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Coping With Anxiety and Other Back-to-School Health Issues

back to school health issues

We’ve encountered and survived many back-to-school health issues in my over 50 years as a pediatrician, 52 years as a parent of eight children, and now 15 grandchildren. Now, I’m sharing some of my family’s best tips for three of the most common issues your children are likely to face this time of year.

Bathroom anxiety and belly aches.

Parents are sometimes surprised when their children won’t use a school bathroom, and they’re often just as perplexed about how to solve the problem.

When my kids were in school, bathroom anxiety and belly aches from irregularity were an occasional problem. But with grandchildren, these are intensified with increased amount of processed, constipating foods available to them. Regularity is such a huge issue that my wife Martha Sears, R.N. and I wrote “Dr. Poo: The Scoop on Comfortable Poop.” It provides the same tips and resources I give to our own children and grandchildren for how to poo better.

Admittedly, “So, how is your poop…” is probably never going to become a favorite topic of dinner conversation. But one reason why kids won’t go number 2 at school is they would rather play than spend any extra time sitting on the potty.

Today we have some great hacks such as “invisible” fiber to put into what they are already eating and drinking so going to the bathroom is much more comfortable. Our family prefers kid-friendly fibers, such as Sunfiber or Regular Girl, that don’t cause extra gas or bloating. The great thing about one of these is if they have to go number 2, they are more likely to go right away. They won’t be straining to try to hurry the process.

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Back-to-school stress.

The stress my children experienced in school was nothing like our grandchildren face today. Now there’s more media time and less play time. Competition is more intense. Children begin feeling stressed at younger ages. And after a summer of play, sleeping in and no homework, suddenly children, like some adults returning from a long vacation, suffer stress overload.

Remember, both parenting and schooling are basically giving your children the tools to succeed in life.  One of the top tools to teach them early on is stress-reduction, especially with the “attitude of gratitude.” No matter how much “life sucks,” and sometimes it does, everyone has a few things to be thankful for.

The top stress-reliever we have taught our children is what we call “preloading” the calming center of your brain by how you drift off to sleep and how you wake up each school day. These were considered novel when my kids were small but are more accepted now.

First, have them tape a list on their bathroom mirror entitled “Five things I like about me,” such as “I like my smile,” “I like that I’m a good soccer player,” and “I like that I’m honest.”

Next, as they drift off to sleep, sometimes with “stress-therapist” Dr. Mom or Dr. Dad as a facilitator, have them think about five things that they really are, which we call the “I am” technique – a technique taught to me by several patients in my pediatric practice: “I am smart,” “I am pretty,” and so on.  We call these stress-reduction exercises preloading the brain, which sets the child up for a good night’s sleep, and a good night’s sleep sets them up for a good day of learning.

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Upon awakening, they then go back to their bathroom mirror and say five things they are thankful for – the “attitude of gratitude”: “I am thankful for my friends at school …”

Preventing back-to-school coughs and sniffles.

When my kids were small, we taught them to wash their hands frequently to help kill the viruses and bacteria they may have collected. According to the CDC, hand washing is still the most effective way to stay healthy. We taught them use regular soap and warm water to scrub their hands including the back of their hands, in between fingers and under nails for 20 seconds. Today, the grandchildren use antibacterial gel or wipes if soap and water are not available.

Martha and I also showed our children how to properly cover their nose and mouth when they cough. Many people only put their fist in front of their mouth, but many germs also come through the nose. Instead, children should put a whole hand over their nose and mouth so that the fingers are over the nose and the palm of their hand covers their mouth.

My kids also ate brainy breakfasts, filled with antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables that supported their immune health. Now, with our grab-and-go society, breakfast may not always be as nutritious.

While good nutrition is considered essential in the Sears extended family, our grandchildren, ages 4 and up, can also take black elderberry supplements such as Sambucol, a highly researched form of black elderberry available as great-tasting chewies for natural immune support during cough and cold season. The label says “Gummies” but I prefer to call them “suckies.” I love them that way!

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Bonus tip: Teach kids to drink up when you wake up. The young student’s brain doesn’t like to start the day dehydrated from all the water they breathed out during the night. Soon after awakening, have your child down a couple glasses of water.

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William Sears, M.D

William Sears, M.D., has been advising parents on how to raise healthier families for over 40 years. He received his medical training at Harvard Medical School’s Children’s Hospital in Boston and The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the world’s largest children’s hospital, where he was associate ward chief of the newborn intensive care unit before serving as the chief of pediatrics at Toronto Western Hospital, a teaching hospital of the University of Toronto. He has served as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, University of South Carolina, University of Southern California School of Medicine, and University of California: Irvine. A father of 8 children, he and his wife Martha have written more than 45 books and hundreds articles on parenting, childcare, nutrition, and healthy aging. He is the co-founder of the Dr. Sears Wellness Institute for training health coaches, and he runs the health and parenting website AskDrSears.com. Dr. Sears and his contribution to family health were featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in May 2012. He is noted for his science-made-simple-and-fun approach to family health.

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