MAYWOOD, IL – Whether it's beginning preschool or senior year of high school, back-to-school season can cause anxiety and stress among children and young adults.
Primary care physician Anita Damodaran, MD, who sees patients at the Loyola Center for Health at Chicago, says these are some signs to look for when children are feeling stressed and aren't expressing it.
- Trouble sleeping
- Stomach aches
- Irritability or tantrums
- Refusing to go to school
- In young adults, repeated absences or negative self-talk
"It's important that parents recognize and validate children's feelings of stress," Dr. Damodaran said. "By doing so, they are able to help their children find solutions and make for a better school year."
Dr. Damodaran said regardless of the age of the child, there are things parents can do to help ease the back-to-school process.
Get prepared: Start the back-to-school routine 2-3 weeks before school begins. Start going to bed and waking up earlier. Try to eat on a regular schedule that mimics the school day. Practice the usual morning routine, including laying out clothes the night before and practicing the travel route.
Walk through school before the first day: This is especially important for children starting a new school, but even for returning students it's reassuring to know how to find your classroom and locker.
For preschool and kindergarten, have a play date with children in your child's new school prior to the first day of school. For young adults, find where the neighborhood kids go after school to safely spend time, such as a community recreation center or a park.
"For children of any age, having a familiar and friendly face those first days can help ease the process," Dr. Damodaran said.
"Before the school year begins, discuss short- and long-term goals for the year," Dr. Damodaran said. "A visual schedule, such as a whiteboard, can help the family stay on the same page. It's also important to discuss expectations about homework time."
Once school begins, Dr. Damodaran said families should make sure to schedule time for fun and relaxation, even if it's only 15-20 minutes. Ideally, she said, it should be technology free.
Sometimes back-to-school anxiety can be a sign of something more serious. Dr. Damodaran said parents should reach out to their primary care physician, a psychologist or a school guidance counselor if they have concerns.
Parents should watch out for:
- Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness or guilt
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Decreased energy or concentration
- Decreased interest in things the child used to enjoy
- Outbursts of anger or sadness
- Statements of self harm
Adolescence (ages 10-19) is the most common time for depression to be diagnosed. In young children, depression can often mimic the symptoms of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
"Parents should never hesitate to reach out if they have concerns about their child's mental health," Dr. Damodaran said. "If needed, there are many resources available."