Regardless of your child’s age group, the transition back to school for the start of a new year can be anxiety provoking. This year, in addition to all the usual stress experienced at the start of the year, kids are facing new and unique challenges. Whilst older children are usually better able to rationalise the situation and assess the risk, this is often a struggle for younger children.
Anxiety about being separated from their families and about leaving the home which was their safety harbour through the pandemic is likely to be one of the more common challenges. Even kids who had comfortably adjusted to being in school prior to the pandemic, are likely to find it stressful. Fearing that they are not as safe as they thought they were and the uncertainty of what the year ahead holds, is likely to add extra facets to the experience. Whilst for some children, the excitement of school will outweigh potential effects of anxiety, those kids who are generally more anxious, will be more prone to this being exacerbated by the return to/start of school.
When kids go out now, they’re reminded not to get too close to other people, to keep their masks on, to use sanitizer, to wash their hands. There’s just anxiety in the air, which is easily picked up by even the youngest students. So, parents have a dual role of helping the children deal with all this anxiety and uncertainty by reassuring them that it’s safe to be away from home, whilst also encouraging them to be careful and preparing them to be flexible in case the situation changes.
Below are some ideas to consider in supporting your kids in their return to school
- Younger children are more likely to present as clingy or fearful about separating from parents and this can be quite distressing. For children who are anxious about being separated from the parent, practicing short separations (even by being in separate rooms) and gradually increasing this, will help build tolerance for more and more independence. It is very important for parents to remain calm and positive in comforting the child. Rather than minimising and dismissing their feelings, it is important to validate their fears and give them a safe space to discuss these. At the same time, you don’t want to feed into it too much, as the aim is to help them think of something they can do about it.
- Try to talk to them as frequently as possible about school. Discuss fun memories you have from your own childhood or of their previous years. Discuss their favourite subjects (or things they might enjoy) and their friends (either current or those they would like to find). Try to get them to talk about the good things about school. What are they looking forward to? What did they enjoy the previous day? This will ignite nice memories and positive expectations and help your child to get enthusiastic about attending.
- Reconnecting with friends, either face to face or virtually and trying to forge new friendships (with assistance of other parents) is very important for creating a positive foundation for the year. Join school social media groups, sports clubs or interest groups. If your child already has a few friends, try to encourage them to also join as this will foster stronger friendships.
- Managing your own anxiety as a parent is vitally important. If you exhibit your own anxiety, you’re only going to fuel theirs. So, it’s important to honestly answer questions and act calm, even when you are not. Be mindful of asking leading questions (“Are you nervous about going to school tomorrow?”), as these can really make your child feel like there really is something to worry about.
- Having a routine in place can help kids to feel more secure. This can involve both the preparation for school but also at drop off. Involve your child in creating the routine and ensure to reinforce it. Many kids feel better as soon as they get into the swing of the school day, so drawing out your goodbyes usually doesn’t help. If your child reacts more strongly when dropped off by one parent, where possible, try to mix up who does drop offs. Carpooling or walking groups with local friends is also a great option to give your child a positive experience about going to school.
When to get help?
Children often just need time to become used to separating form the parent. Involving the classroom teacher in supporting this is also very important. However, if your child is continuing to have severe meltdowns at drop-off time for several weeks, struggles to recover and exhibits changes in behaviour, appetite or sleeping patterns, then seeking help from a psychologist can make a big difference.
Treatment usually involves working with the child and the parents to plan step-by-step ways for them to practice separating a little at a time. Where needed, a psychologist will collaborate with teachers, too, to see how they can assist in the process and also to make sure everyone is on the same page. Treatment also involves helping kids talk kindly to themselves and assist them in developing coping strategies that they can effectively utilise when they are struggling.
If you as a parent are finding yourself struggling to support your child in their return to school or are noticing changes in mood, energy and behaviours, seeking help for yourself may also provide you with support and strategies to assist your children in their journey.
If you would like some support, why not give us a call today? Our team of highly skilled and well-experienced psychologists are here to help.
Miller, C. How to help kids manage worries and have a successful start to the school year. https://childmind.org/
van Zwanenberg, H (Dr). Managing children’s fears around returning to school after coronavirus ‘lockdown’ https://www.priorygroup.com/