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Parents Can Ease Back-to-School Stress

By Mary Elizabeth Dallas
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Aug. 25 (HealthDay News) -- For kids, the end of summer means an abrupt end to staying up late and sleeping until noon: It also signals the beginning of brand new challenges and perhaps a case of the back-to-school jitters.

Whether your child is a preschooler or a teen, some anxiety about the first day of school is normal. The trick for parents is to know how to ease your children's stress and manage your own expectations for the year ahead, experts said.

Parents shouldn't overact, even if kids have a rocky transition. "Children have to deal with these uncomfortable feelings," said Christine Kodman-Jones, a clinical psychologist in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. "It's scary, but if they still do it and follow through, that shows real strength and resiliency."

The major shift in routine, as well as the fear of the unknown, is enough to make children feel nervous about the first day of school, said Ted Feinberg, former assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists.

Their worries can range from concerns about who their teacher will be to whether or not they will be smart enough to do well. Younger children and preschoolers might have separation anxiety when it's time to leave their parents or worry about riding the bus or being able to find the bathroom, said Kodman-Jones.

Kodman-Jones recommended that parents take the following steps to help children cope with this anxiety:

  • Plan a visit. Let children tour the school well before classes start so they can meet their teacher, see their classroom and play in the playground.
  • Talk about the new routine. Be enthusiastic and let your children know what they can expect during a typical school day.
  • Start the transition early. Establish earlier bedtimes and set the alarm so kids can get used to their school schedule ahead of time.
  • Play school at home. If you have younger children, pretend to be the teacher and talk about school rules.

Parents need to manage their own anxiety as well. "Parents need to be calm and supportive. Their confidence is key for children -- especially those who tend to be worriers," said Kodman-Jones. "Children look to their parents for stability and take that anxiety very personally."

Parents should also realize they are not alone. Teachers are there to help ease the transition. "I want school, and my classroom especially, to be a 'safe place,'" said Deborah Gsell, who teaches fourth grade in Oak Ridge, N.C.

"As we get to know our students in the first few days and weeks and greet each child each day, it becomes almost second nature to be able to determine who is on the right track for the day and who might have an issue," said Gsell.

A child's fears may not disappear overnight, said Feinberg, who worked in upstate New York schools as a school psychologist for 32 years. "There is no one-shot deal in any aspect of life. Patterns take time to establish and be broken down," he said.

Overall, back-to-school school anxiety should fade away after the first month, said Kodman-Jones. However, children who show certain symptoms, such as trouble sleeping or recurrent stomach aches, may need some extra help adjusting from their teacher or a school counselor, she said. Other signs of trouble include bad dreams, loss of appetite or unusually stubborn or demanding behavior, she said.

Teens switching high schools or packing for college can also suffer from anxiety. "Will I fit in?" or "Are my clothes right?" are typical concerns, but continued homesickness or a sudden inability to focus could signal a more serious problem.

"Parents can encourage these older adolescents, letting them know how they as parents overcame their homesickness or inability to concentrate and letting them know they have faith in the first-year student's ability to do well in his or her new environment," Samuel T. Gladding, a professor of counseling at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., said in a university news release.

Joining school activities often helps to ease the transition for undergrads. "Parents can also work with student life personnel, such as resident assistants, to help their college student find enjoyable activities such as outdoor clubs or singing groups," said Gladding.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics has more back-to-school tips for parents.

SOURCES: Christine Kodman-Jones, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, Bala Cynwyd, Pa.; Ted Feinberg, EdD, NCSP, former assistant director, National Association of School Psychologists; Deborah Gsell, BBA, MEd, fourth grade teacher, Oak Ridge, N.C.; Aug. 23, 2011, news release, Wake Forest University

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