Central Kansas Mental Health Center
Returning to the classroom can be an exciting time for many students, but for some, it can mean increased levels of stress and anxiety. Back-to-school stress and anxiety is normal and understandable, and parents can help ease the transition by recognizing symptoms and providing support.
Several factors can cause stress and anxiety for students. Back to school can bring a number of transitions, including a new school building or district, new teachers, new schedules, and new classmates. Students’ social networks could be changed or disrupted. There could be changes and challenges at home, like a parent losing or changing jobs, moving to a new house or community, or friction between parents. Family members may be leaving the household for college, work, or military.
Social issues also influence children’s stress levels. With the pandemic, the trauma of school shootings, and a youth mental health warning, it is not surprising that there is a lot of anxiety surrounding the new school year. There are many reasons why kids may experience anxiety and stress as the first day of school approaches, and their reasons are as unique as they are.
Signs of increased stress and anxiety include sudden changes in appearance or behavior. Withdrawing from friends, family, and activities, more tearful or less cheerful than usual, difficulty sleeping (or sleeping too much), loss of appetite (or overeating), or increased irritability, are some signs that children may be experiencing unhealthy levels of stress. Stress can manifest as physical symptoms too, including stomachaches, muscle tension and aches, quick breathing, and feeling hot or sweating.
There are several ways parents can help students manage stress and anxiety and alleviate symptoms. Build routines around mornings and bedtime before schools starts to help ease the transition. Help them find activities they enjoy or opportunities to blow off steam, and promote healthy habits around sleeping, eating, and exercising. Spend quality time together. Most importantly listen and try to understand their feelings, and work together to think about ways to reduce their anxiety.
Several therapists and case managers at Central Kansas Mental Health Center specialize in working with youth, helping them work through difficult and stressful life transitions.
Renee Thomas, LMSW Crisis Clinician, and Leannitta Heller, Crisis Administrative Liaison, highlight the importance of communication when children are dealing with stress and anxiety. “Make open conversation a normal part of your families daily routine,” Heller recommends. “Talk to your kids about what is happening in the world. Allow them to ask questions, and educate them on who they can go to for help. Create a safe space for them to talk about what is going on in their lives. If they are not comfortable talking to you, allow them to talk to a professional.”
“Just asking ‘How are you feeling?’ can open the conversation,” Thomas added. “Use open ended questions and listen to their answers without judgement. Check in on them, ask if there is anything they need, and offer to take them to activities. Be present for them even if they do not want to talk. Don’t pry or push, but remind them that you are there for them when they are ready and then make yourself available.”
Both Thomas and Heller also stressed that it is important to normalize mental health and self-care. “Help break the stigma by showing your children you are taking care of your own mental health,” Heller said. “Set the example, whether it be by participating in individual therapy yourself, family therapy, regular family check-ins, or practicing self-care. If your child sees that you are invested in your own mental health as well as theirs, they are more willing to engage.”
For most students, back-to-school jitters subside in a few days and the feelings of stress and anxiety are temporary. If symptoms last longer than two weeks and interfere with daily life and activities, this could be a sign of an anxiety disorder and the help of a professional is recommended.
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