Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD
Gosh, it’s that time of year again! And while anxiety surrounding the return to school after summer break is common; we’ve got extra reason to be nervous this year.
Here in Texas, we’re experiencing another COVID surge with a variant that seems to be affecting younger people more than earlier variants. And since masks are about off the table, RSV cases are on the rise again as well.
Causes of back to school anxiety
But anxiety surrounding back to school is not new, and there are many causes.
For instance, this morning, my son today said he was worried because he hasn’t seen any of his school friends since the end of last year. He doesn’t know if they’ll be different, if they’ve dropped out of their dual language program, or if there will be new students he’s not familiar with. He is also a bit worried about who will be wearing masks and if people will be mean because he will be wearing his.
In the past, he’s alternated between excitement and nervousness about his lunches, despite always having input on those meals.
Other reasons often cited for anxiety about school include:
- Body image/confidence concerns
- New physical appearance (glasses, acne, puberty)
- New school
- New teacher
- Pressure to excel
- Difficulty during the previous school year
- Fear that new lessons will be too hard
- Friends moved away
- Separation from parents or siblings
Signs of Anxiety in Kids
It is important to note, that I am not a therapist. However, there are some common themes in how anxiety presents in kids.
- Chronic, consistent dodging of school – beyond the occasional “I don’t wanna’s”
- Frequent headaches or GI distress (nausea, diarrhea, cramps)
- Increase in tantrums, fits, or bad moods
- Difficulty sleeping
- Expresses fear or concern over school, curriculum, friends, or being in public
However, I would like to focus on lifestyle and nutrition factors that can help.
Can nutrition and lifestyle really help back to school anxiety?
Absolutely! Granted, there are frequently times when lifestyle modifications are not enough.
Mild anxiety that centers around a particular, transient event is normal. However anxiety that does not resolve or is affecting your child’s quality of life needs to be addressed with their doctor and a therapist.
So what can help?
Many things can help with a child’s ability to cope with stress and anxiety. Consistency is very important here. So is following your doctor’s advice.
There isn’t any research yet that shows a direct link between a particular food or nutrient and anxiety symptoms. However, a well-balanced diet seems to help.
Offer fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins that your child is willing to eat. Resist the urge to force or fight over these foods, or you’ll counteract your intentions.
Mix new and familiar enjoyable foods with each meal. Introduce new foods with nonchalance. Let your kiddo see you enjoy a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.
Basically, keep the stress out of food to avoid making food itself an anxiety trigger.
Consider sending your child to school with a lunch that they helped prepare. Sliced cucumbers, baby carrots, and fruit are generally well accepted. Include a whole grain and a protein source (maybe a chicken or turkey sandwich) so that they maintain energy throughout the rest of the day. If possible, prepare this the night before, so they aren’t feeling rushed or under pressure about this in the morning.
Low blood sugar can cause them to feel anxious.
Having control over their meal can be empowering, especially for the younger guys. And they won’t have to worry about a negative suprise in the cafeteria or from a lunch bag you prepared without their input. *Bonus: sneak an occasional encouraging note or treat into their lunch box when they’re not looking.
Caffeine is a major anxiety trigger for many people. Consider their drink options accordingly.
Exercise is one of the most proactive anxiety management techniques I can offer you. My patients find walking outside (particularly on a hiking trail) the most effective.
However, any exercise shows improvement in anxiety in various studies.
If your child is already involved in a sport or physical activity keep it up! If not, consider gentle encouragement such as inviting them on a walk with you, asking them to walk the dog, visiting a zoo or museum, etc.
Exercise does not have to be strenous to be effective at managing health and anxiety. In fact, if the 2 of you can hit on something enjoyable, they will be more likely to be consistent and turn to that activity when feeling stressed or anxious.
Other lifestyle factors
Adequate sleep – Set a bed time and be consistent with it. Keep in mind as they approach the teenage years, their natural sleep schedule will likely skew later!
Screen time – Try to cut off screens about an hour before bed. Use this time for calming activities such as reading, coloring, quiet hobbies, etc, as well as prepping for bed.
While you’re at it, keep track of what their watching, reading, listening too. Make sure it’s appropriate for your child’s age AND development!
When to seek profesional help
The short answer? If you’re worried, you should bring it up to their doctor. Early intervention from a doc and therapist is invaluable.
Specific signs to look out for:
- Avoiding activities or situations they previously enjoyed
- Inability to enjoy daily activities
- Significant time spent worrying
- Symptoms of illness with no apparent cause
- Anxiety for a prolonged period of time (weeks to months)
There are a multitude of techniques to help your child (or yourself) with anxiety.
Because I am not a therapist, I cannot make specific recommendations on how to manage an individual’s anxiety. However, we can use diet and lifestyle techniques to supplement any medications or techniques that your doctor or therapist recommend.
Remember that some amount of stress or anxiety surrounding a particular event may be normal, but it should NOT interfere with daily life and activities.
Provide a calming environment and look out for signs that your child’s anxiety may be more than general nervousness surrounding the unknown.
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