As another school year approaches, being aware of and acknowledging the psychological stress that many students face, especially now following two years of Covid-19, is crucial to understanding and alleviating many of these issues.
Amanda Sovik-Johnston, of Virginia Family Therapy, told the News-Press that “kids are going to have more anxiety than usual this school year.” In general, she said, “Kids work really hard to hold it together at school…when they get home, they are done using that ‘muscle’” that helps them behave properly within the confines of school. Tension and pressure can get released in the form of a meltdown.
Rebecca Sharp, Executive Director of Special Services for Falls Church City Public Schools, stresses balancing out “what’s normal and behaviorally appropriate and what’s not” is an important distinction to make. When the anxiety “becomes debilitating, that’s when it becomes something different.”
Sovik-Johnston outlines a way to distinguish between “benign” meltdowns and ones that suggest more help is needed: “I look at the duration, frequency and intensity of the meltdowns,” she said. Then, “when thinking about looking for more support, number 1 is calling the school counselor.” If talking with the counselor doesn’t improve the situation, consulting with a pediatrician is the next step. If that also doesn’t work, Sovik-Johnston suggests calling a therapist. (“There are one or two-hour coaching sessions to help parents” work through this kind of issue at home, which may preclude hiring a therapist, she said.)
Dan Russo, Resident in Counseling at the Falls Church Wellness Center, reminds parents that although school counselors are always a viable option, it’s important to remember that school resources, currently, are overrun.
“So many things, like anxiety and suicidal ideation, have unfortunately become more prevalent during the post-Covid era,” he said, adding to the workload carried by many mental health providers and organizations. When asked about the benefits of one-on-one therapy versus group therapy, Russo says both are great resources for kids and their families and “ideally, you can have both” at the same time.
Group therapy, unlike individual therapy, helps “kids benefit and learn from the peer group aspect” of the situation, leading to an increase in “normalization and coping strategies.”
Touching on after-school meltdowns, Russo explained when children are “vocal and expressive in the home life,” this is sometimes a good sign as this indicates “they’re in a good environment for that.” When kids are allowed to go through their “cycle of emotions in a home environment,” it helps them to feel “supported to express themselves,” building a stronger foundation of empathy and support “for each other in the family.”
Dina Berhan, Resident in Counseling at the Falls Church Wellness Center, underlined the “importance of routines” in a younger child’s life, adding that “transitions can be difficult” and there is “so much security in predictability.”
In terms of concrete tips, Berhan says parents can help their child “transition more easily” by speaking positively about the school experience in general. Including a “small fidget item in their backpack or an encouraging note in a folder or lunchbox never hurts,” he said.
Berhan also adds “doctors recommend routines for those who have trouble with getting quality sleep.” Sharp’s input corroborates this, as she states that “slowly backing up bedtime” for older students “can help…the more rested we are, the better we handle stress.”
Sharp also reminds parents that in addition to getting enough rest, “as students get older, what their parents think becomes much less important and what their peers think rules the day,” so this means that “parents…have to work doubly hard to get students to open up about their concerns and worries.” She advises being “open to their ideas” and listening “when they do talk.”
Berhan points out that in helping a teen maintain a healthy sleep routine, parents should keep in mind that “scheduled wifi is a tool of the present,” something that can come in handy especially for teens who spend a lot of time on their phones or gaming consoles.
Daryl Washington, Executive Director of the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, recommends that parents help their child set up “that fall routine early.”
“Starting that transition a week or two ahead of time” is one of the ways “a parent can set up a child for success.”
Berhan reminds parents to “feel free to ask other parents or guardians” for advice with routines and when helping kids deal with big transitions. “Model the skill of validation, because new things can be both exciting and annoying” for both children and parents.
Maintaining a “pulse on things by asking ‘what made you laugh today?’ ‘If you could change one thing about today, what would it be?’ or ‘What is something you wish we could do together?’” is another way by which Berhan suggests parents can maintain a healthy link with their child, without resorting to the tired ‘How was your day?’
Keeping things in perspective for parents is crucial — as something small for adults, like having to go to class in a new building or learning how to open a locker, can be a huge, frustrating undertaking for a child. Sharp says sometimes, teachers and counselors spend time helping a child practice with a lock, as “lockers are a new thing to kids” going from 5th to 6th grade, for example.
“Another issue with younger students can be language. They may not have the words to tell us how they are feeling, so they show us. Helping to give them ‘the words’ is really important. This is when reading a story, watching a movie, or drawing pictures about back to school can all be great help for little ones.”
Washington reminds parents that it’s perfectly all right to “call up the middle school and get a walk-through” of the building “before the first day,” in order to help a child feel more at ease when school starts.
Speaking about the new 988 hotline — “a national phone number that provides 24/7, free and confidential support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress,” as summarized by the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, Berhan and Russo expressed a positive appraisal so far. “988 represents a “shift in public opinion,” Berhan says.
“The hotline may be a useful tool for identifying concerning vs. normal behaviors in a child’s development. Please be mindful,” she adds, “if immediate support is suspected, involuntary actions may occur to ensure safety via 911 services.”
Russo remarked “the program itself is fantastic,” especially in light of the “increased suicidality” in recent years. Referencing the kinks in getting a new system like this running smoothly, he stated “making the technology as simple as possible” and “creating an easy infrastructure” for the new system will further help in “reducing the stigma” surrounding mental health issues millions of people in the U.S. deal with every day.
There are still things to be mindful of with 988, he added. Virginia is one of the few states that have done or began work on legislation addressing 988 as a working system. One of the major ongoing concerns is funding, both on the state and local levels.
Sharp adds that support, especially in a small community like Falls Church, which draws people in need to resources in the local area can be a powerful, affirming process. “The social aspect can be very uplifting and grounding.”