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Children's Therapy Center of Washington Health System Eases back-to-School Anxiety for Kids and Families
By Nancy Kennedy

Just like adults, children experience anxiety. Meeting new people, going to the doctor or the dentist or fearing a monster in the closet are among the many things that might make a child anxious. Anxiety in children is common, some anxiety is normal, and it's not always a bad thing, says Laura Pagano, LCSW, Coordinator of the Social Services department at the Children's Therapy Center of Washington Health System. But anxiety in children can become a problem, interfering with daily life and impeding the child's development. "Anxiety is a red flag that tells us there is something deeper that we need to deal with," says Pagano. "There is a spectrum of anxiety, and when a child has a lot of anxiety, it may require professional treatment, or at least some help/ education for the parents. With help, childhood anxiety can be overcome, often fairly easily."

There are countless causes of anxiety in children, and going back to school is a common one. Pagano says that school is a source of many different types of stress for children: "There is anxiety surrounding separation from the parent, or from a previous, familiar school. There is fear of the unknown – a new school, new teacher, or new classmates.  A change in schedule after the freedom of summer can create anxiety, as can concerns about school performance; lots of kids feel a need to be perfect and tend to think in all-or-nothing terms. There may be a lot of social pressure, peer driven, and fear of being bullied."

School anxiety may manifest with physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach ache, and diarrhea or sleep disturbance. Some children may have panic attacks. Pagano says that she and her fellow clinicians take a strongly positive stance, reassuring children and their parents that this is temporary, help is available and that they will be able to cope.

Help comes in many forms at CTC. Individual, family and group therapy is available for children ages three to 18, provided by CTC's team of licensed behavioral therapists, including social workers and psychologists. Therapy gives the children skills that empower them to cope with their anxiety. "We teach the kids coping and social skills," Pagano explains. "This gives them a grounding. In the group, they learn to cope with anxiety right away, as it happens, so they can work right through it. We give the children tools to practice in the group, and they take those tools home with them. Our anxiety group is very successful."

CTC is a highly regarded, comprehensive pediatric rehabilitation and social/behavioral treatment center offering a broad range of outpatient services for children from birth to age 18. A service of the Washington Health System, it is the only center of its kind south of Pittsburgh. With a team of expert and highly credentialed specialists in pediatric physical therapy, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and behavioral therapy, the CTC helps each child overcome obstacles and reach his or her full physical, cognitive, social and emotional potential. Children who receive services at the CTC have many different types of challenges: developmental delay, motor or speech difficulties, sensory processing disorders, autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy, sensory losses and other disorders. 

Behavioral and mental health concerns are also effectively treated at CTC; problems such as anxiety, acting out in school, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder following trauma, abuse or neglect can be addressed by CTC'c experienced and dedicated clinicians.

As the intake coordinator, Pagano is usually the first professional to meet the child; she identifies the problem and connects the child and family to the resources that will help. "Our door is always open," she emphasizes. "Parents can call me and talk to me about what they are seeing in their child. They may just need some reassurance or insight, they may need to be referred to the right resources, or they may need to come in. We are here to help. If a parent is concerned, it is never too early to ask for help."

The Children's Therapy Center of Washington Health System has two locations, in McMurray at Waterdam Plaza and in Washington. Hours are Monday through Friday, 9 am to 7 pm. For more information or to make an appointment, visit www.washingtonhospital.org/services/childtherapy or call (724) 942-6100.

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