Back-to-school anxiety a problem for kids

Going back to school can cause high anxiety, even in little kids.

Until the 1980s, popular wisdom was that children weren’t intellectually developed enough to experience depression and anxiety. But psychologists are giving anxiety disorders in youths more serious attention.

Dr. Elizabeth McCampbell, an Atlanta psychologist, has a personal stake in treating young people with too much stress. As a mother, she experienced for herself how much anxiety can affect a child.

In elementary school, her son, Brennan Coheleach, was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome, which involves a combination of attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, and tics.

In fifth grade, he became worried about kidnappers and people breaking in. By middle school, he was having panic attacks and becoming ill from the anxiety.

“As I entered the bus on my first day of middle school, my thoughts started racing, and I vomited in a makeshift trash can near the front of the bus,” said Coheleach, who’s now a rising sophomore at Oglethorpe University.

“Of all his Tourette's symptoms, the symptoms of anxiety were the most disruptive and upsetting to me as a mother,” McCampbell said.

She would sit in the parking lot patiently talking to her son about taking the next step to go inside the building. The panic attacks that were associated with school lasted until Coheleach got a car and started working out.

“Having a car meant I could deal with my problem in the parking lot away from the public eye, and I had complete control over whether I would ride back home to retreat," he said.

Today, McCampbell draws heavily on her own parenting experiences while working in therapy with children, teens and adults facing anxiety and depression.

“Until you have experienced these problems, you cannot even begin to understand,” she said. “You are the one who knows the typical behavioral techniques don’t seem to work without some tweaking. I empathize with all mothers who’ve had to deal with school anxiety in particular.”

Dr. Randye J. Semple researches childhood anxiety at the University of Southern California. In “Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Anxious Children,” published last month, Semple and co-author Dr. Jennifer Lee reveal what they believe will be an effective model of therapy for children with above-normal anxiety, fear and worry.

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Children (MBCT-C) grew out of a stress-reduction program that blends cognitive therapy with Buddhist practices, minus the religion.

Semple is the first to apply these techniques on children as young as 7. The 12-session program uses hands-on activities to show kids who worry how to observe, rather than judge, the thoughts and feelings that increase their anxieties or fears. And to work on shedding the “good vs. bad” way of experiencing some aspects of the world.

“Too much thinking about the past can bring up remorse, guilt and even depression,” Semple said. “And ‘what if-ing’ about the future can increase anxieties or worries."

The short sensory exercises in MBCT-C use breath and movement activities, and touching, tasting, smelling, seeing and listening to show children how to see clearly what is happening in the present, where choices can be made to not react emotionally.

“It is not useful to judge our reality as in, ‘This shouldn’t be happening,’ " Semple said. "Anger and irritability come with the thought, ‘Maybe those girls shouldn’t be teasing me,’ or ‘That boy shouldn’t have cut in line’ -- not from the event itself. The fact that we’re hard-wired to judge our experiences makes this hard for adults as well as children.

"Sometimes you will get teased. Sometimes kids do cut in front of you. But it’s the person who’s doing the judging who experiences the unhappiness. In my book, this is one of the most empowering things to learn.”

Tips for calming back-to-school jitters

Tamar Chansky, author of “Freeing Your Child From Anxiety,” offers the following tips and this advice: "If your child is having difficulty sleeping, asking lots of ‘what if' questions, crying, clinging, or whining more than usual, these may be signs of anxiety."

  • Normalize their fears -- every child is feeling the same thing as they are. Even the teachers feel nervous at first when school starts.
  • Share a story of your own about going to school or another new situation. Let your child know that things don't stay new forever. Help them think of a time when they were faced with something new and got used to it. How long did it take?
  • Arrange a pleasant visit at school, eat a snack in the playground, check out the library, say hello to the teacher. At home, play "school." Switch off roles, letting your child be the teacher and himself.
  • Have your child make a list of fears on one side of the page, then help correct the distortions by writing the "facts" on the other side of the page. Fold the paper and keep the facts side up.
  • If there are concrete issues, think up strategies for finding the right bus line, finding a seat in the cafeteria.
  • Turn preparation into a fun and social event -- go shopping with friends for school supplies or lunchboxes; decorate books together.
  • Work on a backpack -- put phone numbers, bus numbers in a safe place. Find a picture or memento of home to take to school.