Handling Back-to-School Stress

Aug 18, 2023 | Uncategorized

The summer of 2023 is slowly but surely coming to an end and a new school year is looming for many young Americans. The transition back to class can be a stressful time for children and parents alike. But anxiety symptoms that persist beyond the first few weeks of school and that seem excessive may require consultation with an expert, says psychologist Erika Chiappini, who specializes in the treatment of childhood anxiety and related disorders at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.

“Parents or caregivers may notice their children exhibiting some nervousness about new routines, schoolwork, or social interactions,” says Chiappini. “Some of this is a normal part of back-to-school jitters that gradually diminish over a few weeks.”

“Anxiety is a normal and healthy fear response for children when it is proportional to the experience that the child is facing,” wrote Hannah Leib, LCSW in a recent article for Psychology Today. “It becomes a disorder when the child is experiencing high levels of anxiety when their reaction to their environment is disproportionate to the level of threat.”

Leib lists three types of anxiety disorders that are particularly relevant here: separation anxiety, generalized anxiety, and social anxiety. 

Separation anxiety is characterized by extreme fear or worry when a child is separated from their caregiver. It is most commonly found in younger children, but can also be present in adolescents and teenagers.

Generalized anxiety is characterized by persistent worries about a variety of things, such as school performance, health, family finances, or future success. Children with generalized anxiety find it difficult to manage and control their worries.

Social anxiety is characterized by a fear of social interactions with others, as well as a fear of negative judgment. In regards to going back to school, your child may be overly anxious about seeing certain people, speaking up in class, presenting in class, or having to socialize with their peers.

Dr. Chiappini points out several red flags that indicate a child’s anxiety is causing excessive distress:

  • Tantrums when separating from parents or caregivers to attend school
  • Difficulty getting along with family members or friends
  • Avoidance of normal activities in and outside of school
  • Symptoms such as stomachaches, fatigue, difficulty sleeping alone

“If after the first month or so, your child continues to show distress around school that is not improving or if the child’s symptoms are worsening, it may be time to seek an evaluation from a psychologist or psychiatrist,” Chiappini advises.

Undiagnosed and untreated anxiety disorders can eventually lead to other mental health issues. “Anxiety often leads to depression, too,” wrote Caroline Miller for the website of the Child Mind Institute. “A life full of avoidance or worry undermines well-being. As anxious kids start doing less and less, their depression grows.” 

Anxiety and depression are rising among America’s youth and—whether teenagers personally suffer from these conditions or not—a troubling 70 percent see them as a major problem among their peers. An additional 26 percent view anxiety and depression as a minor problem while only four percent believed them to be no problem at all, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey of US teens between the ages of 13 and 17.

Anxiety and depression may eventually induce an urge to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Over 80 percent of teens in the Pew survey found that drinking alcohol and drug addiction were major or minor problems in their communities. 

Avanti Behavioral Health recently launched an intensive outpatient program (IOP) for clients between the ages of 13 and 18, located in the Denver Tech Center. The program is designed to provide adolescents with the support they need to address their substance use and mental health concerns. 

The IOP provides comprehensive, holistic, family-centered, and trauma-informed care for your teen. A thorough clinical assessment is a crucial step in the treatment process at Avanti. It is a free evaluation that aims to identify any misdiagnosed or undiagnosed conditions that may be affecting the well-being of your child. 

We hope your child thrives in the new school year but if they need additional help, we encourage you to call us at (720) 753-4030 for more information about our IOP and family programming. 

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