A new school year can trigger feelings of anxiety in children of all ages. There are new classes, teachers, friends and pressures, all mixed with the physical changes that come with growing up. As a parent, you are the first responder in your child's life when they are feeling anxious, but it can be difficult to know what's a normal amount of nerves and how you can help.
We asked Nicholas J. Westers, Psy. D., a clinical psychologist at Children's Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern, to share some advice about identifying anxiety and ways parents can help.
Anxiety isn't always bad
"Anxiety is a normal part of healthy development and can be helpful in some situations," says Dr. Westers. "For example, completing homework by a deadline; providing motivation to study well for a test or perform well in sports; or getting too close to the side of a dangerous cliff. It's not until anxiety begins to negatively impact everyday mood and behaviors, persists over time, results in avoidance behavior and is not based in reality or facts that it becomes an anxiety disorder."
Sources of school-related anxiety
During the school year, a number of everyday occurrences can trigger feelings of anxiety in young people.
- The need to fit in socially
- Being bullied or witnessing bullying behavior
- Academic pressures (to make good grades or do well on a particular test)
- Athletic pressure (to make the team or to perform well on the field)
- Life changes like entering a new school
- Concerns about the future (being accepted to college, for example)
- Anxiety about security and safety at school
"Children returning to school may feel anxious because of hearing about tragic events, such as school shootings," says Dr. Westers. "If you sense your child is anxious about this, check in with them and listen to their concerns. It’s important to reinforce that they can always come to you when they need support."
Signs your child is experiencing significant anxiety
"All children are different, and you know your child better than anyone," says Dr. Westers. "So you may be able to identify changes in your child’s behavior and pick up on the anxiety they may be feeling."
Dr. Westers also says that there may be some behaviors tied to anxiety that you may not recognize, including ones that are like those of depression. Watch for:
- Changes in mood or behavior, such as increased defiance or opposition in response to reasonable requests
- Decrease in appetite
- Difficulty sleeping
- Decreased energy
- Frequent irritability, sadness or crying
- Inability to concentrate
- Physical symptoms like nausea, muscle tension or dizziness
- Unexpected negative change in grades and/or school refusal
5 tips to help manage your child's anxiety
"Children and adolescents often base their own assumptions about anxiety and mental health on their parents' assumptions," says Dr. Westers. "An empathic and validating stance from you could be the difference between suffering alone and seeking help if they experience anxiety now or in the future."
- Ask questions/Be supportive – Validate and acknowledge any anxiety and ask open-ended questions that your child cannot answer simply by responding "yes" or "no." Pay attention to your child's feelings and listen to his or her concerns. To start the conversation, parents might state, "I sense you're feeling worried, and that's an okay feeling to have. What is it that you're most worried about right now?"
- Set an example – Stay calm when your child becomes anxious about a situation. Children watch parents to learn rules for dealing with adversity, communicating with difficult people, problem-solving and managing interpersonal conflict. Show your child how to behave and how to feel about themselves, even in midst of anxiety. Rather than making a general statement like "The world is a scary place," parents might instead choose to say, "I sometimes get worried, too. When I feel this way, I [insert healthy coping strategy here, e.g., take deep breaths, think about how much I love you and our family]."
- Provide consistency – In a world in which so many things are unpredictable and anxiety-provoking, being consistent with bedtime, mealtime, playtime, screen time, and expressions of love can create a sense of stability and predictability.
- Coach your child through relaxation exercises – Have your child try deep breathing when they feel anxious — teach them to take a deep breath, count to eight and release. You can also teach them to picture a peaceful place where they felt calm, such as a favorite family vacation spot or a cozy corner of their room.
- Talk to your child's doctor if you have additional concerns or if your child's anxiety persists and begins to negatively impact daily functioning like refusing to go to school, frequently getting sick around the same time of day or having significant trouble falling asleep.
Watch this video to see Dr. Westers further discuss ways to help your child cope with anxiety. Children's Health psychologists and psychiatrists can help children and teens manage feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety. Learn more about programs we offer to support mental, emotional and behavioral health.
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