For many northwest Bergen County families, August is a time of transition from the lazy, hazy, days of summer to a back-to-school routine. It is a big adjustment for children and teens, physically, mentally, and emotionally – and it is especially difficult for those struggling with anxiety or other mental health issues.
We spoke with specialists in child and adolescent mental health at LiveWell Counseling, a Christian Health service, about some of the common challenges families grapple with at the start of the school year. They also shared ways that parents can support their children in making the switch from summer to school.
HOW LONG HAS CHRISTIAN HEALTH BEEN PROVIDING MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES?
“Christian Health has been a leading provider of mental health services since it was founded in 1911,” says Alexis Totaro, MSN, RN, WHNP-c, CARN-AP, VP/Administrator of Mental Health Services. “We have seen dramatic growth in the specialty of child and adolescent psychology, even before the COVID pandemic. We expanded our LiveWell Counseling outpatient program in response to the increased need for these services in our community, and to ensure that families have access to therapy in an outpatient setting.”
LiveWell Counseling’s highly trained physicians and therapists assess and treat individuals of all ages with a variety of challenges and needs. With all of Christian Health’s outpatient and inpatient mental health services located on its Wyckoff campus, families benefit from having access to a range of treatment options and the expertise of a large, interdisciplinary team.
Alexis noted that parents often struggle to determine whether their child’s behavior is due to normal development or something more serious. “The whole purpose of our outpatient therapy program is to help families learn to understand children’s behaviors. These are little people with big emotions, and parents should never be afraid to ask for advice on how to respond.”
WHAT IS ONE ADJUSTMENT CHILDREN FIND DIFFICULT TO MAKE?
“Children often have difficulty transitioning their sleeping patterns,” says Cynthia T. Jalando-on, MD, Board-Certified Psychiatrist at LiveWell Counseling. “During the summer, many children – especially teens – go to bed late and sleep until 11 a.m. or noon. It’s important to help them gradually ease into a regular bedtime routine so they can wake up early on the first day of school.”
Dr. Jalando-on suggests starting a month or so before school starts and making sure kids go to bed 10 or 15 minutes earlier each week. If electronic gadgets are a distraction, encourage children to set them aside so they can wind down prior to bedtime. “Good sleep hygiene is essential for good mental health, and being well-rested can help lessen anxiety.”
HOW CAN PARENTS ENCOURAGE KIDS TO COMPLETE THEIR SUMMER ASSIGNMENTS?
“Parents often complain about their children putting off their summer reading or math assignments, but waiting until the last minute just increases everyone’s anxiety,” says Dr. Jalando-on. The key is to do a little each day, budgeting time based on the child’s schedule and their ability to absorb the material. “I help parents and children work together to set the pace. Ideally, it’s best to allow at least a month to complete an assignment. However, this approach can work even if there is only one week before school starts.”
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO TO EASE THEIR CHILD’S BACK-TO-SCHOOL ANXIETY?
“It’s natural for children to be nervous about the prospect of a new school, a new teacher, and/or new classmates,” says Lara E. Addesso, MD, Board-Certified Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychiatrist at LiveWell Counseling. “With children for whom it is anxiety-provoking, the best approach is to gradually create a level of familiarity with the new environment.”
Ease into a drama-free morning drop-off by visiting the new school with your child ahead of time. Schedule a tour of the building or meet with their teacher so they will see a familiar face on their first day. If your child is older, review their new schedule so they will know what to expect. “Starting school is a lot scarier when you are facing the unknown,” says Dr. Addesso. “Giving your child a sneak preview will help smooth the transition.”
WHAT IF RETURNING TO SCHOOL MEANS RETURNING TO NEGATIVE EXPERIENCES?
“For some children and adolescents, summer is a break from bullying and they may dread going back to school,” says Dr. Adesso. “If your child is returning to a place where they have had negative experiences with peers, offer your support and get ahead of it by sharing your concerns with the school in advance.” If possible, work with your child’s guidance counselor to make in-school accommodations or look into mediation if it is an option. Most importantly, let your child know they are not alone – and they should speak up if they feel unsafe.
WHAT IS SOMETHING PARENTS CAN DO TO SUPPORT THEIR KIDS NOW – AND THROUGHOUT THE SCHOOL YEAR?
Dr. Addesso stresses the importance of carving out some one-on-one time to give kids a chance to open up. “Ask how they may be feeling and give them a safe space to talk about it. Share your own stories of adjusting to a new school, and offer support and guidance. If they don’t feel they can talk to you, let them know it’s okay to reach out to others or seek out counseling.”
Dr. Jalando-on advises parents that if they see a decline in academic performance or their child refuses to go to school at any point during the year, they should consider it a red flag. “Your child’s education is at risk, so it is important to speak with your pediatrician about how to address this issue. I have some patients who require home instruction because intense anxiety makes it difficult for them to go to school.”
Accentuating the positives can also go a long way towards calming end-of-summer jitters. “A new school year is a clean slate, a chance to start fresh,” says Dr. Addesso. “Focus on things your kids can look forward to, whether it’s shopping for new backpacks and sneakers or reconnecting with friends they haven’t seen in months. Just remember that change can be hard, but it’s not necessarily a negative thing.”
"These are little people with big emotions, and parents should never be afraid to ask for advice on how to respond.”