Anxiety rates among students rise as school year starts

The first week of school is in the books for students in Western Washington. The beginning of the year can be a very exciting time for families, but it can also bring out anxiety in students.

School counselors and psychotherapists say they see higher rates of anxiety as the school year gets started, especially among students in transitional grades like freshman in high school.

The sound of the school bell signals the start to a new school year, but for many students that sound also triggers anxiety.

“Anytime you have a transition it causes a lot of anxiety and stress,” said Ann McGowan, counselor with the Northshore School District.

She suggests parents check in with children not right after school, but after they’ve had some down time and ask them open ended questions for more elaborated answers.

“It gets you away from the “yes” or “nothing” or “no,” said McGowan.

She says parents can also focus on talking about school with conversations that center around fun times during the day which can draw out answers that can be telling about social issues or other problems children may be having.

“I try to talk about the open times during the day, so ‘Hey who did you hang out at recess?’ And, that helps create some other questions. ‘What was something funny your teacher did today,'” said McGowan. “If we don’t know, we can’t help,” she added.

A little anxiety on week one of the school year is normal, but McGowan said to pay close attention if it lasts too long.

“If we're about three to four weeks in and they’re coming home every night and they’re tearful and upset,” she said that may be a cause for concern for some parents. She says many parents send her an email the night before if a child has had a particularly rough night and that can set up the child’s teacher and counselor with some preparation to assist the child during the following school day.

Psychotherapist Rene Czerwinski agrees with McGowan and says kids have a lot on their plates these days.

“I’ve been doing therapy for 18 plus years, and I do see younger and younger kids with anxiety,” said Czerwinski.

She says if a child shows dread going to school when in past years they’ve been excited, that might be a sign the anxiety is deeper than start of the school jitters. She adds children and teens with anxiety also tend to be extra fatigued, complain about stomach aches, headaches, are irritable, they may lash out at siblings or withdraw more from simple activities like calling friends on the phone or not eating very much. She says all of those indicate there may a deeper level of anxiety.

"Regular anxiety is when we’re supposed to have some fears that create a push to do things, and a persistent anxiety keeps us from doing things we would do otherwise,” she said.

Czerwinski suggests parents make sure they give undivided attention to children when they are having a conversation about anxiety or stress. She says turn off the television and get away from electronics that can be distracting. Czerwinski added if other siblings are going to be in the way, have a conversation with them first that you need a few minutes alone with their sibling.  She says it’s important that parents validate the child’s feelings and it helps them open up more to parents.

Czerwinski says anxiety is common, and it’s not about getting rid of it but teaching children how they can cope with it.

“The idea is that we don’t want to save them from their fears and make them have no anxiety, if they don’t learn how to cope with it’s going to increase over time and it can be worse as adults and worse as they get older,” she said.

Czerwinski added that sports and extracurricular activities are often areas where some children who may not do well in school can flourish and a place where they can expand other social skills, but she says sometimes when children pull away from clubs like Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts, sports teams that parents should acknowledge there could be a deeper issue.

“When it starts affecting grades, when you notice they’re dropping. You know your child, you know what’s normal, so all of a sudden if they’re not eating anymore, they’re not calling their friends, if you have a teenager they may be in their room more often and avoiding other things, have the conversation, something else is going on,” said Czerwinski.

Czerwinski added for very young children a comfort box might be a good idea to help ease transitions. She said some parents put a stuffed animal, pictures, the child’s favorite toy or other items like they that can help anxiety.

McGowan said that schools now have a lot of transitional programs that help children through those grade changes that can be especially challenging. She stresses that parents shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to the school for help and that together they can help a child through anxiety and find methods to cope and make day-to-day school life more pleasant.