Back-to-school mental health: How to check in with your kids before putting them on the school bus

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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.

Children board the bus to school on Sept. 23, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut.  
(John Moore/Getty Images)

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.  

A mother kisses her daughter while dropping her off for class at Stark Elementary School on September 16, 2020. in Stamford, Connecticut. 

A mother kisses her daughter while dropping her off for class at Stark Elementary School on September 16, 2020. in Stamford, Connecticut. 
(John Moore/Getty Images)

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.

A student listens during a lesson in February 2017.

A student listens during a lesson in February 2017.
(Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images)

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.

Students take a group photo during the first day of class at Melinda Heights Elementary School in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., on August 15, 2022. 

Students take a group photo during the first day of class at Melinda Heights Elementary School in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., on August 15, 2022. 
(Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

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.

A young student holds her mom's hand outside a school.

A young student holds her mom’s hand outside a school.
(ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/GettyImages)

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 child wearing a schoolbag is accompanied to his elementary school on September 2, 2014, at the start of a new school year.

A child wearing a schoolbag is accompanied to his elementary school on September 2, 2014, at the start of a new school year.
(ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images)

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. 

A student takes part in remote learning on a Chromebook with the help of her mom at home on October 28, 2020, in Stamford, Connecticut. 

A student takes part in remote learning on a Chromebook with the help of her mom at home on October 28, 2020, in Stamford, Connecticut. 
(John Moore/Getty Images)

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.

A girl struggles during a class at school on February 3, 2017. 

A girl struggles during a class at school on February 3, 2017. 
(Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images)

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.