Preventing back-to-school stress

WASHINGTON — The back-to-school season can be stressful for parents and kids, but there are ways to help alleviate the potential for anxiety.

There’s comfort in organization.

“The night before school, (make sure) the bags are packed, the clothing is selected and you may even know what’s going in the lunch bag,” said MedStar Washington Hospital Center psychiatrist Dr. Karen Johnson. “Make sure they’re sleeping well,” she said.

Children feeling stressed may exhibit no telltale signs, while others might. According to Johnson, warning signs children might be feeling anxious include:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability for no apparent reason
  • Change in appetite or what they’re eating
  • Changes in behavior you haven’t noticed before

Even if everything seems fine, Johnson recommends starting conversations.

“You can ask your kid, ‘Hey, Monday is the first day of school — how are you feeling about that,'” Johnson suggests as an example. Listen to your child’s response free of bias, Johnson counsels, while assuring them that what they’re experiencing isn’t new.

“Tell them, ‘Hey listen, you can talk to me because everybody is scared of something when they’re starting it for the first time,'” Johnson said.

Just don’t be condescending. “Don’t say, ‘This has happened to everybody else so you can go through it, too.’ Rather, Tell me what you’re feeling about this and then see how we can work through it,” Johnson advises.

Concerns Johnson believes some children may have:

  • Whether they’ll be popular
  • Whether their clothes are fashionable
  • Whether they’ll be invited to share a table at lunch
  • Whether they have all the needed school supplies
  • Starting a new phase of education such as middle or high school
  • Going to a new school

A way to let a child feel there’s nothing to fear and you’re with them at school is to leave fun supportive notes, Johnson said, either in a lunch box or via text or Twitter.

Johnson warns that a potential parental pitfall is giving one child extra attention to ease through a big transition at the expense of other family members. An example Johnson uses is having an older child leave home for college and not realizing that younger siblings also will miss them.

“Doing a lot of stuff together as a family that first week is going to be good and having a lot of conversation around the dinner table,” Johnson said. “Open communication is always the best thing.”

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