What to do about back-to-school butterflies
Going back to school is a time of anxiety for many children. But the jitters may be super-sized this fall, after more than a year of remote learning for some students.
“A lot of the kids have been starved of peer group connection and friends,” said psychiatrist Bart L. Main, Jr., MD, who practices at Cape Cod Healthcare Centers for Behavioral Health in Hyannis. “From seven or eight years old on up through high school, the most important concern for most kids is their peers, and we've severely limited them.
“Kids who have trouble with social anxiety are going to have more trouble as they anticipate re-entering the peer group in school.”
This is true for schoolchildren of all ages, he said.
“For elementary kids, the anxiety has to do with whether they're going to be okay being separated from their families. It's about independent life,” he said. “With high school kids and middle school kids, it's much more about peer group and whether or not they're going to say the right things and wear the right styles.
“It won’t be back to business as usual, as schools were two years ago. With case counts rising in recent weeks, classroom interaction is still likely to be very limited, and masks will probably be mandatory. Clubs and extracurricular activities that so many children enjoy may be curtailed.”
Children express their anxieties about school in different ways, he said.
Some children are quite verbal and forthright about what’s bothering them, while others may not even be consciously aware that what they're experiencing is anxiety. They may have sleeplessness, headaches, a nervous stomach or other aches or pains.
“When parents are seeing those kinds of physical manifestations that could be related to anxiety, it's very important for parents to give a kid permission to talk about it,” he said.
Everybody has their own style for coping with anxiety, Dr. Main said. Many children feel better when they’re involved in sports and other physical activities. For other kids, it's finding creative outlets.
“I've seen wonderful kinds of artistic expression coming out of kids during this pandemic,” he said. “Graphic arts have become more and more electronic, and easier to share with others. The things they make on YouTube videos and TikTok are hysterically funny and amazingly cool.
“There's also meditation and deliberate relaxation, and for some kids, therapy is really important.”
Not all students get back-to-school butterflies, he said.
“For lots and lots of kids, going back to school is delightful. They're just raring to go to have a context where they can see their friends.”
Dr Main had one closing thought about the pandemic.
“My heart goes out to everybody. It's a tough time. Let's to try to stay connected, so we can get ourselves through it.”