What to do if your child is feeling anxious about going back to school
This article has been written by parenting author and blogger Becky Goddard-Hill.
If your child is anxious about going back to school there is a lot you can do to support them both practically and emotionally. You can help your child feel less anxious through role modelling, providing a listening ear, being an anxiety investigator and teaching them some coping strategies. You can also access further support should this be required. Anxiety is not just something they have to ‘live with.’
What makes kids anxious about going back to school?
Feeling anxious about transitions or changes of any kind is a normal human reaction.
Children's anxiety can be related to specific issues or to the more general concept of facing something new. They may be worrying about having a new teacher they know nothing about, new kids in their class or perhaps a brand-new school? We only have to consider how we feel about the first day in a new job to get some sense of the trepidation a child can feel. Their feelings are valid and normal, but that does not minimise how horrible anxiety can actually feel.
Why not do some investigating and ask some gentle questions? Getting to the bottom of what they are feeling anxious about really helps you (and them) to address the issue.
Signs your child may be feeling anxious
Your child may be quiet or clingy, they may complain about tummy aches or headaches. They may be bad tempered or tearful; anxiety can manifest in lots of ways. Encouraging your child to name how they are feeling will help you make sense of what’s happening and reduce some of these physical outpourings that are often related to tension.
Here are 9 things you can do to help a child with back to school anxiety:
1. Adopting a ‘can do’ attitude
Modelling a ‘can do attitude’ is the BEST thing you can do. Anxiety about anything can make us feel out of control and helpless. If your child feels that way and sees you panicking, then it will have a ricochet effect and make them feel anxious too. Let your child know you have researched and learned some great ways to help and support them. Reassure them you will work on these together.
2. Be positive
Always be positive when you talk about school starting, but also do not make it the main topic of conversation. Talk about upcoming holidays, events, hobbies they are involved in too. Let them see they have a life outside of school and have lots to look forward to.
3. Give them space to talk about how they feel
School holidays (particularly those last few weeks), can be full of rushing about, new shoes and haircuts and squeezing in any last-minute fun. A frenzied pace can lead to a frenzied mind and no time to talk. Anxiety unaired just bubbles away inside and can manifest into a temper, tears or tantrums. It is important to give your child time and space to talk about how they feel before school starts.
Car rides and long walks can provide that necessary uninterrupted time to talk to your child about how they feel. You can reassure it is normal to feel worried about new situations and talk through the specifics and ways to make them feel less anxious.
4. Self-calming activities
Teaching your child some self-calming activities will empower them and encourage them to manage their own anxiety whilst at school. It should make them feel more in control of the situation. Practice these with them till they can access them easily:
The 3 2 1 grounding technique
A really simple grounding exercise to support an anxious child is to encourage them to feel present in the moment, rather than have their mind racing to the past and future. Grounding skills can be helpful in managing overwhelming feelings or intense anxiety in the moment.
Have them close their eyes and breathe deeply for a count of ten. Now tell them to open their eyes and look around and name out loud:
3 - Things they can see
2 - Things they can hear
1 - Thing they can feel
This should help them feel really grounded and rooted in the present and allow their minds to relax.
Placing a crown on their head
It can also be effective to have your child simply press one hand on the crown of their head and to shut their eyes, counting to 20 in their mind. It gives them a chance to calm down and be mindful of their body.
This is a super speedy calm down technique your child could do anywhere (even in the classroom). They simply need to cross their arms across their chest and squeeze in for a count of 5, and then relax. Doing these 5 times till they feel their muscles ease. It is also a great form of TLC. Hugs are very healing.
Trying to consciously stop our thoughts can feel impossible. Most of the time when we try to block our thoughts, they get bigger and manifest. It’s useful to encourage kids to just observe their thoughts as if they were an outsider looking in. Encourage them to imagine their worries to be encased in clouds and let them just drift away.
A breathing exercise
Have your child sit down comfortably with their back against a chair and feet very firmly planted on the ground. Once they are seated ask them to close their eyes and take in a couple of deep breaths. In through their nose (count to 4) and out through their mouth (to the count of 4). Doing these 5 times will help to slow down their heart rate and ease anxiety.
5. Physical exercise
Physical exercise is another wonderful way to help a child with anxious feelings. It helps release feel-good endorphins, dispel any tension from the body and distract the mind from worries. Swimming, running, tennis, cycling or maybe some yoga can hugely help release these endorphins.
6. Running through the plan
Often it is the fear of the unknown that can cause anxious feelings. Work together and make a clear plan with your child and talk them through what happens in a school day. Things like, what time they have to get up in the morning, what kind of transport they will be taking to school and what subjects they are doing. All of these things will help to reassure them.
7. Making connections
A few playdates/meet ups with children who will be in the same class can work wonders for reassuring your child that all will be well. This is even true at secondary school. The importance of peer relationships cannot be underestimated for kids. As a parent/guardian you can help organise or prompt this.
8. Things that make anxiety worse for a child
The things that can make anxiety worse for a child are very simple things for you to address:
- Not being listened to
- Having it glossed over
- Feeling physically tense
- Lack of sleep
- Not eating well
- Feeling powerless
So, a listening ear, a bedtime routine, healthy food, exercise and time to talk are just some of the calming strategies you can encourage as a parent/guardian.
9. If your child needs further support
If you feel that your child needs more support, then your child’s school should be able to offer more support or tips. This may include a buddy system, assigning a key worker or counselling support. It is well worth speaking with your child’s teacher to share your concerns and working together with your child to come up with a solution and make school a more positive experience.
There is no shame or weakness in asking for help about emotional issues. You would head straight to the GP if your child had a recurring physical health issue and emotional health needs just as much support sometimes. Accessing further support if concerns persist is smart and can help your child develop great coping strategies that will help them for life.
Becky Goddard-Hill is the co-author of Create Your Own Happy, an activity book which helps children to shape their lives, and the lives of others around them, by taking practical, positive steps towards their own happiness and positive self esteem.
The book covers topics like bullying and cyberbullying, and so much more!
Enter your email address to access FREE activities linked to this article.