Tears, tummy-aches, tantrums on Monday morning are tough for parents to handle. But they’re even harder on kids suffering from anxiety at back-to-school time.
Anxiety - not depression - has become the leading mental health issue among children aged 6 to 17, with research showing a 20% uptick between 2007 and 2012.
Researchers estimate that today’s students are six times more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders than kids a couple of generations back. In fact, nearly a third of all young people aged 13-18 today will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their life, according to the National Institutes of Health. Among girls, nearly four in ten will.
Why is this happening now?
A growing number of researchers are identifying links between anxiety and excessive screen-time
Theories abound, but a growing number of researchers are identifying links between anxiety and excessive screen-time. Among other factors, they point to the impact of:
social media, with its relentless and stress-inducing emphasis on image, ‘likes’ and ‘followers’
gaming, which can over-stimulate kids and encourage young nervous systems to shift into “fight or flight” mode
poor sleep habits, driven by night-time device use
isolation, as a result of long hours online
displacement of RL (real-life) activities and interactions that allow kids to develop social competencies.
What parents can do
If your child is showing signs of anxiety around school, limiting screen-time is an obvious place to begin. But keep in mind that the online world is a refuge for many anxious kids - and the last thing you want to do is deprive them of that comfort by instituting extreme measures.
Boundaries are healthy - especially when established with your child’s cooperation and input. Harsh rules are not, and may even achieve the opposite outcome, fuelling rather than containing anxiety.
Facilitate a relationship with the teacher
Children need to feel connected to an adult they can trust to keep them safe. At school, that means establishing an attachment to the teacher. Don’t hesitate to contact your child’s teacher if he’s feeling anxious, and request some special attention to make sure he is successful in making that all-important connection.
Help your child make friends
Making even one friend is generally all it really takes to help an anxious child settle in - someone to sit with at lunch or chase after at recess. Take an active role by encouraging playdates. Get to know the parents of the children your child gravitates toward.
Encourage your child to express his worries
That’s the best way for her to realise she can handle them! Experts say most school anxiety is caused by worries that adults would call irrational - such as a fear of dying at school (or, in the case of my own son’s pre-primary anxiety, of getting flushed down the toilet!). You can’t help your child deal with his fears til you know what they are.
Be empathic - but not too empathic!
It’s important to acknowledge your child’s concerns but at the same time try to emphasise your confidence that school is a fun, safe place where he will be happy. And don’t forget the power of laughter. Give him as many opportunities to giggle as possible - especially in the morning before school begins. (Exception: Avoid tickling! This can actually increase kids’ stress hormones.)
Be super-punctual at pick-up time
In the crucial transition-to-school days, it’s so important for your child to come out of school and see you immediately. If you’re running late, get a friend to help - or send a message to the school.