Van Beek: Back-to-school anxiety |

Van Beek: Back-to-school anxiety

That day is almost here … back to school! While it always seemed appropriate to act sad at the end of summer, parents secretly celebrated a bit of peace and quiet, with kids occupied with school, sports and other childhood activities.

Children got excited to buy new backpacks, clothes, sports equipment, and plans for all the social activities that come with a new school year. Parents made plans for peaceful morning coffee, once the kids were out the door, and something called “mindfulness” would kick in, even if that simply meant regaining your sanity.

However, this year is different. We are at the end of one of the most unusual years of our lifetime, and information released this week indicates that it may not be over yet.

Children are reacting. The unpredictable nature of events goes contrary to the normal expectancy of their prior daily lives. And, just as work is central to our life, school is critical to theirs. It is where they spend most of their waking hours.

How do we establish normalcy during abnormal times? How do we recognize if our child is stressed or simply excited about the changes? What can we do to smooth the transition?

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First, recognize that a year of remote learning has taken an emotional, menta, and developmental toll. Many children have fallen behind in their studies, missed out on big milestones, and suffered from a lack of peer interaction, which develops crucial social skills. This is bound to create anxiety, even in those who never before experienced concern.

Younger children may get nervous about leaving their parents, and older children may worry about academics or how they’ll fit in with their peers, beyond the usual summertime separation.

Masking and social distancing present additional challenges, with increased caution over children’s health at school, prompting unprecedented concerns. In addition, there is worry about peer exposure to COVID-19, which can result in sudden and random quarantines and school closures. It is exacerbated by sports and other school interactions increasing exposure and potentially removing a student from a hard-earned place in a sports or academic event.

Ultimately, these unpredictable changes can cause resentment, fear, anger and rejection. All of this impacts their success at school. The return of COVID-19 restrictions may add even more to those stresses, as children worry about themselves or their loved ones becoming ill and possibly dying. These are not small things, particularly to a young mind.

What are some symptoms that may possibly indicate an unusual amount of anxiety in your child?

According to multiple childhood experts, look for the following:

  • Increased defiance, irritability, or aggressiveness
  • Disturbances in sleep patterns
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lack of concentration
  • Less energy
  • Physical symptoms like nausea, muscle tension, headaches, or dizziness
  • Refusal to go to school
  • Unprovoked sadness or crying
  • Temper tantrums
  • Isolation
  • Low motivation
  • Resistance to going to school
  • Excessive concerns about safety

In addition, some symptoms are age related:

Preschoolers: Thumb sucking, bed wetting, clinging to parents, unusual fear of the dark, regression in behavior, and withdrawal from family

Elementary school children: Clinginess, nightmares, school avoidance, and withdrawal from activities and friends

Adolescents: Agitation, increased conflicts, physical complaints, delinquent behavior, substance abuse

What can be done?

Well, if it appears to be critical, there are many mental health options available in Eagle County. A good source is Eagle Valley Behavioral Health.

There are also a few tips that may help.

While children are concerned about falling behind or having missed meaningful events, remind them that it is the same for most of their friends; they are not alone in feeling sad, scared or out of the loop. They are also not alone in possibly needing additional academic and mental health support.

Children will mirror their parents’ anxiety. Try to remain calm. Explain the precautions that they and the schools are taking to keep them safe. Help them to understand why certain changes are being made.

You may be able to contact the teacher and classmates to create some fun Zoom activities, so that the students can begin to feel comfortable with one another.

In talking with your kids, remember that it is easier to reach your children while doing something else that is enjoyable or relaxing (taking a walk, playing a game, cooking a meal together, etc. “parallel play”). It reduces the pressure of direct confrontation about an issue to which they may not be able to fully respond, as they may still be processing their feelings.

Perhaps you can arrange a mock “back-to-school” party (Zoom or in-person) with kids taking turns being the teacher, and a contest of who can create the silliest assignments to give their “students,” the more outrageous, the better. It will provide a fun base for them as they gather at school — replacing anxiety with a smile on their face, as they giggle in recalling their mock class time.

Have a safe and happy return to school. And we will be right alongside you, assisting the community in our journey back-to-normal.

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