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The Back-To-School Blues and School-Based Anxiety

“My stomach hurts, I can’t go to school.”

“I’m too tired. I couldn’t fall asleep last night. I don’t want to go.”

“I can’t go in today. I just can’t. I won’t.”

Ever heard these from your child? Ever used some of these when you were younger?

Many of these statements are often chalked off to the “usual child laziness” and ignored with a “Get up NOW because you’re going to school”. And understandably so, as many parents work one to two jobs and cannot take time off to monitor a potentially-not-sick child. Or, sometimes this youth has made a lot of “excuses” to not go to school, using their rotating playlist of The Excuses’ Top 40 hits.

But here’s an idea…

What if the “excuses” are not that at all, but rather indicators of larger problems that your kid doesn’t know how else to express?

School-based anxiety is a common ailment for many youth throughout the country. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Anxiety disorders affect 25.1% of children between 13 and 18 years old”. School can be a stressful time! Between maintaining grades, sometimes also maintaining a job, social issues, growing up in a time when youth often do not feel safe to attend school due to gun violence, and, of course, changing bodies with changing hormones it is (to name just a few) America’s youth are struggling with mental health issues that previous generations have not seen before.

Anxiety can be difficult to pinpoint sometimes, as it can present as so many different things. Here are some symptoms to look out for in either yourself or your children:

  • Mysterious stomach aches that are quickly alleviated with a change of scenery
  • Lethargy
  • Too much sleep or too little sleep
  • Temper tantrums (with increasing severity when attending school)
  • Cutting/self-harm
  • Excessive crying
  • Lack of social contact with friends/family

While sometimes just a Mental Health Day (AKA parent-approved break from the intensity of school for one day, with the agreement to attend the next day) can do the trick, here are some other ideas to aid both you and your child with their anxiety surrounding school:

  • Listen to your child! Ask them what is wrong and address any pressing and immediate concerns (perhaps a bully is making your child’s life difficult or concerns over grades, etc.) Notice any common trends or themes that pop up (Is it math? Sports? Social concerns? A mix of all of them?)
  • Explain what anxiety is doing in the body to try and help you. The brain is great at trying to keep us safe, but sometimes it goes overboard with our “fight or flight” responses. Understanding the bio-mechanics of anxiety can help in managing these physiological and psychological experiences
  • Try to remain calm yourself. Very often we hear children say that they don’t feel comfortable going to a parent because “they always over react and nothing gets better”. Take a deep breath, focus on the person speaking, maintain eye contact, and stay present with your child
  • Ask the speaker to explain what they are feeling physically. You may hear things like “my heart is going really fast and I can’t take a deep breath” and “my stomach hurts all the time” or “I keep having the urge to bounce my leg around and can’t sit still”. Of course, please consult a medical professional for any symptoms that seem distinctly out of the norm and concerning.
  • Also, encourage specific verbalization of emotions with descriptive words. Sometimes youth simply don’t have the words to describe how they are feeling, so it can help to use an emotion word wheel or an emotion-identification chart.
  • Be the role model for your child. For example, verbalize if you are feeling anxious about something and the steps you take to overcome it. Explain to them that they are brave for trying and you appreciate their efforts.
  • Praise the small stuff. Child woke up on time? Compliment! They got a C+ on a test they were convinced they were going to fail? Compliment! They were able to verbalize how they were feeling? You get the idea.
  • Encourage your child to participate in activities they enjoy. Having something to look forward to at the end of the school day can be a big motivator. See what classes or clubs are available near you!
  • Teach your youth some mindfulness techniques. Some tried and true ones are The Body Scan , Leaves on a River, and a myriad of Breathing Exercises. Practice these daily with your child and explain the importance of breath. We know, it sounds cheesy (“Just take a deep breath and you’ll make it through” is often met with an eye roll) but learning to master our bodies natural rhythms can be a very powerful anxiety tamer.
  • A.L.T. stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. Sometimes if we fix two of these (the most common culprits being “hungry” and “tired”) we can begin to weed out some of the immediately pressing issues that can make our rational thinking hazy
  • Check in with teachers and school staff. More often times than not, we don’t get the full picture of what is happening during the school day because we simply are not there. There is no harm in having clear and open communication with the adults that they spend so much time with every day. Teachers, coaches, counselors and other school staff may be privy to supplemental information to

The above list is merely just a starting point to aid in the journey to a cool, calm, collected youth. Building resiliency and beneficial coping skills is a life time effort. Keep the conversation going amongst your peers, colleagues, and family. There is no shame in experiencing anxiety and certainly no shame in getting help.

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