The Medical Minute: Easing Anxiety Around School-Related Transitions

HERSHEY, Pa. – Change can be hard for many people. For kids — who often thrive on routine and predictability — the transition from school year to summer and into a new academic year can bring uncertainty that can trigger anxiety and behavioral problems.

“Schools and classrooms are very structured, and when summer comes around, things can become a lot less routine. This is typically the case whether the child is with a parent, grandparent, babysitter or at a summer camp,” said Dr. Timothy Zeiger, a clinical psychologist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

The challenge reverses itself as a new school year approaches. Kids start to worry about being in a new classroom with a different teacher, new rules and a different mix of peers. They may mourn the end of carefree days and get anxious about the new routine to come.

For children moving from elementary to middle school or middle school to high school, the transition can be intensified by a new building, schedule and concerns about increased academic and social pressures.

Yet it isn’t always so obvious what the problem is. Zeiger said children with anxiety often complain of physical problems such as headaches and stomach aches that don’t have a physical cause. In other cases, changes in sleep patterns — trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or nightmares — may signal a problem, as can changes in appetite.

Zeiger said parents can make things better — or worse — by the way they handle such transitions themselves and how they interact with their children about them.

“I think as a parent you have to identify what your own emotional response is and manage your own level of anxiety because kids will feed off that,” he said. “Don’t make it out to be this terrible, catastrophic thing — let them know that a little bit of anxiety is normal and put your heads together and brainstorm how to cope with it. Open communication is critical.”

Yet many parents think avoiding the issue is the best way to keep from upsetting their children, Zeiger said.

“Start the conversation as soon as possible — several weeks prior to the end of the school year or before going back,” he said. “Ask open-ended questions that won’t agitate the kids, such as ‘How do you feel about…’”

Some children seem to navigate transitions without much problem, while others may find the slightest change traumatic.

“Just like adults, some cope better than others,” Zeiger said. “Some people can tolerate stress very well, while for others, the slightest amount of stress pushes them past the breaking point. You have to recognize that it’s different for each person.”

Zeiger said while the most variation is seen among individuals of any age, anxiety about transitions is much more common in younger children. Older children may show it differently, or may never have identified it as anxiety.

When the symptoms disrupt a child’s ability to function on a regular basis, it’s time to seek help from a mental health professional. “Maybe you can’t get the kid to go to daycare, or he’s not functioning well with friends — those are telltale signs that something is going on,” Zeiger said.

Zeiger runs an eight-week cognitive behavioral therapy program for school-aged children (ages 6 to 18) to help them deal with a variety of anxiety issues. These sessions run throughout the year at the outpatient psychiatry clinic through Penn State Health located at 22 Northeast Drive in Hershey. The program runs eight consecutive weeks and sessions are typically held on Thursday afternoons. The next group begins July 7. The sessions focus on learning coping skills for anxiety that children can learn and practice not only in the group setting but in other settings as well. For more information or to register, call 717-531-8338 or 1-800-243-1455.

“The biggest thing is to let your kids know that you are there if they want to talk,” he said. “That will give them a sense of power and control, which is very important because anxiety stems from a perceived lack of control over your environment.”

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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