Dr. Kelsie Offenwanger, a child psychologist with Marshfield Children’s, has noticed something interesting and concerning in her practice around the back-to-school time – an increase in stress and anxiety.
“In child/adolescent behavioral health, we tend to see a surge in appointments for current patients in August due to anxiety about the new school year. In September and October, we start to see more referrals, as youth adjust to their new roles, routines and responsibilities.”
Dr. Offenwanger sees what she calls “adjustment stress” in kids and caregivers around back-to-school time each year.
“These adjustments may be noticeable in sleep patterns, increased irritability, more defiance, frustration about school, arguments over homework, worries about friends and stress about daily responsibilities,” she said.
What’s causing the stress?
Dr. Offenwanger said a change in routine can be hard for anyone, child or adult. Transitioning from summer vacation to school creates many potential sources of stress like academics, social life and extracurricular activities.
“Teenagers may be exposed to bullying or performance anxiety daily, which likely wasn’t occurring much during summer,” Dr. Offenwanger said. “Going from a lower level of activity during the summer to a higher level of responsibility during the school year is a difficult transition.”
Dr. Offenwanger said kids may be tightly scheduled with little down time during the school year. Not only are kids’ schedules busier than ever, but they are also exposed to more information than ever.
“We are flooded with technology and information,” Dr. Offenwanger said, referencing the rise of the internet, smart phones and social media. “An adolescent’s brain may have trouble deciphering what facts to retain and what should be discarded. This can lead to difficulties remembering day to day tasks and increased frustration due to forgetting.”
Because of the ability to connect with peers online, teenagers may not step away from their social lives as much as they used to, and this can cause stress.
“As our minds and body are supposed to be calming down in the evening, the engagement in sporting events, test preparation or social apps can keep us alert. These experiences may cause intense emotions making it harder to fall asleep,” Offenwanger said.
How parents can help prep for back-to-school
The first thing parents can do to help their children through the back-to-school stress is to be available to listen and show empathy.
“Try to remember what it was like for you as a teenager to return to school and then add smartphones, electronic homework, and increased mental health concerns on top of that,” Dr. Offenwanger said.
To help keep perspective on your child’s experience as school starts, Dr. Offenwanger said parents should think about what it’s like to return to work from a vacation.
She also suggests parents work to respect the feelings their teenager has rather than trying to diminish the size of the problem.
“Caregivers should try and remember that it is a privilege to hear about what your child might be feeling,” she said. “We need to provide a welcoming space where our kids feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and experiences knowing that we will not dismiss or judge them. Telling a teenager to get over it or that it’s not a big deal may make the situation worse.’”
Rather than saying “It’s not a big deal,” try saying something like, “I hear what you’re going through. That must be really hard.” Add extra time in the evening to talk with your teenager, reminding them you are there for them and will support them through this adjustment.
Most kids make it through the stresses of the new school year well and settle back into their school routines.
However, if your child is not settling into the routines with sleep schedule, school work and activities by two to four weeks into the year, talk with your child’s teacher or school counselor about your concerns. You also may contact your child’s provider for advice.