Managing back to school anxiety

Community Psychiatry’s Summer Thompson, DNP, PMHNP-BC wrote an article discussing back to school anxiety for teens that was featured in Thrive Global.

Socialization Is Key to Future Success, Recognize the Uncertainty, Provide Structure, Acknowledge Concerns and Move Forward on the Right Track

By: Summer Thompson, DNP, PMHNP-BC

COVID-19 has created a significant amount of disruption in the world. We hear talk of adjusting to a “new normal,” but when it comes to back-to-school, we remain uncertain about what that new COVID-19 classroom will entail. As leaders debate sending kids back to the physical classroom, many questions are still unanswered. In the midst of this uncertainty, it’s not surprising that anxiety is prevalent in the minds of many, including adolescents and young adults.

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, anxiety disorders occur in approximately 32% of 13- to 18-year-olds. The heightened uncertainty about going back to school will likely exacerbate anxiety symptoms. Concerns about wearing masks and social distancing are part of everyday conversations. Young adults are aware of their parents’ stress and listening to conversations about safety concerns when it comes to sending them back to school.

Back-to-school will happen in one form or another, and now is the time to prepare. Four considerations to help you manage your young adults back to school anxiety and stress and keep them on the right track include:

Socialization Is Key to Future Success 

It’s important to understand school provides socialization and is a training ground for social interactions for later in life. It is where children of all ages learn how to deal with difficult people, navigate a variety of different interactions and do many of the things they will need to do to be successful adults. As a result, even amidst COVID-19, it’s essential kids have the chance to develop social skills and learn and grow in a school environment.

Given the current health concerns around the pandemic, it’s reasonable for parents to have safety concerns. It is also important to recognize that fear is a normal emotion not only as a parent, but also in your teen. Validation of those feelings can help young adults normalize their feelings of anxiety, reduce shame about being afraid, and lessen any fear they might feel when going back to school.

Many parents are undecided if they will have their children return to a physical learning environment when it is determined that this can be safe to do so. This is a difficult decision knowing the importance of social interaction for teens. Parents should be aware that they should do what they and their teen feel is the best decision for them, every family is different and has different concerns. Should your child return to in-person school discuss the importance of social distancing as recommended by the CDC, frequent handwashing, and wearing masks when appropriate to mitigate anxiety over health risks. Remember, once your child is back in school to reinforce the positive experiences they have, and that social interactions and readjusting to school is like learning to ride a bike; you have to get back up when you fall and celebrate the positive wins and successes.

Recognize the Uncertainty.

As you think about getting your kids back to school, the uncertainty that is undeniably present requires thoughtful consideration.  With so much upheaval, it’s hard to feel safe, secure and grounded in the world.

In young adults uncertainty can manifest itself in a number of different ways other than just feeling anxious.  A variety of different physical symptoms of anxiety can be a very common side effect of stress. Nightmares can become more frequent and with increasingly disturbing content, restful sleep can become more difficult to achieve leaving the person feeling tired and more anxious during the day,  and vague body aches can become bothersome with no notable physical cause.

One of the best approaches to managing the stress caused by the uncertainty in the world at the moment is to talk to your children. Give that uncertainty a name. Many times children do not make the correlation between what is occurring in their physical environments and the greater world and how they are feeling both emotionally and physically.  If you feel as though your child is experiencing overwhelming anxiety it is always a good idea to seek professional help and advice if you or your teen have questions.

Provide Structure.

There are things parents can do to mitigate the effects of anxiety in their child. Unquestionably, COVID-19 has disrupted our regular schedules, and we rarely pause to think about how different activities provide structure to day to day life. Humans thrive with structure, and providing as much structure as possible can give a sense of normalcy and stability. Three things that can help provide structure for your pre-teen and teen:

  • Encourage daily exerciseYoung adults need exercise. Exercise helps burn off energy, and excess energy can build up and feed anxiety. We want to avoid kids feeling even more anxious about the world, so implement and encourage time for daily physical activity.
  • Implement sleep schedules. Adequate sleep is essential to a healthy mind and body, especially in adolescents. Providing as much structure as possible is going to be the best plan. Be consistent about set bedtimes and make sure children transition to a quiet time with no electronics to sleep.
  • Participate in family meals. There is a lot of research around children sitting down for at least one meal a day with the family unit. Family mealtime presents kids with an opportunity to talk and share what has happened in the course of their day. Even if it’s just 30 minutes where everyone sits down and talks, open communication allows kids a platform to express feelings that can help ward off feelings of anxiety and stress, as well as help with self-esteem.

Acknowledge Concerns and Move Forward. 

Even with going back to school, many children are still dealing with feelings of incomplete transitions. Many did not get a graduation from middle school to high school and for many senior graduation failed to take place. Special events like parties, concerts or other milestone events got suspended in the wake of COVID-19. As a result, many young adults may feel a sense of loss. It’s critical to acknowledge these feelings.

Thankfully, this is not a hopeless situation. As a parent, you can provide concrete ways to mark special occasions and acknowledge milestones. Create a memory book with your child around special events – like a scrapbook highlighting their senior year or middle school years. Plan a small celebration with the immediate family, or have a virtual party on a video-conferencing application.

As adults, it’s essential to help teens and pre-teens navigate the waters of going back to school and provide some sense of calm and reassurance. Going back to school will be challenging, but with a little preparation and empathy now, you can set your child up for success for this school year and many years to come.

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