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Back-to-school season can be tough for a lot of reasons.
Transitioning back to a school-year schedule while encountering changes such as new teachers, new classrooms and new peer groups can be a challenge for young students — a challenge that parents and families need to manage.
Dr. Douglas Newton, psychiatrist and SonderMind chief medical officer based in Denver, Colorado, shared with Fox News Digital the importance of paying attention to the mental health of our children before sending them off to school.
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“Be aware of the feelings that you might have as well as the feelings a child might have,” he said. “That includes being a little anxious about going back to school.”
Newton explained that back-to-school anxiety can arise for different reasons — everything from the general anticipation of facing something new to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic or other major changes.
The psychiatrist shared that more than 70% of students will experience some sort of anxiety before returning to school.
Anxiety and depression in kids have increased nearly 50% within the last few years, according to various studies, Newton mentioned, especially within marginalized communities.
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Newton said this influx has translated directly to the almost 50% increase in hospitalizations for psychiatric and behavioral health concerns.
For parents and guardians gearing up for back-to-school time, Newton offered his best tips for keeping tabs on your child’s mental health, starting with a simple chat.
1. Sit down and check in
It might seem like an obvious start, but hectic schedules can keep parents from slowing down and simply asking their children: “How are you?”
“Just sitting down with your child and asking them how they’re doing and how they’re feeling” is important, he said.
Newton added that the conversation will go a little differently depending on the age of the child.
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Teenagers may feel less inclined to express their emotions, while little ones who might not be able to verbalize how they feel will instead show their feelings through physical reactions such as headaches or stomach aches.
Kids may also appear to be more withdrawn at home or in social settings.
“Ask things and pay attention to some of those patterns that may be off for your child that you, as a parent, are probably most aware of,” he said.
2. Notice physical reactions and behavioral changes
Other physical reactions that children may have related to anxiety include trouble with sleeping or eating — or binge-eating.
Kids may also appear to be more withdrawn at home or in social settings and can be irritable or easily angered.
Newton mentioned that engaging in negative self-talk, including expressing thoughts of feeling hopeless or “not good enough,” is an indicator of poor mental health.
Another warning sign to watch for are changes in a friend group — which can directly correlate to change in behavior.
Major changes in friend groups can also be an anxiety trigger, as well as other pressures throughout the school year such as end-of-semester testing.
3. Reassure kids if they’re anxious
If your child has expressed feelings of anxiety before returning to school, Newton said the best next step is to assure your child that others are also experiencing the same feelings.
“Tell them, ‘Don’t be ashamed. It’s OK,’” he said. “‘This happens to a lot of kids.'”
When kids feel anxious, Newton said it’s also important for parents to remind them of their support — and reassure them that these feelings won’t last forever.
Newton suggested mentioning that sometimes people don’t have control over their emotions or what happens in the future.
He said brainstorming other factors that are out of human control can be a good exercise as well.
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Relating your child’s feelings back to yourself, whether that’s about feeling generally anxious or experiencing physical setbacks, can ease some worry, too
4. Initiate problem-solving
Coming up with solutions for managing your child’s mental health is the next natural step.
Empowering your child can be “really helpful,” Newton said, starting by communicating new ways to get through the problem together.
A supportive community also helps.
Parents can work on building a strong support system by checking in and staying connected with their child’s friends and families.
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In addition, using distractions helps mitigate children’s anxiety.
“In the moment, take that pressure valve off and do something that would be fun or interesting,” he said.
As the school year progresses, Newton encouraged parents to involve their kids in extracurricular activities so that they can continue to surround themselves with support.
“Having other things that you’re involved with is hugely protective,” he said, “whether it’s sports, music or clubs.”
5. Ask the hard questions (you’re allowed)
If mental health issues persist and become an even greater concern within a family, parents might have to press more seriously, Newton indicated.
Moms and dads, of course, know their children better than anyone and this is a personal judgment call — but an uncomfortable conversation (with kids of a certain age) about suicide shouldn’t be avoided when confronting mental health with your child, he said.
Newton said it’s OK for parents to ask their kids if they’ve had thoughts of harming themselves or even about suicide.
Various studies suggest that these thoughts do not increase the likelihood that people would actually harm themselves.
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“Don’t be afraid,” said Newton, “if they are talking about feeling really down or worried or anxious.”
“It’s really important to know that if you’re that concerned, it’s OK to have that conversation.”
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If there’s increased concern for a child’s safety, Newton reminded parents that there’s professional help in the form of therapy as well as emergency resources.
That includes dialing the new suicide crisis line: 988.