I’m David Ezell, the Founder and CEO of Darien Wellness, and I’m delighted to announce that Darien Wellness has partnered with the Fairfield County Moms Blog to discuss concerns about mental health and wellness for you, your family and your friends. This post is about your concerns, so don’t hesitate to send your questions to [email protected]
For our first post, I didn’t need to think very hard about a topic—back to school anxiety is a daily conversation this time of year. We get so many phone calls around this topic and this year is no exception. So I turned to two of our in-house experts, Elizabeth Rauseo and Anna Gonzalez, both part of our Child and Adolescent Care program, to talk about how to tell if a child or teenager is suffering from anxiety.
David: What do you think are some of the signs that a child is suffering from “new school” or “back to school” nerves?
Anna: I think the biggest tell-tale sign is when children try to avoid school; sleeping in, refusing to go, playing sick. “I have a headache” or “I have a stomachache” are all great excuses. However, I think a lot of kids have gotten better about talking about some anxieties— for example, they are more open with the topic of bullying. It is more common now for kids to share that they have been bullied. This allows parents to be more active in school and talking with counselors, but there’s still plenty of nervous children and teens out there…it’s very common.
Liz: I think for anxious kids that are going back to school, at the most basic level, it helps to let them talk about their feelings and to validate that going back to school is a big transition. There is anxiety involved with it because there are some unknowns involved with having a new teacher, going to a new school, meeting new kids. So, I think that a lot of times we shy away from letting them air out those feelings. But really, their feelings are valid. And we might be nervous too if we were starting a new job or taking a new class, grad school, whatever it may be.
David: What’s the difference between normal anxiety, like nerves, and debilitating issues that would require professional attention?
Liz: I want to know if it’s interfering in their functioning. If they’re not sleeping, if they’re afraid to do other things, not going on play dates or coming home and just going right to their room. I’d say giving them a few days to adjust is fine, but if it’s been a week or more, then it’s probably time to seek some guidance.
David: Often times there’s not only anxiety in the kid, but there is frequently anxiety in the parents.
Anna: Yes, anxious parents tend to have anxious children. Parents want what is best for their children. Are they in honors classes? Are they in AP classes? What college are they going to? Children then strive for perfection. They feel the need to get straight A’s and to join every after-school activity to the point where these kids schedules are unreal. They have no time for homework because they are constantly in a club, activity, or sport. I’ve seen children who don’t get home sometime until 7 o’clock.
David: Yes, that’s a very long day for any age.
Anna: So in a sense, that could be contributing to a lot of the anxiety as well. Often times they have had a more relaxed summer and now it’s, “I’m back into this routine!”
David: Absolutely, the way that I was taught to think about child therapy or adolescent therapy is, quite frequently, if not almost always, the children are a reflection of the anxiety in the parents.
Anna: [nodding] Show me an anxious parent, show me an anxious child.
David: So that’s why a lot of times when a child starts counseling, and then mom starts coming in or dad starts coming by they realize, “Hmm, maybe I need to talk to somebody too.” Parents can be great models for their children by acknowledging the fact that they need help and are not afraid to show it.
David: Liz, how do you see anxiety expressed in parents?
Liz: I think it depends on whether your child has been in school before. You know, preschool to kindergarten, kindergarten to first grade, elementary school to middle school. These are all transitions. As a parent, that can be scary and overwhelming because you’re letting go a little. You have a little less control of your child’s day and a little less knowledge of what are they doing, especially if you’re used to having them home or with a babysitter or in a less restricted program.
David: Something I get asked a lot is how involved would a parent have to be in their child’s therapy? What’s your philosophy on that Anna?
Anna: I think it depends on the child. I think when they’re pretty independent, parents can just check-in. If parents need more help at home in terms of how to support their child, it would be a little bit more often in terms of how to react when your child does something or says something they are unsure of.
David: That’s a really good point. As a parent, if you have you thought about your child needing counseling more than once since school began, you should trust that instinct and give us a call.
Liz: Absolutely, and sometimes it’s hard to determine when it’s your own child. It’s hard to know what’s normal. A trained professional can objectively see if a child or teen is actually anxious. Someone with training may be able to see it and say, “You know what? What they’re going through is totally normal and we’re going to help learn skills so they can have an easier time in and out of school.” And sometimes we tell them there is nothing to be worried about—it will probably take care of itself in time.
David: I think a lot of times parents need to model self-care as well.
Liz: Agreed! I think it’s important for parents to take care of themselves. If you’re feeling anxious about the transition, talk to your friends because your friends are probably feeling the same way. Talk is something good for parents and for kids. I think it’s good to take a little extra time and plan a fun activity that you all enjoy. After school or on the weekends if you don’t have time during the week. Take time aside to do something special.
David: And please make sure it’s not always food-based. So yeah sure, you can go out for pizza every now and then, that’s fine. But letting food be the reward is not always the best choice. It creates a dynamic that can have a lot of health implications later on.
Liz: I agree, food is not a great motivator. An activity is great. Kids don’t like shopping but they like feeling special. Or take a walk with them, go to the park, have a play date.
David: And if they have brothers or sisters, time alone with one or both parents is gold.
Liz: It’s gold for parents too. I’m used to having a baby and toddler. It’s almost as though you’re not able to give your undivided attention to either one so your attention is always split. No matter the age, all children want to feel loved and secure.
Have you or your children experienced school year anxieties?
Elizabeth Rauseo and Anna Gonzales are both senior members of our Child and Adolescent Counseling program at Darien Wellness. If you have questions about how we can help don’t hesitate to call us at 203.883.0464. You can see profiles of all our counselors at DarienWellness.com.