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How to help children with back-to-school anxieties

Physical activities, talking things over can help, Loyola expert says

As the days of summer dwindle, children’s anxiety levels often increase. In addition to getting school supplies, registration completed and vaccinations up to date, it’s important for parents to talk to their kids and understand how they feel about heading back to school.

“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,” said Theodote Pontikes, MD, pediatric psychiatrist at Loyola University Health System in Maywood, Ill., and assistant professor in the departments of Psychiatry & Behavioral Neurosciences and Pediatrics at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

Pontikes said establishing a routine that’s similar to a school routine can help curb anxiety. This includes:

  • Bedtime and wake-up schedules
  • No naps
  • Scheduled meals and snacks

“It’s important for children to engage in a pattern of physical activity. This helps release excess energy and facilitate relaxation and sleep onset at night,” Pontikes said.

It’s also helpful for children to practice how they will get to and from school and, if possible, to meet their teachers and tour the school.

“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.

Other ways to help alleviate anxiety include parents sharing personal stories of how they overcame school-related situations that caused them anxiety. For younger children, reading books about starting school can be helpful. For older children, role playing school scenarios will help them walk through the problem and find solutions in a safe environment, which can relieve anxiety.

According to Pontikes, the most important thing a parent can do is spend time with their children talking about their fears, connecting and making 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 said.

It’s not just school-age children who have anxiety. Many college students living on their own, often for the first time, can feel anxious and stressed, too.

“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."

Suicide is the second most common cause of death among college students. To keep college kids safe and well, Pontikes suggested parents talk to their children about peer pressure, academic stress and substance misuse, keeping the lines of communication open. Also, make sure your college students know where to go on campus if they need help, like the student counseling center.

“Children of all ages should feel safe to go to school and talk about their experiences with their parents. 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.

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