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Managing Back-to-School Stress

Managing Back-to-School Stress

The data continues to show that kids are experiencing mental health issues at higher rates than ever before. One study found that from 2016 to 2020, anxiety in children ages 3-17 increased by 29%, and rates of depression increased by 27%. Another study published earlier this year found that 75% of teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021.

The start of a new school year can be stressful, even for kids who don’t normally feel anxious or depressed. Kids often don’t know how to express themselves, so it’s important for parents to be aware and informed about mental health.

Here are some tips for managing stress or anxiety when school is back in session:

Check in regularly

Communication is key and timing is essential when talking with your kids. Life with young ones can be busy, so try to find a time to talk with your child that doesn’t center around an Xbox or rushing from point A to point B. Take advantage of whatever small windows of time you have to check in – even if all you get some days is the 5 minutes sitting in the carpool drop-off line. Make eye contact and be present.

Establish routines

Sleep is an underestimated need impacting mental health. And not getting enough sleep has been linked to stress, depression, anxiety and aggressive behavior, so set and stick to morning and nighttime routines. Homework and studying can also be a big stressor for families, so find a system that works best, making sure to have a dedicated, distraction-free space, eating a snack before starting, and not waiting until late in the evening to start.

Encourage coping strategies

There are many ways to de-stress, from exercise and listening to music, to talking to a counselor or friend, and meditating. During the school day, many elementary-aged classrooms have “calming corners” or similar spaces to help kids when needed, and this can be easily implemented at home. For older kids, try the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique to help calm anxiety: 5 things you see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you hear, two things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Now more than ever, it's important to have good digital self-care and minimize digital distractions (e.g. ipads, iphones). Encourage your child to be present with their emotions, not escape from them.

Assess and address bullying

Bullying happens everywhere, and it often leads to low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. Have you asked your child directly if they have experienced or witnessed bullying? If they haven’t, it’s likely to happen at some point in their school experience. There are different types of bullying, and rates of cyberbullying are on the rise (bullying across cell phones, the internet and social media). Limit your kids access, follow age-appropriate guidelines, and always supervise and monitor their internet use. If they seem withdrawn, depressed, anxious, or are avoiding activities they used to enjoy, take action. It’s also important to talk about how to handle bullying as a bystander. Research shows that students who witness bullying at school experienced increased anxiety and depression regardless of whether they supported the bully or the person being bullied, perhaps because of fears of retaliation or because they wanted to intervene but didn’t.

Meal (or snack) time together

If your kids have multiple extracurricular activities, on some days the popular meme is right – dinner is either at 4:30 p.m. or 9:30 p.m.! Some days you might have to share a snack instead, but even if there are only one or two nights a week that a family meal is doable, make an effort to make it happen.

Remember that parents need help too

Parents play the most influential role in shaping their kids minds and hearts. It’s vital that parents look in the proverbial mirror regularly and take care of their mental health too. It’s also good to recognize that your parenting approaches should modify over time as your child becomes more independent, and it can be hard to find the right balance. The best parenting approach is the one that is nurturing, loving, responsive and supportive, yet sets firm limits. Try your best not to “hover” during the school year. Just like a football coach doesn’t run behind the heels of his players on the field, you don’t need to hover too close to your kids. Not only is it draining and exhausting for you as a parent, but it can be disempowering for your child. Encourage and shepherd them to master skills on their own with your loving guidance and “sideline” support.

In October 2022, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommended mental health screenings as part of routine well visits for kids. The task force recommends anxiety screenings for children 8 years old and above, and depression screenings for children 12 and older. The screenings include surveys and questionnaires that can identify children who are at risk for anxiety and depression.

While not every child will be diagnosed or need treatment, it’s important that your child knows that there is help available if they ever need it and that mental health conditions are common and treatable. The newest data from the CDC found that about 15% of U.S. children have recently received mental health treatment, with the highest numbers among 12–17-year-olds.

Check out more on what the signs of anxiety or depression can look like in kids and don’t be afraid to ask for help and call on professionals. If you can see any of these issues starting to become unmanageable, a licensed mental health professional is a great resource. You take your child to dentist appointments for cavity prevention, and you go to your routine pediatric checkups to prevent illness -- addressing their mental health is just as important.


Katie Fetzer, PhD, LPC-S
Licensed Professional Counselor
The Wellness Studio, LLC
7472 Highland Road
Baton Rouge, LA 70808
Ph: (225)448-3359 Fx: (225)448-3403