Austin child & adolescent therapists offer tips for parents getting kids back into the swing of school.
AUSTIN – Tens of thousands of students will head to class in the Austin area on August 22nd, many to new schools. Back-to-school stress is one of the leading causes of mental health problems in kids and teens. According to federal statistics, 20% of adolescents have a diagnosable mental health disorder, 20% to 30% of adolescents have one major depressive episode before they reach adulthood, and 50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. Back-to-school stress is a leading cause of depressive episodes and other mental health issues in kids.
“Most parents are also stressed by new school schedules, and don’t have as much bandwidth for noticing the signs of anxiety or depression in their kids. But there are quick and easy tools parents can use to cut down on back-to-school stress,” said Teri Schroeder, a licensed therapist who specializes in work with kids and teens. “But it takes more creativity than saying, ‘it’s going to be ok’; that kind of reassurance tends to backfire.”
Backed by evidence-based practice, here are five techniques parents can use to help kids and teens adjust:
- Avoid Giving Reassurance – This is counter-intuitive, but kids often feel distant from parents who use variations of “it will be ok”. Instead, let them know their worries or difficulties are normal; tell them stories of tough transitions you’ve had.
- Create Space to Reflect on Transition Times – No matter how worried they are about going back, you can draw on successes they’ve had with managing other transitions. For younger kids, invite them to draw or make pretend sculptures with you about other transitions they’ve had to a school, camp or team, and help them reflect on what helped them get through it.
- Start the New Routine Early – Most families wait until the first day of school to start the new routine. Instead, start at least a week early with the new evening and morning routines, and a daily “dry run” to school; this will give them less to adjust to, so they can focus on absorbing new information in class and relationships with peers.
- Create Excuses to Socialize – For kids and teens of any age, social pressures can be a significant source of anxiety and stress. Although this isn’t what every child will need, sometimes offering to opportunities for socializing can be helpful, like offering to drive your child and their friends somewhere they want to go, or organizing a back to school cookout they can invite friends to.
- Create a Time for Unstructured Play or Attention – New school schedules are often overwhelming for kids, even in elementary school, as they are very different from less structured summer routines. To help them cope with the transition, set aside at least half an hour each day for unstructured play with younger kids; they’ll feel reassured by the extra attention and non-teacher-like quality of your presence. For older kids, try introducing a “daily check-in” of some kind, where you can tell each other about your days without distractions from others in the house – it can even be good to hang a “do not disturb” sign on a door or wall.