For Your Health: An addition to the parents’ back-to-school list

Robin Fenn
Robin Fenn

Ahhhhhhh…the first day of school. As summer is winding down, parents and children alike are gearing up for back to school. The coming of the new school year conjures up thoughts of new school supplies and school clothes, reconnecting with old friends, sharing summer vacation stories. It is an exciting time for most kids.

For many children, however, the upcoming school year can produce feelings of stress and anxiety.  Depending on their age, children’s back-to-school worries can include:

  • What if I miss the bus?
  • What if I can’t find the bathroom?
  • Who will I eat lunch with?
  • What if I don’t like my teachers? What if they don’t like me?
  • What if the work is too hard?
  • What if I can’t make friends?
  • What if my clothes are wrong?
  • What if I don’t fit in?

Symptoms of stress and anxiety can differ based on a child’s age and temperament. Some children may become withdrawn and weepy; others may act out angrily. Parents might hear vague complaints of “I don’t feel good” to stay out of school; sometimes, true physical issues can develop (like headaches and stomach aches.) Children may pull away from friends or activities that they previously enjoyed. It may be difficult to determine if moodiness is related to adolescent hormones or an underlying stress or anxiety issue. The main thing for parents to add to their back-to-school list is to watch for a noticeable change in your child’s eating habits, social interactions, sleeping patterns, or moods.

Listen with Intent

If you notice a change in your child, ask him/her about it. When your child shares worries about going back to school, do listen seriously. By listening and talking about your child’s concerns, you can help him/her feel more secure and you can help your child figure out ways to handle the things s/he is concerned about. We as adults often want to make sure our children are feeling okay and we might tend to say things like “Don’t worry!” or “It’s not really a big deal; it will all work itself out.” Our job as supportive adults is to validate our children’s concerns. Instead, statements like, “Tell me more about why that has you worried,” or “What can you do if that happens?” help children feel heard and allow them to problem solve solutions to feel more in control.

We all live very busy and often hectic lives. It is sometimes hard to listen with intent when the phones are ringing and others are trying to get our attention. When possible, carve out a few minutes each day to talk to your child about what is on his/her mind. Dedicating time and space to hearing your children’s worries makes them feel supported.

Develop a Plan

Develop a plan with your child about how to deal with the issues that have him/her concerned. “This is who will pick you up after school and what you should do if that doesn’t happen.” “This is what to do if you get home from school and I’m not here.” “This is what we will do together if a bully picks on you.”

Often times, worry and stress come from feeling a lack of control about a situation. By building a plan together with your child, s/he will begin to feel more empowered should the situation arise and more supported knowing that you are helping him/her find a solution. Knowing that someone is in his/her corner can be one of the strongest supports in dealing with school-related stress and anxiety.

Basic Needs

We all know that being hungry or tired can make feelings of stress and anxiety even worse. We also know that when our schedules are chaotic and unpredictable, we tend to have less capacity to deal with our worries. It is the same with our children. By sticking to a schedule as consistently as possible (including bedtimes), you will be helping your child to address the things that are worrying him/her. Additionally, making sure that your child is fed and has adequate sleep can add to his/her resiliency.

Seek Help for Extra Support

Despite doing all of the above, sometimes your child may not be ready to talk about things or may be nervous telling you what is on his/her mind. There may be times as a parent that you find yourself needing a little more support for your child. It is okay to contact a child’s teacher to discuss concerns. There are also several resources available within the Edmonds School District that can provide assistance:

  • Elementary schools: Talk with your child’s teacher first, and a connection to the school psychologist may be the best next step.
  • Middle schools: In addition to supporting scheduling and the student’s academic needs, school counselors can provide social-emotional support or refer the student to the student support advocate (social worker).
  • High schools: School counselors can provide social-emotional support or they may refer the student to the student support advocate (social worker).

Community-based programs are available as well, and school staff can connect families with these options.

— By Robin Fenn, Ph.D., LICSW, Superintendent, Verdant Health Commission

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