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Psychologist urges parents listen to their children if they show back-to-school anxiety

Dr. Janice Neece, a child psychologist at East Tennessee Children's Hospital, said that students could face a lot of pressure as they head back to school.

It's normal for people, especially young students, to be afraid of changes like going back to school. As the summer vacation ends, students may dread having to return to a classroom.

A child psychologist at the East Tennessee Children's Hospital, Dr. Janice Neece, said parents should make sure they avoid dismissing or demeaning children if they feel worried about back to school. Students could face a lot of pressure in a classroom, and she said it's important to listen to what they have to say.

“Not knowing what their teacher is going to be like, not knowing what friends are going to be in their classes, wondering if they are wearing what everyone else is going to be wearing, or if they’ve got a cool enough backpack or lunch box — all of those things kids can be nervous about," she said.

She said that students usually start thinking more about comparisons as they move into middle school and high school years, comparing themselves to the people around them. However, they may not realize the spotlight isn't on them, which causes nervousness.

She emphasized that students may not just be afraid of academic expectations. She said they could also be afraid of social expectations too.

The COVID-19 pandemic and rising cases across East Tennessee can also contribute to students' back-to-school anxiety.

"Things are still evolving, and we don’t know exactly what it’s going to be like a year from now. It’s just hard to predict," she said. "So, naturally, they, like all of us, their teachers and staff members, everybody is going to have a little more anxiety this year."

To help children manage anxiety, Neece said parents should first acknowledge it. If a child tells them that they feel scared or anxious, parents should respond by telling them that it's understandable to feel that way.

Then, Neece said that parents may want to name the emotion children are feeling. Younger children may not understand anxiety, so it could help to frame the emotion in a way that young children understand.

"Being able to name it as if it’s something outside of them. Like, 'It looks like the scaries are really bugging you today,' or, 'That sounds like something Mr. Fear would say,'" she said. "It’s got to be meaningful to that child, but naming a feeling that we have is a way of getting some distance from it.”

Third, parents should ask children what could help calm them down. Dr. Neece emphasized asking children questions, instead of offering solutions. It gives them a chance to think about their emotions themselves, developing a deeper understanding of what they feel. In the process, she said they may overcome their own anxiety.

Lastly, Dr. Neece reminded parents that they should appear calm and confident with their children, even if they're anxious about the future too. She said parents should remember they went through similar anxieties growing up, empathizing with their kids while guiding them through their problems.