How to deal with back to school nerves and anxiety
Guest blog – Claire from Mellownest discusses the mixed emotions children can feel when returning to school and suggests ways as parents we can help ease their anxiety…
Over the next week millions of children across the UK will pull on their school uniforms and return to – or start – school. For many children and their families these are exciting times, after the shine of holiday has worn off and the lure of daily playtime with friends and new stationary beckons. However, for some children, change always provides a certain level of anxiety; new teacher, new classroom, perhaps even new school where there has been a house move or changes in the family.
As a parent, it can be a challenge to see your child struggle with worries and it’s normal to find yourself experiencing some of that anxiety with them. That’s because anxiety is a particularly contagious emotion, designed to tap into our primary cognitive bias for negative stimuli. Which is just a scientific way of saying that the human brain is always on the lookout for anything that seems to present a threat to our wellbeing.
For the most part, this bias is helpful – it stops your child from running into the road, eating food that smells bad or getting themselves into tricky situations (hopefully!). But some children are more prone to anxiety than others and it can become unhelpful when it begins to take over and get in the way of new experiences.
So, what can you do if you have a child who struggles with worries and feels nervous about heading back to learning next week? Here are our top anxiety busting tips:
It’s totally normal to feel worried or anxious – that’s part of being human, especially in new situations when we can’t be totally sure of the outcome. If they can verbalise their feelings of nervousness, it’s helpful for a parent to validate that by saying something like: ‘I understand, I might feel a little worried about that too’. You can also model resilience by talking about times when you felt a little worried but still did the thing that made you feel that way. Which leads us nicely onto the next tip…
As a parent, it can be tempting to allow our children to avoid situations that provoke anxiety and let them off the hook. The trouble with this approach is that it never allows the child to see that the situation is often not as bad as they fear and that confronting the source of their anxiety is often followed by a dramatic reduction in concerns. (Plus, not going to school isn’t really a practical or viable option!)
Don’t push it or dismiss it
Here’s the tricky part. While we don’t want our children to avoid the things that make them anxious, pushing too hard is similarly unhelpful. Children all work at different paces and that’s ok. The aim is to build our children’s confidence and pushing can actually have the opposite effect.
This is an easy trap to fall into as a parent because it comes from caring place, but telling your child it will be fine, or not to worry achieves very little. Validating their feelings as described above is far more helpful than trying to minimise or dismiss fears.
It’s developmentally normal for children to struggle to express their emotions verbally (especially younger children). As a parent, you are more likely to be on the receiving end of behaviours than a sensible conversation; this might look like whingeing and clinging or having tantrums or outbursts. Since they can’t always speak our language it can help to try and speak theirs through play.
Play school, take turns being the teacher, line up little figures to be their classmates and act out the day. Write a story about school together and draw pictures on each page. Read books about going to school. Build a model of the classroom in a big box or create a welcome to school kit that you imagine you are making for another child. Draw pictures of the classroom and uniform, write their teachers names, make a map showing where the toilets are. The only real limit here is your imagination. By playing through their worries and allowing them to be expressed, you help your child to process their feelings in an age appropriate way.
Take little steps
Practise putting their uniform on before the big day. Walk past the school and have a look in. Meet up with friends from their class. Rehearse packing their bag with them. Make a list of packed lunches they like together. Anxiety reduces from repeated exposure so by providing little manageable doses of stress the first day back becomes far less powerful.
Provide a transition object
On the big day itself it can be helpful to provide your child with something that reminds them of you. This is a helpful technique that we often use as adults without realising it – lucky necklace anyone? Having an object that reminds your child of a time they felt safe, loved or confident allows them to hold these feelings in mind during stressful situations. This can be a little something from home in their bag or you can create something special together.
It can even be something that you both have, to make the link feel even stronger. Ideas could include finding two special stones or making a bracelet each and telling your child that you’ll keep yours close so if they feel worried they can touch it and remember that you’re thinking about them.
Keep in touch!
So that’s our simple guide to overcoming worries. These tips could be applied to any other anxiety-inducing situations too so keep them in your parenting toolkit.
At Mellownest we run parent workshops and regularly blog about common childhood issues. A great way to keep in touch with what we’re up to is on our Facebook Page.