Yes, it is almost the end of the summer holidays! Depending on which student you speak to, back to school can be a welcome shift to see their friends every day, get back to sports clubs and, in general, a swing back to the familiar routine. For others it is an anxiety-provoking transition that raises the fears about being in the classroom, class work, perhaps even bullies. While back to school jitters are completely normal, an intense fear or refusal are signs that your child needs additional emotional support.
It seems easier to push the child’s comments aside with a simple ‘Once you’re in school it’ll feel better, it’s just pre school nerves.’ But these kind of ‘nerves’ don’t dissipate after the first day. This can feel daunting for parents, particularly those unaccustomed to discussing mental health with their children. But by watching for certain signs and engaging in non-judgemental conversations, parents can intervene before the situation becomes a crisis.
How can we talk about back-to-school anxiety
As parents we tend to focus on the positive aspects of school when speaking to a nervous child, this unfortunately can minimise their fears. Drawing on perspective, we can emphasis that things children insist will last forever, like drama between friends or an embarrassment in class (eg. dropping a pile of books or walking into the wrong classroom) will ebb and flow. The intensity of their pain when they are in the situation can feel permanent, however, if they look back it has dulled and others have forgotten.
Open ended, non-judgemental conversations that validate how a child feels are key to helping them cope. Try to genuinely hear what your child is saying and not jump to fix their problems.
As much as we know we understand the importance of talking to our children, we often don’t know how to start the conversation as we may not have had these discussions with our own parents. These are some great conversation starters for children!
Alternatively, work on brain storming solutions with open ended questions:
It is important to let it out, is there anything I can do to make this easier for you?
You are not alone, how can I help?
It’s okay to cry, we all do. Can I get you a tissue or perhaps a hug?
I can see you are in a tough situation; do you want to talk about it or do we need to do something light-hearted and get back to it a bit later after we have some distance from it.
Keep in mind that kids often want to talk about something they’re upset about without expecting you to fix it. Validate their feelings and demonstrate that they can handle the situation.
Try not to ask children questions that expect them to be nervous (“Are you worried about having Miss Hilary for maths?”) but rather check in with them in a more casual way (Do you know what you’ll be learning in maths this year?’). Children say more when there is less pressure to “have a talk”.
Take your own temperature
The start of the new school year brings its own pressures to parents. Reinstating routines after wonderful summer break along with the new school schedule of new activities not to mention the juggle of aftercare and/or multiple children’s clashing clubs. As well as the additional financial worries associated with the start of school.
We need to make sure we are not passing the stress on to our children. It is important to not take on more commitments, financial or otherwise, then the family feel comfortable handling. There is a certain pressure to join activities that their friends are doing, check your own families’ dynamics before committing.
Do some test runs
Fortunately, most schools do a ‘moving-up’ day where they meet their new teachers, visit their classroom, and find out where their new playground will be. If not, then approach the school about this happening even if it is 10min after school when it is a bit quieter.
If it is a new school, arrange to drop forms off at the office with your child so they meet the reception team and see the gates, entrances and roads surrounding the school.
In my practice of CBT we rehearse, look for an opportunity for exposure and use repetition to help the child master the situation, aiding them in coping in the future.
Headaches and stomach aches
Anxiety about school sometimes takes the form of stomach aches and headaches the night before and in the morning, children say they are too sick to go to school. It is important to be checked out at your doctors as you do not wat to overlook a medical problem.
Once the all clear has been given by the doctor and the pattern persists, then it may be anxiety about going to school.
A child’s education is paramount in securing their future. If we allow children to avoid situations that make them anxious, we can inadvertently reinforce that those situations are indeed dangerous or scary. However, we must investigate what is causing the anxiety:
A child who is being bullied may be afraid to go to school because their tormentors are there
A child with an undiagnosed learning disorder might be avoiding shame and embarrassment
A child with separation anxiety might be afraid something terrible will happen to mom if they’re apart
A child with generalised anxiety might be terrified that they will be called on to read in class or answer a question
The longer a child struggles with anxiety around school, the longer their anxiety is reinforced.
Consulting a professional can help children and parents understand the child’s symptoms and work together on resolving them.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is highly recommended by the NHS in teaching both the child and parent skills to address and confront anxiety. Book a free chat today to see if I can help.