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Health and Wellness: Preparing for back-to-school season like a pediatrician

By Joseph Hershkop - Special to the Daily Herald | Aug 10, 2022

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Summer weather may still be in full swing, but in Utah County, school is about to be back in session. Between purchasing pencils, finding new outfits and figuring out the carpool situation, it’s important to address some health topics that are sure to come up over the course of the school year.

As a pediatrician and father of two, I’ve gone through the hectic back-to-school season many times, and I know how important it is for parents and kids to be prepared for the challenges they may face throughout the year. At Utah Valley Pediatrics’ free Talk with a Doc event on Thursday, Dr. Matt Allen and I will be talking about the best ways for parents and their children to tackle these challenges, from settling into new routines to feeling comfortable in a new classroom and more. 

We’ll also touch on anxiety, bullying and how to prevent negative behaviors. Keep reading to learn a little more about these three topics to help empower you as you step into this next school year.

Know that anxiety can strike unexpectedly

You might expect your younger kids starting school for the first time to experience some separation anxiety. Kids starting at a new school or starting middle or high school for the first time also may be anxious. 

But anxiety also can strike suddenly and unexpectedly. You might have a bright kid who’s always loved school, and all of a sudden, they’re nervous about failing their classes or even going to class.

What does anxiety look like? A 5-year-old may tell you outright that they’re scared to go to school — or they may tell you through a tantrum. Older kids might simply act out or not act like themselves without specifically expressing that they are anxious. 

To prevent or work through anxiety in younger children, I recommend visiting the school ahead of time or role-playing scenarios that your child is afraid of encountering. 

General anxiety tips also can help. For example, teach your kids how to go to a “happy place,” talk things out with them and teach them breathing or mindfulness exercises. Lots of times, you can prevent anxiety from escalating in the first place by trying these measures proactively.

Annual well-child visits or screening exams also can help. It’s important to schedule these annual visits even if your child seems to be doing well. At Utah Valley Pediatrics, maintaining open communication with parents is something we start talking to kids about starting at age 12. We also screen for early signs that your child might develop anxiety or depression down the road. This information helps you to keep an eye on them and get help early on.

Guard against bullying proactively

Bullying is something your kids are likely to encounter, so it’s crucial to be proactive. To guard against bullying before it happens, start by teaching your kids how to find good friends.

The website http://HealthyChildren.org offers some good advice about this: “Talk with your child often about how friends should treat one another. Explain that good friends respect others, follow the rules, and help those in need. The more children know about what makes a good friend, the easier it will be for them to recognize one when they meet that child — and to be one himself.”

It’s also important to teach your kids how to deal with bullying when they encounter it. In local schools, I’ve noticed bullying often takes the form of cliquiness, with some kids getting ostracized because they don’t seem to fit in. Together with your kids, brainstorm ways that can help them communicate with different groups of kids and join in with a group. Role-playing a few different scenarios also can help.

Online bullying is another form of bullying to guard against. My advice: Don’t assume that your kids will tell you if they are being bullied online. Tell your kids from the get-go that you will be paying attention to their online activity and social media, and be sure to do so. As you are consistent, your kids are encouraged to be on their best behavior, and they will feel more secure within the boundaries you have established.

Encourage good behavior — don’t focus only on avoiding bad behavior

There are a lot of “don’ts” we want to be sure to teach teens. We want them to stay away from drugs and alcohol, never text and drive, and absolutely never meet up with a stranger they meet online. But focusing on warnings alone may be insufficient. 

A study conducted by Laura Padilla-Walker, associate professor and associate director of Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life, found that young people flourished when parents focused on encouraging positive behaviors instead of only discouraging bad behaviors. The four major positive factors to focus on are self-control, self-esteem, values and empathy.

Speaking specifically about values, the study found that children are most likely to adopt values when the following criteria are met:

  • They feel they have a say in what they believe and do.
  • They feel that parental discipline is appropriate.
  • Parents explain the reasons behind their expectations.

While it’s important to teach youth the good behaviors they should do instead of bad behaviors, it’s also important to have a specific series of conversations about risky behaviors like doing drugs so they know what your expectations are. With drugs, for example, teach your kids that it’s always easier to not step on a pathway at all than it is to step off and that even one time is enough to start them on a dangerous road. Be sure they know that it’s almost impossible to know if they are especially susceptible to drugs they try — and addiction can happen quickly.

If you ever have questions about your child’s physical or emotional health, feel free to reach out to your pediatrician. Even if we can’t help directly, we can put you in touch with the resources you and your child need. This is especially important during the school year, which can often become very hectic. 

To help you prepare, consider attending Utah Valley Pediatrics’ free Talk with a Doc event on Thursday in Saratoga Springs. Whether your kids encounter anxiety and bullying or struggle to regulate some negative behaviors, there are things you can do as a team to help them be as happy and healthy as possible.

Joseph Hershkop is a pediatrician at Utah Valley Pediatrics, which serves Utah families in nine locations throughout Utah Valley.

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