Health & wellness

Deep Breath

Back to school means extra attention

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As school starts again, some parents breathe a sigh of relief. The lack of schedule, late bedtimes, and ice cream treats have taken their toll.

Others find the transition back to school more anxiety-provoking. Homework eats up formerly laid-back evenings. New teachers, schools, and friend drama can add stress for both children and parents.

It’s important not to add to the stress by expecting that children should go from one win to the next, said Gil Noam, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Program in Education, Afterschool and Resiliency at Harvard and McLean Hospital. Success also means learning from failure and how to handle adversity.

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On the other hand, it’s crucial for parents to step in when something is truly wrong, he said.

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If suffering, sadness, depression, or anger lasts more than a week or two, it’s time to get involved. Regular check-ins, with time just to hang out and be together, should help parents tell “is this my child’s normal up and down,” Noam said, “or is it really becoming pretty intense and chronic and feels stuck?”

Getting help may involve talking to the teacher, school counselor, pediatrician, or mental health professional, said Robert Franks, president and CEO of the Judge Baker Children’s Center, whose Center for Effective Child Therapy is one of many local centers offering support for families.

For parents of teenagers, it’s important to maintain perspective — and help share it with your kids, said Dr. Steven Schlozman, an assistant professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The competition to get into college starts too young and is too intense, said Schlozman, adding that people are already telling his 15-year-old what she should major in in college.

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“All that conspires to create this gargantuan stomach ache for teenagers,” he said. “It’s good for people to work hard, but I don’t think they need to be that scared. I know it’s not good for them.”

In his own house, Schlozman and his wife make sure their kids, 10 and 15, get enough sleep, even if it means not finishing every bit of homework. And they let their kids know that there’s more to life than grades, test scores, or social groups.

One lesson from summer that Schlozman hopes parents and kids remember as school starts up: the importance of down time.

“Just declare it as time you’re not getting anything done,” he said. “And enjoy it.”

KAREN WEINTRAUB