Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Easing Back-to-School Anxiety With Dr. Laura Phillips
[0:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 427 of Live Happy Now. It’s time to go back to school, and for some kids, that means a whole lot of stress. I’m your host, Paula Felps, and this week, I’m talking with Dr. Laura Phillips, the Senior Director in the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute. Laura specializes in working with children who have learning disorders, mood disorders, and anxiety, among other things, and she’s committed to improving the social, emotional well-being of children and adolescents, so she’s sitting down with me today to talk about how going back to school can create anxiety for kids of all ages and how it can also affect their parents. Then, she’s going to tell us what we can do about it. Let’s have a listen.
[0:00:47] PF: Well, Laura, thank you so much for coming on the show today.
[0:00:50] LP: Thank you so much for having me.
[0:00:52] PF: I wanted to talk to you, because back to school is on the minds of everybody, kids, parents, shopkeepers. We tend to, at this time of year, focus on the excitement of the new school year and all the great things, but there is a lot of research that shows that children are more anxious than ever about going back to school. I wanted to talk, first of all, and find out what you’re seeing.
[0:01:14] LP: I think, children are more anxious than ever, unfortunately, about everything. I think back to school is a transition which tends to be anxiety-provoking for children, particularly those who experience anxiety. The last three years, each transition back to school was anxiety-provoking, because kids didn’t know what the year would look like in the fall of 2020. We had kids who were doing full-time remote instruction, hybrid instruction. Some kids were back in classrooms for the first time since the previous March, so that was really anxiety-provoking.
Then the following fall, there was increased return to the classroom, but still some – I mean, really significant changes from what normal school looks like. Then there were really young kids who never really knew what normal school looked like, because they hadn’t had a normal school year, because of where they were when COVID hit.
The past couple of years, the back-to-school transition, I think, was anxiety-provoking, because kids didn’t really know what that would look like. This year, we seem to be out of that pandemic phase, so it’s a more normal return to school this year than I think the past couple of years had been. But that’s with an atypically anxious population of kids and teenagers. As you said, general rates of anxiety are higher than ever before among our teenagers and children, and that’s true for mood disorders as well. We have a group of kids and teenagers who are coming up, who are just really struggling from an emotional perspective.
[0:02:42] PF: What is the biggest cause of that anxiety? Because I do hear a lot more about anxiety, and I don’t think it’s just because we’re more aware of it. I think there’s a greater amount of it.
[0:02:54] LP: I think that’s right. It’s really not just COVID. This isn’t a COVID relic, although I don’t think that the pandemic helped, but we really did see these trends, rising rates of anxiety and mood disorders preceding the pandemic, and really dating back really to the mid-2000s. I think that there are a lot of things. I think that a really big contributor is social media. We have kids who are constantly connected to one another and to the world. That can take a hit on their self-esteem, because there’s just this constant comparison game that’s taking place and FOMO and the unkind behavior that used to end at 3:00 tends to follow kids now home at the end of the day, because there’s just constant connection.
There’s also just constant information. The world is a scary place. I think that kids are really acutely aware of it, because there’s a 24-hour news cycle and because of their constant access to information through social media and being on screens. They’re hearing about school shootings. They’re hearing about racialized violence. They’re hearing about global warming. There’s a lot of reasons for kids to feel nervous about the state of the world. There’s also a lot of pressure on kids, which I think comes from very well-intended parents who also have a lot of concerns about the state of the world. They want to feel like they have some control over their children and their children’s future. There’s a lot of pressure put on kids to have academic success.
From very early on in kids’ school years, they’re hearing that how important it is to do well in school and to get into a good college and to get a good job. Free time is pretty limited now, because kids are really involved in a ton of programming. Some of which is really good, but I think that downtime is really important, both from a mental health perspective, but also from a cognitive development perspective. I think that there are a lot of factors contributing to the rising rates of anxiety.
[0:04:51] PF: For parents, how do they press pause on some of that? Because you want to keep up, and your child wants to keep up. They want to know what’s going on with social media. Even though it’s challenging and anxiety-provoking, they don’t want to miss out on it. How do you take them away from that a little bit and find some mental health breaks?
[0:05:15] LP: It’s really, really hard. I don’t envy parents of children who are old enough to have screens. I have very young children. I have a four-year-old and a one-year-old, and I am not looking forward to the day when my child asks me for a cellphone, or a Facebook account. Because to your point, you don’t want kids to miss out, and that is the way that kids are connecting with their friends. That is the way that kids are staying in contact when they’re outside of school. That’s the way that they’re making plans, and so you don’t want your child to be isolated, or pulled out of that. But parents need to be monitoring. They need to be aware of who their kids are talking to, what they’re talking about.
There is a role for restrictions on certain types of programming, or access to people through programming, so you can certainly, you can restrict who kids talk to, and they can only talk to people if you’re approved. I mean, there are ways to put in place restrictions on kids’ access to screens and social media. But you said mental health break. I think that a break is also really, really important. Not just for kids and teenagers, but for adults too, and I wish that I practiced what I preached. But I talk to parents all the time about, really, we talk about screen contracts, or social media contracts, so coming up with a plan for when and how and for what purposes these devices will be used before giving children the privilege of having a phone, which having a cellphone really is a privilege, which I really try to reinforce with parents a lot.
It’s a privilege that they have the right to remove if these devices are being abused, or if kids are not following the rules that are set out for them in order to safeguard them and also, to protect their mental health. But within those contracts, should also be designated break times. There should be times throughout the day that kids are not on phones. I think that dinner time and I mean, families have obviously different schedules and different opportunities to be together for dinner. Meal time should be a time ideally where everybody, not just children are putting away their phones and really using that time to come back and connect with one another. The bedroom, designated so to screen-free times of day, also screen-free zones within the house, or the apartment. Maybe the bedroom is a place that we at least after a certain hour of the day, because certainly during the day, kids are going to insist that they need access to their phones and their screens.
But maybe after 8:30 p.m., everyone turns in their phones and then there’s just designated blackout time for screen media. I think that kids and adults really do need a break, and there’s a lot of really compelling research showing mental health benefit of having designated time away from screens.
[0:07:55] PF: Then how can you use that time at dinner to connect and find out what’s going on at school, what’s going on with them, and this is a two-parter, because a child isn’t necessarily going to tell you in words, “I’m being picked on. I’m being bullied. I’m not happy. I don’t feel comfortable.” How do you use that time at dinner and how do you get into what is really going on?
[0:08:16] LP: Well, I mean, anytime you’re talking about uncomfortable things, you want to ask open-ended questions. You don’t want to ask leading questions and you don’t want to plant affect, or emotional experiences into kids’ minds. You don’t want to say, “Are you nervous about your first day of school tomorrow?” You might want to ask them, “How are you feeling about starting school tomorrow and really see what they bring to you?”
Yeah. I mean, kids may not come out and tell you how they’re feeling. They might not tell you that they’re feeling nervous, or scared, or if they had an unpleasant experience in school. You want to watch carefully for some red flags that we know kids tend to show when they are experiencing something that makes them feel uncomfortable. Changes in affect, changes in behaviors, if you’re seeing increased irritability, reduced frustration tolerance, kids are having meltdowns more frequently than, or more easily than they tend to have.
If you’re seeing changes in sleep patterns. You’re noticing that kids are having a hard time falling asleep, they’re waking up in the middle of the night, they’re waking up earlier in the morning, if they’re more clingy than usual, somatic symptoms, so physical complaints like headaches, stomach aches, fatigues, etc., are all really good signs that something might be going on that’s making your child feel uncomfortable, which can then be a reason to prompt that conversation either during dinner, or a really good time to have conversations about things that are difficult are when you’re doing other things, but also have to be – you’re forced together time, like a car ride to school. You’re trapped inside a car, but you’re also not looking directly at one another, which can make it a little bit easier sometimes for kids to open up about what’s feeling uncomfortable for them. Car rides to school. Walks to school. If you have a younger child, bath time. I get a ton of information when I’m giving my younger child a bath.
[0:10:00] PF: It’s better than an interrogation, right?
[0:10:02] LP: Right. I mean, you’re together. It’s again, it’s like this forced together time, but it doesn’t feel like an interrogation, because you’re in the middle doing something else and you just happen to bring up. My daughter. I’m sorry, I keep bringing up my child, but she’s about to –
[0:10:15] PF: All good.
[0:10:17] LP: – her deep-water test. Rather than saying, “Are you nervous with your deep-water test?” We might say something like, “What’s happened? What are you thinking about swimming tomorrow?” Something very benign, something open-ended, and just see what happens to come up. In those moments where kids might be a little bit more willing to share information, rather than if you go into their room and say, “I want to have a conversation with you right now about going back to school tomorrow.”
[0:10:42] PF: That’s intimidating.
[0:10:43] LP: Right. Exactly. Yeah.
[0:10:46] PF: If a child does show signs of anxiety about going back to school, how do you differentiate between, this is just jitters of starting a new school year and something unfamiliar? Or there’s actually an underlying anxiety situation?
[0:10:59] LP: Yeah. That’s a really good question, because back to school jitters, I mean, there’s a term for it, because it’s very common thing. A lot of kids really do feel – it’s very normal to feel a little anxious, nervous, jittery at the start of a new school year. Some of that is really excited anticipation also. But you would expect those nerves, if it’s just back-to-school jitters to dissipate within a couple of days of that new school year beginning.
When we talk about, how do I know if this is something more, I like to talk about frequency intensity, duration, and impairment. The duration piece can be really important in this particular example. Again, if those signs of nervousness, or jitteriness persist beyond those first couple of days of school, and you’re seeing more frequent occurrence of either worry thoughts, or stomach aches, or difficulty sleeping than normal, more intense occurrence of those symptoms than normal, and that they’re starting to have some functional impairment, like my child is expressing that he doesn’t want to go to school, then that suggests that this is more than just typical back-to-school jitters.
[0:12:03] PF: Then the question, of course, is what do you do about it? Because when I was growing up, they’re like, “Oh, just wait it out.” They’re like, “Work through it.” There are better ways, I am sure to do it than just toughen it out. What does a parent do if they realize that their child is very anxious and that it’s more than just a couple of days type of thing?
[0:12:28] LP: Yeah. You seek support. I mean, I would – teachers are a wealth of information about how your kids are doing during the day they’re on the ground. I might reach out to it. I might start by reaching out to a teacher, or if there’s the dean, the head of the middle school who might have broader view of your child, because they may have known them over the course of a couple of years. I might reach out to them and say, “Are you noticing anything different? Johnny has been complaining of stomach aches really frequently and that’s not very typical for him. I’m wondering if you’re seeing anything in school.”
I would I would look to teachers for as a really important source of information about how kids are doing during the day. They’re usually your mental health professionals on site in school. Whether that’s a school counselor, or a school psychologist can be another really second point of contact, either to help check in with your child during the day, or guide you towards whether it might be time to seek support outside of the school system with a mental health professional in the community.
[0:13:27] PF: In our conversation, we’re talking more about younger children, because, well, teenagers are a whole different ballgame. Once we get to that, they’re not talking to us anyway. How do parents start monitoring that tween and teen situation and differentiate between what’s just the moodiness of a teenager and an actual problem that’s going on?
[0:13:51] LP: I think parents have a long view of who their children are, if they’re seeing really acute changes that that’s suggested it’s more than typical moodiness associated with hormone change and development in teenagers. But the same things. It is normal for kids to be a little bit grouchy and hard to wake up in the morning. But if they’re refusing to get out of bed, if they’re showing sleepiness during the day, if they’re insisting that they need to take naps during the day, or if they’re indicating that they don’t want to go to school, I mean, the more intense communication of these impairment, I think parents would notice.
[0:14:33] PF: Okay, that’s really good. I guess, the same rules apply. It’s like, understand when you need to seek outside help.
[0:14:40] LP: I don’t think that kids want to feel uncomfortable. I think that they might not know that there’s a way for them to feel differently and they might be concerned that there’s something wrong with them. Admitting that they need help can be scary. But normalizing it can be a really good way to get a teen to seek out professional help.
[0:15:01] PF: Okay. What about children who are either ignored, or bullied in the school environment? That’s as a parent, I can’t imagine watching my child go through either of those situations. There’s only so much that you can do. How can a parent help a child who’s dealing with either of those? Then, how do you set them up for success and start changing things for them?
[0:15:26] LP: It’s really hard, because you also want to, as you said, you can’t imagine it. I think that that’s something that’s really hard for all parents to watch their children go through feelings that their child is being mistreated, or feels uncomfortable, or unsafe in school triggers a lot of anxiety in parents themselves. You want to be really mindful of putting your own anxiety and discomfort onto your children, because then they have the double whammy of not only is school hard for me, but mom is also really upset about this, too. You want to be really careful in how you broach these conversations.
You again want to ask open-ended questions about how they’re feeling in school, rather than putting the affect into their minds. Like, “Are you nervous about going back to school tomorrow?” Were you going to sit with all your own racing thoughts that you might have? Leave those out of this. When they do communicate to you what they’re feeling, you want to validate those feelings without reinforcing those feelings, without reinforcing the fear. You can say, “I understand you’re feeling really nervous about the first day of school. I bet a lot of other kids are feeling that same way.” You don’t want to say, “Of course, you’re feeling nervous. Who are you going to sit with?”
Listens to their own concerns. At the same time, if you know that there’s something challenging for them, don’t start the conversation with that. If you know that they feel nervous about finding someone to sit with at lunch, when they come home from school that first day, don’t say, “Who did you sit with at lunch?” You want to start with something that’s going to make them feel more positive about how those first days back at school have gone.
The big thing is, I think there’s this real desire, there’s this urge for parents to take away their children’s anxiety, either by dismissing it, or telling them these social struggles don’t matter. “When you get out of school, you’re going to look back at these days and you won’t even remember them and you’re going to have so many friends.” That’s not helpful. Keeping them home from school. If they express that they don’t want to go to school, because they’re worried about who they’re going to sit with at lunch, or they’re worried that they’re going to be made fun of, keeping them home from school is not helpful, because that’s also just reinforcing their own fear.
The goal really should be helping them learn how to cope with and tolerate the discomfort, or cope with the anxiety, manage those big feelings and learn skills to manage those anxiety provoking situations, rather than removing those anxiety provoking situations. Practicing with them, or problem solving. Let’s think of some people that you can try to sit with at lunch tomorrow. Let’s think of some conversation starters. Practicing, coming up with a script for how they might approach a new person in their class, some questions that they can ask and then you can practice asking those questions.
Really, the anticipation of the anxiety provoking situation is the hardest part. You want to prepare kids for what those situations look like, previewing, actually visualizing what it looks like to walk into a big cafeteria with a lot of kids around, some of whom you know, some of whom are unkind to you. Another group who hopefully, you can feel comfortable approaching and then actually walking them through what it looks like to go up to a friend and ask if you can sit with them and practicing using their brave words to try to break into a social group. Previewing, practicing and also expressing really positive but realistic expectations about those fear situations.
You can’t promise your child that first day of school is going to be great. They’re going to make a ton of friends. Because that may not be the case, it might be and you should anticipate that for kids who have social anxiety, or who have historically been bullied, first days back to school can be really stressful and challenging and they might have a couple of bumps in the road. You don’t want to promise them anything that you can’t deliver. You don’t want to promise them that those first days of school are going to be easy. You don’t want to promise them that they’ll have a ton of people to sit with and talk to at lunch. But you do want to imbue in them the confidence that you have that they’ll be able to get through it.
You can validate, “Yes, this is going to be a – this can be a scary experience and I have faith that you can get through it. This is how we’re going to do it.” You’re communicating your faith and your confidence in them, validating their feelings and also giving them some tools and practicing using those tools.
[0:19:46] PF: Then as they’re going through those first few days, if it’s not going well, if they are having a very tough time, how do you give them a soft landing when they get home? What are some things that you can do? You can’t take away what has happened, or hasn’t happened at school, but how can you balance out the day for them and make it less miserable, less uncomfortable for them?
[0:20:08] LP: I mean, exactly what you said. You want to give them a soft landing. You want to be very positive. You want to ask questions about things that you know that they enjoy and really try to shine a light on things that were positive about those first days back at school. School is highly structured and highly scheduled. I think that especially in those first couple of weeks, trying to make sure that weekends at least have a lot of unstructured, or unscheduled time, so that kids can feel like they have some control over how they’re spending their time. I mean, school is very, very heavily dictated for them during the school day. Giving them some sense of control, some sense of rest and decompression and sensory relief on weekends can be really, really helpful for kids to recuperate after having highly stimulating and stressful days back at school.
[0:20:59] PF: There’s another sector that we haven’t talked about and that’s college students going back to school. Only they’re going off to school maybe for the first time. I have a gentleman who I know and he had twin sons and they went to separate colleges. One of them is very outgoing and went there and thrived, and the other one is very introverted and ended up coming home during the school year, because he couldn’t handle it. How do parents prepare their children for going off to college?
[0:21:28] LP: It’s the same thing. You want to really help them preview. You can’t take away the experience, but you want to help them preview, problem solve, practice how they’re going to engage in those situations. I mean, ideally, there might be a person or two that a teenager knows at the school that they’re going to, that they can try to connect with and a step, just that they have one safe person. If you have one safe person to go around with and start to meet new people, that can be really, really helpful. If you can find a way to arrange for a meet up with someone, just that there’s a familiar face, that can be really, really helpful.
Then just talking through, really helping them understand what those first couple of weeks at school might look like, and helping them problem solve can be really, really helpful. Again, validating that this is a new experience, that this is something that could trigger a lot of discomfort in you, and this is how we’re going to deal with it, and I believe that you can get through it.
[0:22:24] PF: Let them know, it’s okay not to be okay, I guess.
[0:22:26] LP: It’s okay to not be okay.
[0:22:29] PF: Then parents, they’re also starting to get a little stressed, back to school, because and it’s not just the shopping. I know it changes parents’ routines. They’ve been able to take it a little bit easier without having to carpool and commute with the children and drop them off. What can parents do? As now we get more demands back on our time, what are some great ways for them to approach back to school and breathe and make it a joyous time for everybody?
[0:22:56] LP: Yeah. I change in routine is usually a positive one, because there’s so much structure and routine that’s associated with school. Well, I mean, it might take a minute to get back into that routine, but once you’re in the groove and actually, there’s something very safe that the school year provides to kids and families in really, the structure and the predictability that the school schedule provides.
Yeah. I mean, if you’re going from not having to manage carpool and early wakeups and making lunches, etc., there’s definitely a lot that parents have to remember how to do. I would say, start early. The whole family, you really want to get people back into that school routine, at least the school schedule, at least before the first day. Start thinking about getting kids to go to bed earlier, waking kids up earlier in the morning and really getting back into the routine of mom and dad are making breakfast, or caregivers, or someone’s making – we want to make sure that we’re setting up that structure of the school day of where we’re getting dressed, we’re having breakfast and we’re practicing, or thinking at least about what it means to get out the door on time.
You want to make sure that you’re pulling together school supplies earlier. You don’t want to be racing the night before to find the right size binder that your teacher wants for your math class. Just to the extent that you can really do as much in advance those couple of days right before school starts don’t feel as hectic. Just to the extent that that parents can really try to prepare earlier, rather than later, or getting back into school routines, starting to, I said, pull together materials, managing parents own anxiety. Thinking about what it is that they’re feeling nervous about, whether it’s the social piece, the academic piece, the time management piece and managing that outside away from children.
I mean, children are so unbelievably perceptive. They really pick up on parent energy. It can be hard to do. But to really try to be mindful of your own emotions and your own level of stress when you’re talking to kids about going back to school, because you don’t want to put your own anxiety and stress onto children.
[0:25:06] PF: Right. When is it a good idea, maybe even for a parent to get some outside help, talk to somebody about it, if they’re having trouble managing at all?
[0:25:17] LP: This is a Herald confluence quote. “That self-care is child care.” Parents cannot be the parents that they want to be if they themselves are struggling with anxiety, or feeling overwhelmed, or depression. When parents are noticing that they’re having a hard time being fully present, it’s important for them to take a step back and figure out what it is that they need. Whether they need to seek professional help, or it’s just about carving out more time for themselves to exercise, to get sufficient sleep, to connect with friends. That’s not selfish. It actually helps make parents better parents, if they’re to the extent that they’re managing their own anxiety and stress, they can be more available to support their kids through stressful situations.
[0:26:01] PF: That’s excellent. Laura, you’ve given us a lot to think about, a lot to learn, and I’m going to tell our listeners how they can find you, find your work, find the Child Mind Institute, and learn more about what you all are about. Thank you for coming on today. This is enlightening, very important topic. I know it’s on top of mind for a lot of people right now, so thanks for taking time to sit with us.
[0:26:21] LP: Thanks so much for having me.
[0:26:27] PF: That was Dr. Laura Phillips, talking about alleviating back-to-school anxiety. If you’d like to learn more about her work and the Child Mind Institute, just visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab. Of course, if you’re looking for some uplifting cool t-shirts for your child to wear back to school this fall, be sure and check out our selection at store.livehappy.com. That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.