By Danielle Roeske, PsyD, Vice President of Residential Services, Newport Healthcare
It starts creeping up on us in early August — a sense of discomfort bordering on dread, a coldness in the pit of your stomach despite the heat. For both parents and kids, back-to-school anxiety is familiar and age-old; it’s built into the experience of growing up. Every summer must end, and anxiety is a natural response to change and the unknown, whether that’s new teachers and classes, a new friend group or the first day of high school.
But when we add to that natural response the overwhelming mental health impact of the last two and a half years, it’s a different playing field. Typical back-to-school anxiety has been magnified by a profound layer of trauma, ranging from extreme grief and loss to inconsistency and unreliability in the routines and systems we all trusted for so long. School schedules, workplaces, childcare — the normal rhythms of daily life — were entirely disrupted, creating a deep sense of unease and fear. When we consider how fundamentally the ground beneath us shifted, throwing so much of what we counted on and could control into question, it’s no surprise that global anxiety and depression increased by 25 percent in the first year of the pandemic, according to new research by the World Health Organization.
Many of us have now, for the most part, returned to those normal rhythms. Yet the trauma lies just beneath the surface, easily triggered by experiences of transition and uncertainty, like going back to school. And there are other national and global crises that intensify anxiety for both children and parents: economic instability, war, social unrest, mass shootings, climate change, new health threats on the horizon. These factors add to the typical stressors and turbulence of childhood, adolescence and emerging adulthood, leading to devastating rates of psychological distress. Our young people are struggling in a way we have never seen before. Among U.S. teens, 40 percent suffer from anxiety and close to half say they feel consistently sad and hopeless. At one point during the last year, a full 48 percent of young adults reported mental health symptoms. Parents are now worrying that their teen is self-harming or having suicidal thoughts, when those terms might not even have been on their radar a few years ago. While the youth mental health crisis began before 2020, it has been exponentially magnified by recent events, just as the normal developmental processes of adolescence — peer relationships, body image issues, the quest for identity — are magnified by the ever-present mirror of social media.
All of this turns up the volume significantly on the perennial end-of-summer anxiety. So what can parents do for their children and themselves to make the transition into the school year a bit less bumpy? Here are five approaches for supporting the family’s well-being as we head into fall, and beyond.
Keep the lines of communication open.
Prioritize honest and real conversations with your kids — not a one-and-done, “Afterschool Special” moment but rather ongoing discussions about what they’re experiencing, whether that’s the back-to-school transition or a significant national event such as a school shooting. Maintaining open communication is the most important thing we can do for our children and the best way to strengthen our relationship with them. Some kids may be engaged and articulate in those conversations; others may not say much, but they’re still taking it in. We need to show our children that we aren’t afraid to have hard discussions and that we want to know what they’re really feeling, even when it isn’t easy to hear.
Don’t underestimate your child’s level of awareness.
As parents, we sometimes avoid the anxiety of acknowledging how much our kids witness and understand. There’s a temptation to believe that what’s happening in the world is going over your child or teen’s head and thus not affecting them emotionally. Don’t kid yourself; they may not get everything, but they’re seeing it, and it’s impacting them. We need to recognize and respond to that, especially with adolescents, who are in the process of building autonomy and a life outside the family. Let them know you see and respect them as independent individuals with their own observations, opinions and beliefs.
Distinguish between what’s your anxiety and what’s theirs.
Inside every parent is an inner child, the child we once were, with their own insecurities and fears. It’s easy to project the emotions of that inner child onto the children we’re raising. Remember that your kids are not you. What makes you anxious may not affect them the same way; what you see as an obstacle may be an exciting challenge for them (and vice versa). Being mindful of that distinction can help ease your concern for them and also help you zero in on what they really need, vs. what you would have needed.
Share your own experience.
While parents sometimes want to appear superhuman, or think they shouldn’t show vulnerability, that doesn’t help kids who are experiencing symptoms of anxiety. What does help is letting them know they’re not alone — that we struggled sometimes when we were their age, and yes, we still do even now. Of course, how much you reveal about your own experience needs to be appropriate to your child’s age; hearing that you’re anxious can make a young child more anxious, but for a teen, it can be reassuring to know that these feelings are natural and that they, too, will find their way through them.
Acknowledge and validate anxiety.
Telling your anxious child “Don’t worry” and “Everything will be great” gives them the message that it’s not okay to feel that way, and they should hide it to avoid worrying you. That’s the last thing you want. Sometimes parents are afraid that acknowledging a child’s difficult emotions will make those feelings worse; the opposite is true. Let them know that anxiety can be a healthy response to change, and it’s okay to allow those feelings to be present when we encounter new or potentially frightening things. When our kids know that they can talk to us about whatever they’re feeling, and we will recognize and validate that experience without trying to change it, it gives them the strength and support to navigate not only the back-to-school transitions but also the constant change that comes with living in the world.
Most importantly, if your teen is struggling with anxiety or any other mental health issue to the point that it disrupts their daily life, seek professional help. Data shows that earlier intervention results in better outcomes. Talk to your healthcare provider about your options, which may include weekly therapy, outpatient care, or residential treatment, all of which are often at least partially covered by health insurance. Treatment may not eliminate all back-to-school anxiety, but at least you and your family will have the tools to get through it together.
Originally published by the Washington Post.