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Back-to-School Jitters or Serious Anxiety and Depression?

August 17, 2023

In the upcoming weeks, millions of students of all ages will be heading back to school. We all remember those back-to-school jitters, a combination of being excited and nervous about a new school year, but how do we know whether our children are experiencing typical nervousness and anxiety or serious anxiety, and possibly depression, that requires support? The answer: by listening to what is being communicated both verbally and non verbally, and by observing their behavior. Also, what can we do to support our children, even infants? Let’s explore.

Unfortunately, unlike previous years, children and teens have faced a convergence of stressors, particularly social disruption, that have exacerbated normally occurring anxiety, catapulting the number of children who are now experiencing much more serious mental health issues. Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, published in JAMA in March that deaths for ages 1-19 rose by 10.7% from 2019 to 2020 and an additional 8.3% the following year.  That’s the highest increase for two consecutive years in the half-century that the government has publicly tracked such figures, according to Woolf’s analysis.

According to Dr. Sarah Wood, a professor of pediatrics at Florida Atlantic University, suicide is now the leading cause of death for 13- and 14-year-olds in the U.S.

The heartbreaking increase in suicides and deaths among young children and teens is devastating–and this drastic increase is before the pandemic, which added isolation, loss of loved ones, and fear and disruption of routines to an already stressed group of children. The foundation for mental well-being begins at birth within the context of responsive, empathic, supportive relationships. Emotions are the universal first language. It is through emotions we begin to communicate, understand and experience the world around us.

So what can parents and caregivers do during these crucial formative years to give babies and children the best start in life? They can teach emotional intelligence by modeling and guiding children as they experience big feelings. We can help children begin to recognize, understand, express and manage their own emotions and those of others. 

Optimal development happens within the context of empathic, nurturing, and supportive relationships. Children learn through observation and require guidance and modeling from trusted adults on how to manage their big emotions and those of others so their anxiety does not get in the way of their relating, relationships and learning.

While modeling and guiding children through their emotions is absolutely necessary, one great tool for supporting children is through bibliotherapy - using stories to support children’s common social and emotional needs such as conflict with friends, anxiety, bullying, loss and other difficulties. Storytelling is a powerful visual tool and a safe way to engage young children in discussions about life events, challenges, stresses and emotions. 

Riley's Really Big WorriesIn my latest children’s book in the ECSELent Adventures series that comes out in October, Riley’s Really Big Worries, provides parents and caregivers with the opportunity to have conversations that explore big emotions addressing worry, anxiety and fear with children. In the book, Riley catches “snufflepaws” from his friend Milo. One of Riley’s big worries is that of being around germs. When Riley learns from his mother that germs are everywhere, he becomes obsessed and extremely anxious about the germs all around him. 

Riley’s mom understands that Riley needs support in understanding and being better able to deal with his worries. His teachers understand that Riley is not alone with his worries and wisely introduce the topic of worries among all the children so each can find comfort in not feeling alone with their emotions and, more importantly, realize that there are ways to manage their big worries.

After some deep belly breathing to calm down, Riley is able to talk about his worries. In class the following day, his classmates share the various things they’re worried about–by sharing their experiences they learn that everyone has worries to varying degrees and it’s what we do with them and how we deal with them that’s most important.

Riley’s Really Big Worries explores anxiety, worries and fear. If not addressed responsively and empathically by the adults in children’s lives, those feelings can spiral and interfere with a child doing the things they enjoy and/or engaging with family, friends, teachers and classmates. The more explicit a parent or caregiver can be in discussing the social and emotional issues the greater the impact on children’s social and emotional learning and behavior - storybooks read by trusted adults can be one helpful tool that supports this process.

While we can’t protect our children from everything, we can guide them in their most formative years to give them a strong foundation and the emotional intelligence skills that set them up for lifelong success - personally, socially and academically.

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