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Health Tips for Parents

2005 Issues

My child is anxious about starting school. What can I do to help?

It’s that time of year again. Stores are stocked with back-to-school clothing and supplies, reminding parents and children that school starts soon. Many children are excited about the prospect of returning to school, seeing old friends, and meeting new teachers and students. Yet for some children, back to school provokes stress and anxiety. Helping children prepare for the shift from carefree summers to school routines can ease the transition.

According to Susanna Chang, PhD, clinical psychologist with the UCLA Child Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Anxiety, and Tic Disorders Program, many children become anxious as school approaches. “Anxiety is extremely common in grade school children,” Dr. Chang says. “At our clinic, there is a definite spike in the number of children with anxiety issues toward the end of the summer.”

Reasons for Anxiety
Stress in children this time of year stems from a variety of reasons. Younger children worry about separation from a parent; often manifesting these feelings in clingy behavior. Other children become moody and sad as school approaches. To ease the transition, parents can drive the child by the school, meet the teacher in advance, or arrange play dates with classmates in an informal setting before school begins. These strategies help demystify the concept of a new teacher or new friends and make a child feel more comfortable and in control.

Stress in older school-aged children may result from expectations of academic performance or social acceptance. Parents can encourage their child to take stock of his or her achievements in the past few years of school. Take the opportunity to make the child feel proud of his or her accomplishments and look forward to the learning experiences in the next school year.

Parents Can Help
Dr. Chang suggests that parents look for subtle changes in a child’s behavior, which may indicate that he or she is harboring feelings of stress and anxiety. Children of all ages may show anxiety by avoiding social situations or friends. Some children might seek more parental approval than normal, while others will flatly refuse to attend school. Frequent complaints of physical symptoms such as stomachaches and headaches may signal underlying anxiety. Parents, according to Dr. Chang, can help by listening to their children’s fears, assisting them in coping with worries, and rewarding their courageous behaviors. It is also important for parents’ to control their own anxieties about the situation.

For those whose symptoms persist or who are inconsolable, Dr. Chang suggests therapeutic intervention. “Anxiety in children is underreported,” she says. “We estimate that between 10 to 15 percent of schoolaged children have a formal stress disorder. When undetected and untreated, these disorders can cause significant interference and stress in a child’s life.” UCLA is currently conducting research to find even better ways than currently available to treat anxiety in children.

Transitions are difficult for children of any age. Parents should initiate the transition to the regular school year routine a few weeks before school actually starts. Bedtimes and wake-up times should gradually become earlier so a child can physically prepare for the school schedule. Dr. Chang suggests that parents involve a child as much as possible in preparing for school. “Let a child pick out a backpack, school supplies, and appropriate clothes,” she says. “In doing so, parents allow children to have a sense of control over a situation that can feel overwhelming.”

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