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'90s FAMILY : Habit Changes May Signal 'Back-to-School Jitters'

August 17, 1994

The start of a new school year can bring on a case of "back-to-school jitters" in children of all ages. Parents should let kids know it's OK to be excited or nervous, a Purdue University professor says.

Jitters can occur whether a child is going to school for the first time, going to a new school or just looking forward to school starting again, says Judith Myers-Walls, a professor of child development and family studies.

Children may worry about living up to the expectations of their parents or teachers. They may worry about making new friends or continuing old friendships. They may also worry that old friends have moved away during the summer.

Jitters can also occur when a child does not like school, perhaps because of a bad experience, Myers-Walls says.

Symptoms of back-to-school jitters vary. Children may be withdrawn or may be acting up in new ways, she says. Parents should look for changes in eating and sleeping habits, constant chatter about the new school year or complete avoidance of the topic.

If jitters are a problem, parents should focus on the positive and let kids know it's OK to be nervous.

"The biggest thing is for parents to be available to talk to kids about their feelings," Myers-Walls says.

To ease children's fears, Myers-Walls says parents can also:

* Talk about the ways they got ready for a new school year when they were children.

* Talk about another child's circumstances and ask, "What do you think so-and-so should do?"

* Make up scenarios and ask children how they would handle them. For example, a parent might ask, "What if it's recess time and no one is playing with you? What could you do?" Or, "What if you miss the bus after school? What should you do?"

Self-Esteem Training May Help Daddy Cope

Researchers at the University of Illinois have studied a group of blue-collar fathers and discovered that if Dad had a bad day at work, he's probably going to be a bear at home. Self-esteem training for fathers, the researchers concluded, would pay off in the workplace as well as at home.

Also on the fatherhood front, James Levine, director of the Fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute in New York, has identified a new strain of tension he calls "daddy stress."

It shows up most, Levine found, when pressure to pitch in at home runs up against extra work brought on by downsizing or intense scrutiny of personnel at work.

Embarrassed to explain absences from work on the basis of family demands, many men lie, Levine discovered. They may say, for example, that they have another meeting--even at 6 p.m.--rather than saying they need to take their child to the dentist.

Compiled from Times staff and news services.

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