It’s time to go back to school for our state’s young people, a transition which can bring about feelings of excitement and anticipation for many kids while filling others with anxiety and feelings of apprehension. Each fall, thousands of kids in New Hampshire file back to their schools with the best of intentions and hopes of starting anew and having a great year. This is part of the annual rite of passage and one which hasn’t changed very much in decades. But for many of our young people this transition can be excessively stressful and worrisome for a variety of reasons associated with mental health challenges.
Any change in one’s routine causes some degree of stress–even if it’s the most positive of changes. Back to school season represents the most significant schedule change for young people overall, including the way they sleep, hang out with friends, manage academic demands and various activities, start new part time jobs or simply living life with much more on their collective plates. It’s a lot. For those young people dealing with mental health issues, it’s even worse.
But there are ways to tackle this time of year and get off to a positive start, strategies which adults can help with as the days start earlier and get busier.
- Have open conversations about the year ahead. Many find openly discussing stressful things challenging. This is natural and understandable. But having discussions with young people about their worries and hopes for the coming year can have a significant impact. Kids are thinking about these things and adults can help alleviate some stress simply by being present and available for conversation. Just as in regular life, half of “being there” for kids is simply showing up and being available.
- Sleep patterns get thrown off in a big way during the summer weeks when there really isn’t a reason to get up early or go to bed at a reasonable hour. Certainly, jobs, camps and other responsibilities can keep this to a minimum for older kids but for many it’s a huge adjustment to get up early after such a long layoff. Getting kids back on a sleep schedule is important and bedtime routines and healthy habits can make this a much smoother transition. Will kids be up late the night before the first day of school? Probably. But they’ll be fine. As the days move forward, adults can help kids maintain a healthy sleeping pattern by reducing the use of electronic devices after a certain hour and promoting relaxing, mind-easing activities and habits (music, meditation, reading, etc.) as bedtime approaches. This is a very tough area for kids to manage but consistent habits can make this easier.
- Exercise in some capacity is an important factor in helping maintain a regular schedule and sleep pattern for kids, not to mention assist in promoting better physical health overall. A daily walk or run, bicycle ride or practice with a sports team or gym session all count toward this goal. If kids aren’t into traditional sports or activities, try yoga, skateboarding or hiking. Whatever it takes for kids to move is worth doing. Adults can help by modeling these healthy habits during the year.
- Kids should start early in managing their school demands, both for academics and extracurricular activities. Carving out consistent time to prepare for classes each week along with planning ahead for activities outside the classroom is important and goes a long way toward making the transition back to school a little less stressful. This might be a set time every day to organize themselves for school or having keeping a calendar on the refrigerator or on their phone or somewhere they’ll use manage it most effectively.
- Create some time to have fun each week. This is important and can often get lost in the shuffle of the new year and in the ensuing weeks and months. School can become a grind and when combined with adult work schedules simply doing fun things can fall by the wayside. Help kids find things they enjoy and carve out time for these activities.
- Young people should find an adult in their school they can talk to about things that bother them. It can be a teacher, counselor or another professional they can see on relatively short notice–there is no need to let stress get the best of them when there are plenty of adults who can help, even if it’s just to listen. Sometimes that’s all they need.
- If you see a young person showing signs of serious stress, such as erratic sleep patterns, change in appetite, loss of interest in daily activities or interests, excessive social isolation, seek the help of a professional. Many adults ignore these signs as “kids just being kids” but if these behaviors become prolonged they are red flags for something serious. Don’t wait–address it early and however possible. Schools are great resources and can guide adults to professional resources outside the school, also.
Back to school can be a stressful time for kids but there are ways for them to manage this pressure. Adults can help. Pay attention to the young people around you and don’t hesitate to talk or seek outside help. It makes a huge difference and can have long lasting effects all year long.