The beginning of a new school year can be an exciting and wonderful time for families. New school shoes, freshly sharpened pencils and empty notebook pages full of possibility. Many of us love the fall colors, the change of season and of course, and the start of a new school year. Along with the excitement, unfamiliar surroundings can also create feelings of uncertainty and even anxiety. New teachers, new classmates and the fear of the unknown can give students and their caregivers some understandable butterflies.

Olympia Therapy
The welcoming reception area at Olympia Therapy in Tumwater makes visitors immediately feel at ease. Photo credit: Olympia Therapy

“Even the most confident of kiddos may feel nervous during the first few days of school,” shares licensed mental health counselor Ivy Renschler of Olympia Therapy. “Ideally, the child should be allowed to express their concerns without a caregiver dismissing them as ‘no big deal’ or make assurances that disregard how upset the child is feeling.”

A child needs to know their feelings are affirmed. Asking a child what they need to feel more comfortable is a good way to start the conversation. A simple question such as, “Is there something you don’t understand?” or “I can see that you are nervous, is there something I can do to help?” can begin the process of making a child feel more comfortable approaching a new situation.

This fear of the unknown usually peaks for elementary school students in the first two weeks of school. As Cary Hamilton, owner of Olympia Therapy explains, “Once a child knows the people and the structure of the day, they will begin to feel more comfortable.” Parents should expect that it might take some time before a child will share their concerns, however. “Initiating a conversation with a personal story can be a very effective way to open up a line of communication with your child. A sentence that begins with, “When I was in elementary school…” can help the child feel validated and understood,” she shares.

Cary Hamilton
Cary Hamilton knows a thing or two about back to school with two kids of her own. Photo credit: Cary Hamilton

When the school morning jitters are continuing past the first couple of weeks it may be time to consult an expert. In elementary school, student’s anxiety can manifest as a refusal to do things that have been standard protocol in the past.

“The earlier we see kids and families, the less likely we are to see bigger problems later,” explains Hamilton. The mental health care specialists at Olympia Therapy teach children the coping and communication skills that help them to manage with stress. Hamilton likens it to the experience of a runner with a troubled knee. If you wait six months and continue to run on that knee, it will fill with fluid and the condition will worsen. A visit to an orthopaedic surgeon can alleviate pain and prevent further joint damage. “We are specialists on the emotional and behavioral continuum,” shares Hamilton. “In just six or seven visits we can often teach a student a toolbox of skills they need to cope in school and beyond,” she adds.

In older students, the stress peaks a bit later around four or five weeks into school. The work load has often intensified at this point. Six-week grading periods are looming, there are social pressures and the local stores have begun decorating for the holidays. The holiday season, which brings joy to some, can bring great anxiety and sadness for others. Teenagers, more than any other group, need a trusted adult to talk to that can provide support with anonymity.

Olympia Therapy
Olympia Therapy is a great resource for teens and their parents. Photo credit: Olympia Therapy

Parents should look for isolative behaviors and changes in daily routine. Most parents of teens have dealt with some snarky behavior from time to time, but when it becomes intentionally hurtful and without remorse, there may be cause for concern.

Teenagers that are not sleeping, eating or become more withdrawn can benefit greatly from connecting with a mental health professional. Many teens will actually welcome a non-parent adult to talk to and a more direct approach works well with this age group. Hamilton suggests statements like: “I know you aren’t going to tell me everything so I would like to hook you up with a counselor that you can talk to.”

“Our goal is to have the family work together as a whole,” shares Hamilton of the team at Olympia Therapy. “We want to help kids to talk with their parents and draw them closer together.”

Hamilton offers these tips for emotionally healthy students.

  • Sleep is a huge factor in a student’s ability to manage stress. Check that your child is actually asleep after bedtime. Don’t rely on self-reported sleep. Most students don’t go to bed early enough. 8-10 hours of sleep per night is the minimum requirement.
  • Nutrition is extremely important. Make sure your child has access to healthy foods. Changes in appetite are a big sign of potential mental health distress. Anxiety and depression can lead to more extensive and longer lasting disorders if not managed properly.
  • Exercise is crucial. Taking care of our bodies is a measure of our overall health. Change in movement can be another warning sign that intervention is necessary.
Olympia Therapy
Children often process through play and this room offers the perfect place for them to engage and communicate. Photo credit: Olympia Therapy

Parents often worry about the perceived social stigma of seeing a mental health professional or having their child “diagnosed”. However, the team offers solutions, not simply labels. “Our job is to work ourselves out of a job,” Hamilton says. The professionals at Olympia Therapy want things to improve for parents and children so their help is no longer needed.

Taking care of our own, and our children’s, mental health is as important as taking care of our physical health. For more information or to schedule an appointment visit www.olympiatherapy.com or call 360-357-2370.

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