that is relaxing or a word. Transcendental meditation offers programs for children of all ages in the Boulder/Denver area.
Sleep. Help your student to get at least eight hours a night of shut-eye. It’s so important for good health, mental clarity and emotional stability. Turn off devices at least an hour before bed. This is a hard one, but you’ve read the warnings. Blue light from being online at night causes circadian rhythm disruptions. It’s harder to fall asleep and stay asleep after you’ve been on your phone right before bed.
By Barbra Cohn, Raised in the Rockies