Monday, August 18, 2014

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.

About Loyola University Health System

Loyola University Health System (LUHS) is part of Trinity Health. Based in the western suburbs of Chicago, LUHS is a quaternary care system with a 61-acre main medical center campus, the 36-acre Gottlieb Memorial Hospital campus and more than 30 primary and specialty care facilities in Cook, Will and DuPage counties. Loyola University Medical Center’s campus is conveniently located in Maywood, 13 miles west of Chicago’s Loop and 8 miles east of Oak Brook, Ill. At the heart of the medical center campus is a 559-licensed-bed hospital that houses a Level 1 Trauma Center, a Burn Center and the Ronald McDonald® Children's Hospital of Loyola University Medical Center. Also on campus are the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, Loyola Outpatient Center, Center for Heart & Vascular Medicine and Loyola Oral Health Center as well as Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, Loyola University Chicago Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing and the Loyola Center for Fitness. Loyola's Gottlieb campus in Melrose Park includes the 255-licensed-bed community hospital, the Professional Office Building housing 150 private practice clinics, the Adult Day Care, the Gottlieb Center for Fitness, Loyola Center for Metabolic Surgery and Bariatric Care and the Loyola Cancer Care & Research at the Marjorie G. Weinberg Cancer Center at Melrose Park.

Trinity Health is a national Catholic health system with an enduring legacy and a steadfast mission to be a transforming and healing presence within the communities we serve. Trinity is committed to being a people-centered health care system that enables better health, better care and lower costs. Trinity Health has 88 hospitals and hundreds of continuing care facilities, home care agencies and outpatient centers in 21 states and 119,000 employees.