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Anxiety in Kids? Or Just Back-to-School Nerves?

Learn how to recognize anxiety in kids from Rochester Regional Health's Courtney Chappell

September 4, 2019

A child’s first week of school has little to do with their academic education. Learning life skills like how to cope with a new school, new peers, and a new routine can be nerve-racking for kids. But how do you know if your child has back-to-school jitters, or is dealing with a serious behavioral issue like anxiety or depression?

As kids throughout Rochester go back to school, Courtney Chappell, Rochester Regional Health Pre-Doctoral Psych Intern, explains how parents and teachers can recognize the differences between anxiety in kids and back-to-school nerves, and how they can help kids adjust to their new routine.

School Can Be Nerve-Racking for Kids, But How Does it Differ from an Adult Starting a New Job?

Adults have been put into new situations multiple times over the course of their lives. They’ve learned how to adapt, they’ve learned what their triggers are, and many have learned how to cope with anxiety. Kids haven’t experienced many of those situations. They haven’t developed the coping skills necessary to deal with anxiety, so the way they deal may be very different from the way adults experience it.

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A child’s brain develops over time, and the last thing to develop is a child’s ability to problem solve. If everything is new and kids are faced with difficult situations like transitioning back into school or being in new social environments, it’s important to recognize that kids need a little bit of help with problem solving, and that’s where parents, community members, and teachers can provide support.

What Are Some Big Indicators of Anxiety in Children?

The biggest indicators of anxiety in kids or depression are changes in behavior, like changes in sleep, socialization, and a decrease or increase in friends. Talking and communicating regularly is one way adults can recognize changes in behavior. Noticing some of the warning signs during those conversations, like a child who appears down, nervous, and worried, especially more so than usual.

Look For These Indicators of Anxiety:

  • Withdrawal
  • Disinterest in hobbies
  • Noticeable changes in behavior
  • Changes in sleep
  • Increase or decrease in friends

How Can Adults Spot the Differences Between Anxiety and Back-to-School Nerves?

The main difference is in what your child is anxious or nervous about. If a child is worried about the “newness” of their life—new school, new friends, new teachers—then that’s more likely to be back-to-school nerves.

If they worry about things beyond the transition into school, like feeling worried about recess, lunchtime, parties with friends, riding the school bus, being away from family members, a financial situation, or the future in general, then that has the signs of something bigger than back-to-school nerves. 

Additional Signs of Anxiety in Kids:

  • Frequent headaches
  • Stomachaches unrelated to a medical condition
  • Increase in self-criticism
  • Avoidance
  • Tantrums
  • Refusing to go to school 

How Can Adults Effectively Communicate With Children?

Firstly, communication is the key to understanding how a child feels. But adults need to understand that it’s hard to communicate, especially for children. For effective communication, adults need to listen. Try listening without speaking. Even if the result is silence, you’re giving the child time to talk without providing input. This strengthens trust and allows the child to control and direct the conversation which will increase communication.

What Conversations Can Parents Have About Social Media

Parents should explain what ‘likes’ are, what it means for someone to ‘follow’ them and not ‘follow’ them online. As adults, we understand those terms and the underlying meaning of social likes and follows, but some children may place more weight on those interactions. The result can be negative feelings and the development or lack of development of their self-esteem.

And Cyber Bullying?

Cyber bullying goes far beyond schools because of anonymityand because of anonymity, kids push the boundaries more on social media. Constructing boundaries and supervision online is essential to overseeing the development of your child. Understanding what web pages younger kids are visiting and creating a two-way conversation around their online habits can help them deal with negative online interactions.

Are There Positives to Using Social Media to Help With Anxiety in Kids?

Definitely! There are lots of resources that help kids through symptoms of anxiety and symptoms of depression. There are social media outlets that help connect kids in ways that they’d never been able to be connected before. The opportunity for laughter and connection is there.

Tips to Help Reduce Back-to-School Nerves

If your child is experiencing back-to-school nerves or is nervous about any new interaction, like a family gathering or camp, here are a few tips to help reduce their jitters.

1. Start Your Morning Routine the Night Before
You can help your child get in the right mindset by talking to them about school the night before. This will help remove any elements of surprise or panic which can trigger anxiety in a child.
2. Do a Practice ‘Drop-Off’ Run

Oftentimes, the thought of something can be more daunting than the experience itself. Take your kid to school when it's not so busy, like a weekend or when school is out, and do a practice drop-off. This can help them become comfortable with their new surroundings.

3. Communicate and Listen Before and After School

Pay attention to what your child is saying, both verbally and non-verbally. Communicate with them before school to help them through any nerves they may have, and ask them how their day went when they come home.

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