Did you know that anxiety issues are the most common mental health disorders in children? There are an estimated 18 million children and teens who suffer from anxiety. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 25 percent of teenagers have issues of anxiety, and the statistics don’t take into account the young people who are undiagnosed or don’t reach out for help. Because the start of a new school year can trigger or worsen anxiety in stressed-out children and teens, pediatric anxiety specialist Rhonda Martin, M.A., offers the following tips for parents to help ease back-to-school anxiety for their kids.
Back to school is back to stress for many kids
Summertime is often an oasis from stress for kids who suffer from anxiety. When school is back in session, kids are faced with emotional, social and educational challenges that they don’t have to worry about during the summer. “Concerns of whether current friends will be in their classes, worries that a known bully will be in the same gym period, anxiety about leaving mom and dad, stress over where to sit at lunch are among the many reasons back to school is not a peaceful time for a child who often thinks of the many ‘what if’s’ that a new school year brings,” says Martin, a board-certified licensed professional clinical counselor and award-winning author of Stuck, a guide for kids and parents dealing with the full spectrum of anxiety disorders. It’s important as a parent to help ease your child’s anxiety rather than dismiss it or, worse, get angry or belittle your child for feeling stressed. Martin suggests the following 10 anxiety-easing tips.
Keep your family
Exercise isn’t just good for the body, it can also help get rid of nervous energy. “Two weeks prior to school starting, encourage your child to exercise three to five days a week (exercise as a family to make it fun),” suggests Martin. “It will help your child expend energy and be able to fall asleep at earlier transitional bedtimes. Plus, the additional activity will reduce anxiety levels, which will also help the body to reach a state conducive to falling asleep.”
Ditch the sugar
Steer your child away from sugar to decrease stress levels. Research suggests that white sugar and white flour-based foods can increase anxiety chemicals in the brain. Martin recommends healthy snacks such as whole fruit or yogurt, and if a sugary treat is unavoidable, be sure to partner some protein along with it. Try a handful of nuts, string cheese, a container of yogurt or a glass of milk.
Have fun in the sun
Autumn temps may be cooler, but the sun is still shining and can serve as a natural elixir to anxiety. “When children are outdoors in the sun, they tend to be more relaxed and having fun, instead of worrying about the first day of school,” explains Martin. “Twenty to 40 minutes of sunshine is enough for most children to experience its relaxing effects.”
Keep a schedule
“Structure, plans, organization, predictability and order are great ways to reduce anxiety in children,” says Martin. The pediatric mental health expert suggests that parents should have a family calendar complete with upcoming activities in a common location. This should include all important celebrations, vacations, practices, camps and park visits. Cross off the days and keep it updated.
Sleep is essential to your child’s well-being, and especially important if your child struggles with anxiety. Optimally, your child’s sleep schedule should transition from late nights to proper school night bedtime three weeks prior to school starting, gradually getting earlier. “By the last week of summer before school starts, be sure they are at the new school year bedtime,” she advises. “Dealing with stress and feelings of anxiety can be exhausting!” Even if the school year has already started, help your child develop healthy sleep habits.
Take a bath
If your child has trouble getting to sleep, suggest a warm bath or shower in the evening to promote relaxation. Martin recommends a bath or shower 15 minutes before bedtime. “This allows a minor drop in body temperature which will help the body fall into a deep sleep; a warm shower will have a calming effect as well,” she adds.
Schedule quiet time
“It is not natural for children to go from the freedom of doing what they want in the summer to a very structured and social schedule when the new school year begins,” says Martin. “Leading up to and throughout the first month of school, designate 30 to 60 minutes a day for your child to have alone time to read, watch TV and play on their own.” It can help your child breathe deeply and relax both mind and body.
Respect personal space
Even if your biggest peeve is a messy room, now is not the time to nag or punish your child for disarray. “When getting ready to go back to school, your child’s world is turning upside down, so yes, his or her room might not be spic and span,” Martin explains. “But for now, that’s OK. Having a personal space the way he or she wants it can reduce irritability and stress.” Once school is underway and your child has gotten used to the new schedule and adapted to the extra stress, remind him or her about the importance of a clean room.
Wear comfy attire
Just as a fleece sweatshirt can be your favorite creature comfort, a soft sweater or shirt can feel like an oasis of calm to your child. “When a child feels anxious, their sensitivity is heightened, especially to the touch,” Martin adds. “Be mindful of how clothes feel when shopping for back-to-school outfits.” She recommends soft, tagless items that will help your child feel more comfortable.
Martin emphasizes that back to school is usually the most difficult time for a child with anxiety issues. However, be concerned if a few weeks pass and your child’s anxiety hasn’t decreased or has gotten worse. “If your child has not adapted well to the new school year, seek out a counseling professional who specializes in pediatric anxiety disorders,” the children’s health expert adds. For more information, visit Martin’s website OCDinKids.com.