It’s almost time to return to that school-year routine—and the excitement and stress that can come with it. Here, some UConn Health experts weigh in on a few of the more common challenges parents can help their children navigate.
Among the biggest anxiety triggers this time of year are feeling part of the group, making new friends, and school performance. Parents should keep in mind:
- Other factors can make it worse, including family strife or conflict, barriers to obtaining adequate school supplies and clothing, and other significant life stressors. “It could be special behavioral or academic needs that have not yet been discovered and addressed by the school, or developmental changes, like puberty, or the lack of developmental competencies,” says pediatric psychologist Damion Grasso.
Keep communication lines open. “Parents should pay attention and watch their kids,” says Geraldine Pearson, nurse practitioner and director of UConn Health’s child and adolescent psychiatry practice. “I think family dinnertime, if established and supported in the family, is a great time to talk and process the stress of returning to school. For younger kids, bedtime and a ritual of talking before sleep can be supportive.”
- Know the significant adults and peers in your children’s lives. “While this is more difficult with teens, keeping track of where kids are and who they are with can be supportive ‘behind the scenes’ if there are stresses that emerge,” Pearson says.
When children are bullied, it’s important to acknowledge their feelings about it.
- Help them learn how to respond. “Teach your child to be comfortable with when and how to ask a trusted adult for help,” says Dr. Montgomery Douglas, chair of the UConn Health Department of Family Medicine. “Alert school officials to the problem, and work with them on solutions.”
- Run with a different crowd. Encourage your children to make friends with other children.
- It’s not just the playground anymore. Monitor your child’s social media or texting interactions so you can identify problems before they get out of hand.
What if your child is the bully?
- Make sure your child knows bullying is never OK. “Set firm and consistent limits on your child’s aggressive behavior,” Douglas says. “Be a positive role model. Show your child they can get what they want without teasing, threatening or hurting someone.”
- Use effective non-physical discipline such as loss of privileges.
- Positive reinforcement: Focus on praising your child when he or she behaves in positive ways.
Less Tech, More Human Interaction
Setting limits on screen time can go a long way both at school and at home.
- Lead by example. “If you reduce your screen time and move more, your kids will too,” says Douglas, who recommends restricting children’s screen time to no more than two hours a day. “Suggest playing outside after school, and join the fun when you can—turn on some music and have a family dance party.”
- Bond at the dinner table. “Turn off the TV during mealtime, and talk with your children about what they learned in school that day,” Douglas says. “Families who eat together tend to eat healthier.”
The Sleep Factor
Often overlooked is the importance of getting a good night’s sleep—and not just the night before the first day of school. Good sleep habits should be a year-round priority.
- The need for sleep increases through adolescence, when sleep phase shift—their body clocks telling them to go to bed late and wake up late—is highly prevalent. “Sleep-deprived children are more prone to academic, behavioral, and social difficulties Some school districts have adjusted school start times in recognition of this,” says Dr. Jennifer Kanaan, one of UConn Health’s experts in pediatric sleep disorders.
- Screens only make it worse because of the blue light waves, further affecting your sleep onset and keeping your mind busy when it should be shutting down. “You’ll want to have them unplug at least 90 minutes before bedtime,” Kanaan says.
- Wake time is more influential than bed time because the exposure to light is what resets the body clock. Sleeping in on the weekends undoes that and it takes at least a few days to recover. “It’s why keeping a consistent bed and wake time all week is better in the long run,” says Dr. Daniel McNally, medical director of the UConn Sleep Disorders Center.
Fall Sports Season
Back to school also means back to practice for young athletes.
- Training camp: Not all athletes come into the fall season have conditioned or trained much in the heat and humidity. “Having deconditioned athletes training in late-summer heat is a setup for dehydration and heat illness,” says Dr. Matthew Hall, sports medicine and injury prevention expert. “It really is about common sense, making sure we pay attention to the weather conditions, giving appropriate breaks in cool and shaded areas, being well hydrated going into the participation and keeping up hydration during participation.”
- Don’t underestimate the importance of proper fueling and nutrition to maximize performance and recovery. This can be especially challenging when student athletes are going right from school to sports. “Common sense is the rule here too—if it’s almost time for practice, maybe skip the pepperoni pizza from the school cafeteria and go with yogurt with granola, a banana, trail mix,” Hall says. “We’re basically looking for a good mix of healthy fats, proteins and carbs.”
- Injury prevention: Keep an eye on your children’s growth, making sure all their equipment and footwear fit appropriately and comfortably.
Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians strongly recommend parents get their children immunized.
“Vaccines are simply the best way to protect our children from viruses and bacteria that cause real and devastating harm,” Douglas says. “The science is overwhelming that vaccines are safe and effective.”
He recommends following your pediatrician’s recommendations for not only which shots to get, but when.
“There is no ‘alternative immunization schedule.’ Delaying vaccines only leaves a child at risk of disease for a longer period of time.”