Letting go of summer and shifting back into the school year is challenging as is let alone in a post-covid world. Even under the best circumstances, families struggle with the stresses of anxiety towards the upcoming year and/or first-day jitters. Dr. Jana William's-Pitts is a licensed clinical health psychologist with the Wellstar Health System. She practices at the Kennesaw Medical Center and also supervises five behavioral health consultants. Dr. Williams-Pitts created the conversation around back-to-school depression and anxiety and how family members can recognize it among their little ones returning to the classroom.
First Things First, Recognizing The Signs
When referring to the pandemic, Dr. Williams-Pitts explained that children and adolescents are facing chronic stress in a unique way. She explained, "the stress can be associated with the school environment and the changes in the school environment, around virtual learning, hybrid models of learning, (and) being on campus." Adding in, "So they're navigating all of these changes."
She also included the environmental shift that occurred at home as parents shifted from being in the office everyday to being in hybrid or fully remote positions. This too is a contributing factor to a child's chronic stress. Dr. Williams-Pitts emphasized on, "making sure that the family has a structure … a bit of predictability around their their schedule through the day, and then also having regular eating schedules, and having a family kind of quiet time period before bedtime, and the household having a set bedtime.”
Starting with anxiety, persistent worrying is a sign. “They may worry about their parents dying,” Dr. Williams-Pitts said. “They may worry about failing in regards to their schoolwork, even if they’re a straight A student, for example, or a B student.” She continued, “Also physical symptoms: stomach aches, headaches … or just that they don’t feel well. That could be a sign of anxiety as well.”
“Depression in childhood and adolescence can present primarily with irritability,” shared Dr. Williams-Pitts. “And that’s a little bit different than how it presents in adulthood.” She further explained, “So the first sign that your child or teenager may be experiencing depression is they seem a bit more grumpy than normal."
With depression come a lack of interest in things, even the activities that your child typically loves. She stated, "if they typically really enjoy video games, or they typically enjoy riding their bike, they’re not doing that as much."
“Also, negative self-talk. So if you notice your child saying, ‘I’m stupid, I can’t do this’. That type of negative self talk about themselves,” said Dr. Williams-Pitts “‘No one likes me.’ It’s really important that parents pay attention to that and lean into that, because that could be a sign of depression as well.”
"Be Open Minded and Encouraging"
Managing stress can be done in many ways. Along with structure in the home like she mentioned, is practicing physical health. Dr. Williams-Pitts explained, "Also, movement is an excellent way for managing the stress response."
“Parents can help their children identify what type of movement they enjoy the most,” she said, “be it roller skating, skateboarding, hiking, rock climbing, whatever it might be. I really encourage parents to be open minded and encouraging,” she added in.
"Really nurturing and encouraging your your kiddo to find their way to move that helps them great exercise and relieve their stress is important as well.”
Teach Your Kids To Identify Their Stress And Positively Manage It
Dr. Williams-Pitts says to help your little ones "identify what are those signs that … stress level is starting to increase? Is my heart pounding or racing? Do I notice feeling fatigued? Fatigue is a critical sign of chronic stress and that it’s starting to have an impact.” She explained that talking about your own stress and doing something positive to take care of it, for example taking a power now or reading a book to recharge, can help normalize the feelings of stress, identifying it on their own and mending it the proper way.
Let Them Know They're Not Alone
Comfort your children during this time by letting them know that it's not just them. This is a challenging time for a lot of kids, teachers too. “They’ve had to roll out everything without having a trial and error period,” Dr. Williams-Pitts shared. “So they have been learning: the teachers, the administrators, the school, they’ve been learning while they’re doing and trying to support students.” Continuing to say, “So parents can help by normalizing and saying, ‘Hey, everyone’s having a hard time with this, you’re not alone.'”
“And then also creating a learning space for their child in the household that is away from their bedroom,” she stated. “This is really important to help ensure that your child maintains healthy sleep habits. Reducing any activity in the bedroom outside asleep can be incredibly helpful for children and adolescents. And for adults, too.”
Coming together with your kid(s) for mid-week check-ins as well as keeping in touch with their teachers can make all the difference as well.
If you're worrying about this upcoming year, I empathize you greatly being a mother of three young kiddos myself. We are in a sea of unknown and it is in no way easy. However, just like Dr. Williams-Pitts said, no one is alone in this. Chronic stress from this specific realm of life is being faced by so many across the nation. However, I hope this article inspired some ideas for the year ahead to make it as positive and successful as it has the potential to be.