Q&A: Strategies for managing back-to-school anxiety for kids of all ages

Q&A: Strategies for managing back-to-school anxiety for kids of all ages

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Just like the “Sunday scaries” or the “Sunday blues” are real for all of us, anxiety is a real thing for kids heading back to school this week.

The new schedule, the grades, the social interactions: all of it can be really anxiety-provoking. So, we brought in Dr. Eva Monsma - a physical education professor of developmental sport psychology from the University of South Carolina - to talk to us about some strategies for stress-free success as your kids head back to school.

Sam: “Kids of all ages are heading back to class - and for each age group the stressors are different - what are some of the cognitive strategies parents can walk through with their kids to help them deal with some of that inward anxiety?”

Dr. Monsma: “From elementary school up to college, back to school stress responses can take the form of both physical and cognitive symptoms. It's best to match the strategy with the symptoms. We know a lot about applying mental training skills from the field of sport psychology where athletes apply similar skill but in response to different stressors.

When symptoms are cognitive like recurring negative thoughts, images or movies playing in the mind, using strategies like “thought stopping,” pushing pause on the video and replaying things just the way you want them to happen can be helpful.

One way to practice thought-stopping is to take a thought and put it in a mental box which is just an image of a box with an open lid, closing that lid and putting it away on a shelf for behind a closed door. Some athletes I work with actually “slam” doors on negative thoughts, others might flush them down the toilet… any type of metaphorical imagery that gets the job done to make room for imagining how they want things to go.”

Greg: “And some kids may have those physiological responses - the butterflies, the sweaty palms... what are some strategies for that?”

Dr. Monsma: “Physical responses are the same when we are excited and nervous so it’s important to point out that butterflies in our stomach is our body telling us that we’re ready and excited for something new. Stress can be positive if labeled that way.

Physical symptoms of stress can Include butterflies in the stomach, racing heart and shortness of breath. One strategy to handle these physiological symptoms can be to “stretch your breath.” Typical breathing rate is a 3:3 count where you inhale for three exhale for three; breaths go in and out evenly. When you stretch the exhale for longer than the inhale, to a count of 5, 6 or 7, counts tension is naturally released, having a relaxing effect on the body. Try repeating it a few times, you might even get shivers on the top of your head.

Progressive relaxation is another skill that everyone can use to help those butterflies fly in formation. This involves honing in on a certain area of our bodies starting from the bottom. Tense the legs holding the tension for a count of five and then releasing that tension and move onto the stomach muscles shoulders arms and even in the face and then do a whole-body tension as last part of the exercise holding the tension each time for a count of five.”

Greg: “At USC kids are heading back to class this week... for college kids, the stressors are entirely different and for some of them the adjustment can be a lot to handle. We talked earlier about goal setting as a good strategy for them?”

Dr. Monsma: “The uncertainty of being a new place with new people can be stressful for all ages, but stressors can change as children get older. For example, a lot of young men and women are rushing for sororities and fraternities which can be very stressful.

Another effect of stress to consider is something known as social physique anxiety, which is anxiety about presenting oneself in front of others. While children as young as 7 experience this type of anxiety, it becomes increasingly common in middle and high school, potentially lasting into adulthood. Managing social physique anxiety is important because it is the strongest predictor of maladaptive behaviors such as depression and especially disordered eating risk.

A cognitive skill called attentional shifting can be useful to manage social physique anxiety. Here we want to shift our attention from our inner thoughts of what are people thinking of my appearance to how do I want to project my positive characteristics like kindness, compassion, and friendliness. Rather than focusing on appearance, we should encourage a focus on what children and young adults can do which can be a source of goal setting.

Goal setting is one of the most powerful mental training skills because it helps us re-define success and are building blocks of confidence. Rather than thinking about winning or achieving outcomes that only few can like winning a competition or even being selected for a fraternity… set goals such as paying someone a compliment, or smiling at least 5 times a day to somebody you don’t know like a new classmate, teacher or a custodial worker. Planning to implement the stretch your breath exercise when butterflies arrive can also be an important goal to set.”

Sam: “What about the impact of physical activity for overall stress reduction?”

Dr. Monsma: “Building physical activity into the day is another way to manage both physical and mental symptoms of stress. USC students should check out the wide range of physical activity classes offered in the dept of PE and sign up before drop add deadline of Aug 28th for full term, 2 days after classes start for half term, some that start in October. If USC students’ credit hours are under 16 it’s no extra cost. It’s free for faculty and staff. Exercise science and mechanical engineering students can even count them towards graduation. There are over 135 sections of 35 activity classes from self-defense, aquatics, sport skills, and outdoor activities.”

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