With the school year in full swing, kids have been interacting with peers in person every day for a few months now. But despite a return to some normalcy on the classroom front, many children are experiencing high levels of anxiety. For some, school was a primary cause of that stress even before COVID. According to a 2019 Pew research study, 61 percent of teens surveyed felt pressure to excel academically, 29 percent felt pressure about their appearance, 28 percent worried about fitting in socially and 21 percent felt pressure to do well in sports. Combined with the added stressors that come with a pandemic, it’s no wonder kids of all ages are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety. Here’s what parents can do to help kids manage all that pressure in a healthy way:
LOOK OUT FOR SIGNS OF ANXIETY
Anxiety in children can present as fear, worry, irritability or anger, and may even cause trouble sleeping, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can also cause physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches and fatigue. In children who internalize their anxiety, symptoms may be hard for parents to pick up on. “There are definitely children who were suffering from anxiety prior to the pandemic, and then there are students who had never shown any symptoms of anxiety until the pandemic,” says Julie Marshall, LCSW, a therapist at Brave Minds Psychological Services in Scotch Plains. “For some children who maybe had undiagnosed social anxiety, parents may have seen a drastic change in their children.”
But with so many kids struggling, the mental health of students is a primary concern of schools this year, Marshall says. “All the districts have received funding to bring in extra support for mental health because they know that children really need to have those needs met to be successful academically,” she says.
MAKE SLEEP A PRIORITY
Sleep is vital to our kids’ physical and mental health, and research indicates that not getting enough of it causes a marked uptick in anxiety among children and adolescents. To help keep kids’ anxiety from becoming unbearable, it’s important that they stick to regular sleep and wake times, says Marshall. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that teens get 8-10 hours of sleep each night. Younger kids, from ages 6 to 12, need 9-11 hours. Parents should help children establish a bedtime that guarantees they get the sleep they need to succeed.
TRY ACTIONABLE TOOLS FOR COPING
Journaling or meditating using apps like Headspace or Calm can be effective ways to relax and decompress. “If a child is really stressed out, sensory tools and techniques can be helpful. Kids can try things like splashing cold water on their face or tensing and releasing certain muscle groups. For younger kids, parents can try something sensory, like making slime, as a fun activity. Doing something with their hands can be very helpful for kids, both as a distraction as well as for regulating their emotions,” Marshall says. Exercise is a proven anxiety and stress reducer, so encourage your kids to get moving. Going for a walk or doing something together as a family can be very helpful because it opens up the opportunity to check in with your kids, says Marshall.
TALK ABOUT IT
Being able to communicate their feelings and emotions openly is another important tool for kids when it comes to managing stress. “A lot of times, kids may not know how to manage their stress or what to do with it; it seems too big for them,” says Marshall. “Promoting healthy, open conversation and reinforcing that it’s normal to talk about feelings and emotions helps parents be supportive when stress happens. It also helps in the long run so kids don’t get to the point where they’re feeling like they’re exploding because it’s just too much.”
Encouraging kids to be independent is an important way to boost their resiliency overall, says Nicole McQuillen, LCSW, senior vice president of children and family services at Care Plus NJ. “Give them age-appropriate tasks to do to help them feel good and learn how to give back.”
PROBLEM SOLVE TOGETHER
When your kids are anxious about something, it’s helpful to role-play different scenarios so they can practice solving problems on their own, says McQuillen. “I think sometimes, especially when you have very young children, parents may problem-solve for them, and depending on the scenario, that could be warranted. But by modeling these things for them in an age-appropriate way, they’ll become more independent. They’ll become more resilient and confident,” she says.
Parents are stressed too, and shouldn’t be afraid to reach out for help, says McQuillen. “Schools have internal resources, but there are also private, nonprofit mental health centers that have resources, whether it’s individual counseling, family counseling, groups or specialty services for children.”