On the Pulse

Expert Tips on How to Help Navigate a Transition Back to School

8.31.2023 | Caroline Smith

A girl stands outside a schoolThis story is part two of an On the Pulse series. Read part one here

Times of transition, especially the start of an academic year, can be stressful for many children, particularly when there is a change in routine.

Seattle Children’s Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine team specializes in caring for children and teens by providing a wide range of services — from prevention and early intervention programs to highly specialized treatments for chronic mental health and developmental challenges.

To help navigate a positive transition back to school, On the Pulse asked Dr. Kalina Babeva and Dr. Sonia Venkatraman, co-directors of the Mood and Anxiety Program, a specialty program within Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at Seattle Children’s, to share some ways that parents and caregivers can best support a child or teen’s mental wellness.

Know Mental Health Warning Signs and What to Do in a Crisis

It is normal for all kids to experience emotional ups and downs, but 1 in 5 kids will have a mental health problem that needs treatment.

Mental health problems affect thinking, emotions, and behavior. There are many warning signs of a problem, but some of the more common ones are feeling sad for most of the day or withdrawn for two or more weeks, severe mood swings, changes in eating or sleeping habits, or sudden, overwhelming fear for no reason.

If your child is showing one or more of these signs, contact their doctor, and be specific about which behaviors you’re noticing.

Reduce Your Family’s Risk of Illness and Provide Reassurance

Help your child reduce any worries they may have about getting sick by continuing to follow prevention recommendations from your local health department.

Ensure everyone in your home is up to date on their vaccinations, including Flu and COVID-19 vaccines. Keep an eye out for symptoms of viruses that are commonly spread in the community, and know what to do if a family member has symptoms.

Reassure your child by telling and showing them what your family, school and community are doing to stay healthy in the coming year.

Give Yourself, Your Child and Others Grace

Sending your child back to school is a time of transition for all. Teachers and school staff will be transitioning into the back-to-school routine as well. Try to approach the year assuming everyone is doing their best.

Practice self-care, support your child and get help if needed.

In Washington State, one helpful resource is the Parent Trust for Washington Children Family Help Line, which is available to parents, caregivers and anyone who has an interest or questions about a child in their community. Call to connect with parent coaches for supportive listening, parenting information, stress reduction and resources.

Lastly, keep in mind helping your child through difficult times means tolerating your own strong emotions. If you’re noticing that you’re experiencing your own anxiety, frustration, sadness or other feelings that are affecting your quality of life and your ability to follow these tips, seek your own support.

Give Praise and Celebrate Wins, Big and Small

Positive reinforcement can fuel more of the behaviors that you want to see.

Give specific praise for behaviors that you want to see more of, like, “You were patient when we had to wait to talk to your teacher today,” or, “You were brave and tried out for the team even though you’ve never played soccer before.”

As you practice, spotlight brave actions. Notice and celebrate the things that go well as your child embarks on the new year. Celebrate your hard work as a caregiver too. A smooth drop-off, great effort on an assignment, or making first chair in band are all worthy of cheer.

All of the tips recommended for youth apply to adults as well. Name and validate your feelings, face your fears, and get help from a provider if you’re finding that it is hard to do on your own.

“In the end, remember that it is okay, even expected, for you and your child to feel anxious, especially at times like this,” explained Dr. Venkatraman. “Remember that anxiety will not hurt you and that the most helpful thing to do is stay in the moment, use mindfulness, ride the wave of anxiety, knowing it will come down, and celebrate those successes.”