As the store shelves fill with backpacks and school supplies (a little early in my opinion), we are reminded that for most kiddos, the school year is fast approaching. Children often experience some uncertainty as the school year approaches: who will my teacher(s) be? Will I have friends in my class(es)? Will I be able to do the work? It is common for all of us to experience some anxiety around transitions, parents, school personnel and students alike.
So, if it’s not unusual to be thrown off this time of year, how do I know if my child has normal back-to-school jitters versus more of a mental health condition? This is a question a lot of parents will be facing in the days and weeks to come as recent research coming out of the American Medical Association, suggests that anxiety rates in kids are on the rise (11.6% (pre-pandemic) to possibly as high as 68.3% (current)). It makes sense that our kids are really struggling given all the missed experiences during the pandemic, facing the uncertainty and loss associated with a deadly disease, seeing increasing riots, war and school shootings on the news and the constant exposure to social media often spreading negative messages to our youth.
As parents try to understand their children’s condition, it can be helpful to look at their symptoms from an aged-based or developmental perspective. Younger children may be less able to verbalize their feelings, so parents may observe more acting out behavior, refusal to go to school or persistent physical health complaints (e.g., headaches or stomachaches). Older children may be more likely to withdraw, isolate, avoid going to school and not care for their appearance. I tell parents all the time, use your mommy or daddy gut, you know your kid and what is their “normal”- if they are consistently not themselves, something is going on and they may need some help.
What parents need to know is that kids benefit from being in school. Academics aside, the social experience, the structure, the sense of meaning and purpose derived from the school experience, and the many eyes, and ears on them- school is where most children’s emotional and physical needs will be addressed. So, when your kid expresses their late August angst about returning to school, validate their feelings and remind yourself that the transition back to the classroom will ultimately benefit them. Starting a new school year is stressful and it’s normal to feel uneasy about an upcoming time full of new situations. Schedule a playdate with a child from their new class or take a tour of a new school. Get them excited about a new backpack or lunchbox and share with them your memories of starting a new school year. And, if you child is highly anxious about going to school or exhibiting symptoms that seem out of character as the school year approaches, consider some mental health treatment for your child or some parenting guidance for yourself. We are here to support you and your student in the year ahead!