Back-to-School preparation not just about books and clothes

Talk your teens through critical transitions. With the big yellow busses rolling out once again, all the parents I know (myself included) have completed the marathon of acquiring school supplies, new clothes, uniforms, electronics and other accoutrement of educational life. What may have gotten overlooked is the requisite mental preparation for what can be a stressful transition back into the classroom or even a new school.

The issue is particularly critical for ‘tweens and teens, who are pushing for independence, experiencing physiological changes that are difficult to read and getting exposed to sometimes less-than-desirable behaviors. That trifecta can push what were once loving, well-behaved children toward anxiety, depression and substance use.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a quarter of kids ages 13 to 18 have an identified anxiety disorder. But most kids have felt the anxiety that comes from moving to a new school or class, participating in extracurricular activities or just figuring out where they fit in the social strata. School social worker Lisa Truby, MSW, believes that kids today are more anxious than ever, but she works with students to ease their fears and with their parents to equip them to do the same. Truby sees students at Ludlam Elementary, South Miami Senior and Sunset Elementary. She believes that preparation is the key since unaddressed anxiety can lead to depression and substance use.

“The best way to start is to talk openly with your kids about what they hear about drugs or drinking in school. Ask them, ‘What are kids in your school doing?’” Truby says. “Prepare them for the real possibility that kids they know and even like may offer them alcohol or drugs. Those are the ones you want your kids to be prepared to say no to – the good kids who make bad decisions.”

Gary Silverman, LMHC, CAP, clinical supervisor at South Miami Hospital Addiction Treatment Center, increasingly sees the kids who don’t learn to healthy coping tools and turn to drugs or drinking. “The trend we are seeing is that the greatest population being affected by addiction is adolescents and young adults,” he says. “It’s a dramatic transition time, and there’s more access than when we were this age – particularly with prescription drugs.”

Silverman says marijuana is still the primary drug of abuse among the patients they see, and attributes what he sees as a dangerous trend to legalize marijuana as part of the reason. Alcohol has long been glamourized in pop culture, but marijuana and even prescription drugs have made cameos in movies and music. Combine ready access, a perception of coolness and teenage angst and you get a textbook scenario for addiction.

The death of Glee star Cory Monteith this summer once again brought the painful realities of addiction to the public consciousness. While many expressed shock, the drug-related death of someone who “had it all” brought painful light to the fact that the measure of happiness isn’t celebrity and the scourge of drug or alcohol addiction is simply a choice. Silverman believes a fundamental lack of knowledge about addiction is partly at the root of these misperceptions.

“There’s a stigma that addiction is a willpower thing,” he says, and even the person using (the substance) falls prey to this thinking. “(He or she says) ‘I understand this could be harmful, but I’ll be different.’ Addiction works this way. It’s the illusion of control.”

Monteith’s death is a cautionary tale for all of us, but especially for parents. How do you distinguish between typical adolescent lethargy and drug addiction? Between normal, teen hormone-induced blues and depression caused by bullying or “medicated” with drugs or alcohol? Like reading tea leaves, deciphering the messages your child is sending may feel more like guesswork than science. Here are some tips for anxious parents:

Talk to your child. Ask how they feel about the start of school, their school workload, classmates. Knowing what’s going on in their life is the best way to spot problems.

Know your child’s friends and their parents. Talk to the parents to make sure they share your values. Find out their policy on alcohol in their homes, curfews and more.

Lock you liquor and meds. Some of the easiest access teens have to alcohol and drugs is at home (and grandparents’ homes. Take stock of your inventory and keep them secure.

Model optimism and confidence. Even teenagers will absorb their parents’ anxiety, so focus on the positive. Acknowledge anxiety over any bad experiences the previous year and discuss what your teen could do differently this year. Building these coping skills will help them learn how to deal with difficult situations.

Meet the school staff, including school counselors. If your child starts having trouble in school, you’ll be more likely to hear about it sooner if you have a relationship with the staff. Truby recommends getting to know the school counselors so that they know you’re available and willing to support your child through any difficult times.

Reinforce your child’s ability to cope. Give your teen a few strategies to manage a difficult situation on his or her own. But encourage your child to tell you or the teacher if the problem persists. Maintain open lines of communication with the school.

Encourage your child to participate in sports, clubs or other school-based extracurricular activities. Teens who do so are less likely to get involved in antisocial behaviors.

Volunteer at the school. Seeing firsthand what’s happening at your teen’s school will help you spot trouble. Set household limits and stick to them. Even teens need some boundaries about bedtime, use of electronics and curfews.

Know the signs of anxiety, bullying or substance use, and take action. Anxiety can cause headaches, stomach aches and avoidance of the anxiety-causing issue or situation. Bullying can be direct, such as pushing, kicking, teasing, name-calling and destroying belongings, or indirect, such as leaving someone out of a group, spreading rumors and cyber bullying. Victims of bullying will often withdraw, become angry or express other mood changes. Signs of substance use include severe mood swings that persist, as well as more obvious ones like changes in hygiene, sleep habits or their circle of friends. Bloodshot eyes and slurring speech are also indicators of a problem.

Truby, who has two kids of her own and works with 3,500 students at three schools, says parents often feel like they can step back once a child reaches the teen years, but that’s when you “really need to get in there and stick with it.”

“The more they push you away, the more you have say ‘I’m still your mom, I’m still your dad, I’m not going away and we’re going to talk,’” she says. “They need you more than ever.”

If you’re concerned that your child has an anxiety or substance problem, contact South Miami Hospital’s Addiction Treatment Center for a free assessment and referral: 1-800-YES-HOPE (937-4673).

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