Easing Back Into The School Year:  A guide for parents in assessing for anxiety and depression in yourselves and your children/adolescents

By:  Lisa M. Templeton, Ph.D., The IHC Owner


     After a long, hot summer, it’s time for the leaves to turn hues of red and orange, for children to start back to reading, writing and arithmetic, for parents to fill their days while their kids are away at school again, and for teachers and school counselors to go back to work.  This, often times, can be a difficult transition for everyone.  Given that the beginning of the semester is most important in setting up a child’s year and structuring it properly, it becomes imperative to pinpoint any problems a child is having adjusting as early on in the school year as possible.  Additionally, addressing any problems the transition is having on parents is also important given it impacts the family tremendously.

     One common problem that comes up for children, adolescents as well as parents around this time of year is anxiety.  Kids often develop symptoms of anxiety in attempts to cope with the adjustment of understanding what is expected of them, how they will fit in with peers, and how to transition into a different sleep/work schedule.  If there are problems transitioning, they may become withdrawn, not socializing with others, or complain of headaches/stomach aches often.  Their normal bathroom habits may increase several fold and/or they may be increasingly oppositional with teachers and/or parents.  For parents, the stress of how children are doing in school, how one might fill up time and adjust to keeping track of children, or struggle to balance their time with work, sports/extracurricular activities, meals, and their child’s homework can be overwhelming at times and can lead to problems with anxiety as well.

     There can be several symptoms to watch for in children, adolescents, and adults including: 

1)       Excessive worry and concern – one may experience racing thoughts and

              nervousness about life’s changes and/or other environmental stressors. 

2)       Restlessness - anxiety might often be misinterpreted as ADHD/ADD in children, these diagnoses are sometimes difficult to differentiate, so be careful not to jump to conclusions about your child.  If you are feeling restless, this may be a symptom of anxiety developed as a result of the transition.

3)       Muscle tension – if a person’s muscles are feeling tight, it may be difficult for

             him/her to concentrate, focus and relax.  For children, it can be difficult to   

             perform well in the classroom.  For parents, it may be challenging to stay on top

             of family, work and home responsibilities.

4)       Problems with sleep – preoccupation with thoughts may lead to trouble falling asleep at night or trouble staying asleep due to worry and/or tension.

5)       Appetite fluctuations – be aware of changes in you or your child’s eating pattern, either eating more or less than usual.

6)       Physical symptoms – any problems with upset stomach, headaches, and/or wanting to go home from school or work often.

     Another common problem that comes up for children and adolescents, as well as parents around this time of year is depression.  Depression can manifest in different ways, especially in kids.  Some symptoms to look out for are:

1)      Dysphoric or sad mood – if you or your child are expressing sadness or if your child seems sullen and down for a lengthy period of time.

2)      Isolating Behaviors – people can become isolative when feeling sad or depressed, which can lead to lack of social supports, which are imperative for coping with adjustments.

3)      Irritability – for children/adolescents, depression can often manifest as irritability or increase in frustration/anger.  If you notice that your child seems more on edge and irritable, this could be a manifestation of depression.

4)      Low Motivation – depression can affect one’s motivation level.  Pay attention to your own motivation level as well as your child’s.  If low motivation continues, it could be a sign of depression.

5)      Appetite fluctuations – as with anxiety, changes in appetite can suggest a physiological response affecting one’s mental health.

6)      Insomnia or hypersomnia – if you find that you or your child are not sleeping well and staying up very late or sleeping excessively, this could be a symptom of depression.     

     In order to identify and assess these symptoms in your child or adolescent, it’s important to talk directly with your child, and develop an open, supportive relationship assessing for particular emotions, moods and worries they might have, physical sensations, or tension in their body.  It is best to approach your child/adolescent with your concerns from a curious perspective instead of a definitive one.  Ask your child how they are feeling and share with them your observations and concerns about them.  Do your best to normalize these symptoms for your child so they know it’s ok to come and talk to you about it, should they not feel like themselves.  Talk with teachers, school counselors and any other professionals that come in contact with your child, as it is an essential tool

in understanding your child’s behavior patterns throughout his/her life. 

     Not just our children struggle with the transition with school.  Many parents struggle with the change as well.  Some parents find they do not know what to do with themselves once school is back in session.  The house seems empty and, although there is more time to self, that can sometimes be difficult.  Alternatively, some parents work and find that once school starts, there is a lot more stress and management of homework and sports events that lead to more stress and overwhelm.  If you are a parent struggling with the transition, here are a few things you can work on:

1)      Identify what it is you love to do and make time to do it.  This might be taking on a new project for the house or perhaps taking a day class to learn something new.  Even if you are overloaded, it’s important to carve time out for yourself.  Remember that you are modeling these behaviors to your children.

2)      Spend time with friends.  Research shows that sitting down and just having a cup of coffee with a friend has a significant positive effect on the neurotransmitters in the brain, which might be affecting depression or anxiety.

3)      Set up an exercise regimen and stick to it.  Even walking for 30 minutes a day can have a positive effect on our physical and mental health.

4)      Plan a date with your spouse.  We often do not get time with our spouses unless we specifically set that time aside.  Our marriages need attention just as much as our children do!

     If you are noticing any symptoms of anxiety or depression in yourself, keep an eye on them.  The sooner individuals get help for depression or anxiety, the easier it is to address.  Also remember that the work you put into yourself will always come back to you.  Take good care of yourself and treat yourself as you would treat your child or someone you love.  If you’re noticing these symptoms continuing for longer than two weeks for yourself or your child, please give The Interpersonal Healing Clinic a call so we can work to assess the situation and set up goals and objectives to guide you or your child through this transition to heal.