For many children, this time of year can bring a mixed bag of emotions — though they might not be able or willing to express it.
"Any kind of change or transition for children is stressful," explained Stefanie Spaeth, MD, of Baylor Scott & White Health in Dallas, TX, in an interview with dailyRx News. "Kids like to know what is expected of them, they like to be on a routine — and when it's time to go back to school, their whole routine is changing."
Stress and anxiety can be serious issues in children, and they can show up in a wide range of ways. As families prepare for the start of a new school year, there are several factors they might want to keep in mind to help support the mental health and happiness of their children.
"Children at any age may experience stress and anxiety when it comes time for going back to school — but they may show their stress in different ways," Dr. Spaeth said.
These differences can depend on a number of factors, such as age or personality.
"Young children may become a little hyper or fidgety or restless, they may have trouble falling asleep at night, they may seem overexcited, they may ask lots and lots of questions," Dr. Spaeth said. "Older children — perhaps going into junior high or high school — may become more withdrawn or more quiet, they may get more irritable or have more mood swings, they may be apathetic and act like they don't care."
In other kids, stress or anxiety can manifest themselves in sadness or complaints about not wanting to go to school. However, these signs of stress can be countered with parental action and thoughtfulness.
"There are lots of things that parents can do to ease the stress and anxiety of getting back to school," Dr. Spaeth said.
One important step can to be to acknowledge the factors that might be causing parental stress. Becoming aware of and addressing these issues can help keep anxious feelings from wearing off on the children.
The American Psychological Association (APA) points out that along with the everyday concerns and responsibilities of parenthood, the new school year can bring on additional stressors. These might include issues like paying for new school clothes and supplies and concern for children's academic and social progress in the new school year.
If parents are vocally and negatively expressing these concerns, it could add to their kids' worries.
"If you are negative about it, if you are stressed about it, your children will pick up on that," Dr. Spaeth said. "Stress is contagious, and your children certainly sense when you're feeling stressed."
Talking through the return of the school year in a calm, supportive, positive tone can help everyone cope and prepare.
Don't Dodge Discussions
The APA recommends that discussion topics include both the child's fears and worries about the new year and positive experiences or memories from past years. Practicing empathy and support should be key in these chats.
"Let your children know that you are aware of what they’re going through and that you will be there to help them in the process," according to the APA. "Nerves are normal, but highlight that not everything that is different is necessarily bad. It is important to encourage your children to face their fears instead of falling into the trap of encouraging avoidance."
Run Through the Routine
According to Dr. Spaeth, it can also be helpful to talk through the new routine that will hit when the school year starts, as children like to know the plan ahead of time.
This might include discussing details of the morning routine — like what time they should be getting up, what they are going to wear to school, what they would like to eat for breakfast and what time they should leave the house.
The APA also suggested preparing supplies — like backpacks, binders, and lunches or lunch money — ahead of time so that supplies are not an added stress that first morning.
It can also be wise to discuss with children what their school day will look like — this may include topics like what time school will start and end, when they'll be eating lunch, and whether gym or art class is on the schedule for that day.
If possible, walk through the school with your child to locate his or her classroom and locker ahead of time. This can help solidify the routine and ease first-day anxiety, according to the APA.
With the long daylight hours, slow mornings and slumber parties of summer, many kids adopt a new sleep schedule while out of school. Mental Health America (MHA) suggests shifting back to earlier nights and earlier mornings at least two weeks before school starts to help kids adjust.
"Sleep during the school year is certainly very important for kids to feel good and function well and learn at school," Dr. Spaeth stressed.
With strategies like these, children should be able to easily adjust to the school year routine. However, it is wise to know your child's normal behavior and thinking patterns so you can spot changes and potential issues if they arise, according to MHA.
"Anxiety and stress about starting school is normal for a child and usually passes within the first few days or weeks. If your child continues to seem anxious or stressed, it may be time to seek help," according to MHA.