Helping Your Child Overcome Back To School Anxiety
Returning to school following the long summer break is hard for many children at the best of times. However add to that a year in which they’ve been more or less relegated to their homes due to ‘lockdown’ and it is little wonder that numerous children are struggling with the aftereffects of having had their routines disrupted and schools closed. The mental health fallout of lives turned upside down, ramped up fear, and loss of life and livelihoods may well turn out to be the real pandemic from which our children are paying the heavy price.
Being sheltered away in the apparent safety of their homes with their parents around 24/7, it is little wonder that many children are experiencing separation anxiety at the prospect of returning to school.
Children may be experiencing a range of feelings including anxiety, fear, sadness and anger. As a parent or carer it is important to begin to prepare your child as early as possible to help them in their transition back to school. Anxiety is a very treatable condition, but it is important to intervene as early as possible. Below are some tips and strategies to help you help your child have a smoother move back to school InShaAllah.
Manage Your Own Anxiety
Anxiety is a very ‘contagious’ emotion and if you yourself are anxious or scared then it is likely that this will affect your child also. Try to manage your own fears and stress levels as best you can as your child will be looking for reassurance that you are safe and ok, and that you believe they will also be safe and ok.
Talk & Validate Emotions
If you suspect you child may be experiencing separation anxiety regarding going back to school try and find a way to talk with them to help them express how they are feeling. This can be more effective when you are both engaged in an activity such as going for a walk, engaged in a creative task, or even going somewhere in the car.
If your child expresses that they are worried, scared etc, validate their feelings and convey that it is completely understandable that they feel that way. Try and find out more about what exactly they are anxious about – is it leaving you, going into the outside world after lockdown, going into a new class, pressures of schoolwork? You can also explain that anxiety is a natural response to threat and therefore their feelings are understandable. However, it is important to give them hope that whilst separation anxiety may feel insurmountable it is in fact something that can be overcome and that there are techniques that the child themselves can learn to manage and control it.
Anxiety is maintained and grows when we avoid facing the thing that we fear or are scared of. The way to overcome anxiety is to expose ourselves to the thing causing us the anxiety and this can be done in a gradual way to lessen the distress. In addition, there are many techniques that can be learnt to help manage the anxiety experienced at each stage.
For a child experiencing separation anxiety at the thought of going back to school there are two aspects that need to be attended to: anxiety at the need to separate from the parents and anxiety at going to school.
Preparing For Separation from Parent
To help your child overcome their separation anxiety you it is important that you gradually introduce daily experiences that expose your child to spending time without you.
⇒ Depending on the age of the child, you can start by leaving them alone with another responsible adult whilst you go out to the shop, maybe for 10 minutes to start with, then half an hour and build up the time gradually until they are able to tolerate you being away from them for several hours at a time.
⇒ Arrange for them to meet up with friends and spend time away from you e.g. playing in the park where you are present but at a distance, or arrange for them to spend some time at a friend’s house without you there.
⇒ Gradually increase the time your child spends away from you and afterwards validate how they coped with this and focus on any positive experiences etc.
⇒ It will also be important to talk through with your child what you will be doing when they are at school and where you will be i.e. at work or at home. Children worry about their parents and so it is important to convey to your child that you are safe and happy to be doing whatever it is when they are at school.
Preparing for School
It is important to gradually expose your child towards the idea of going back to school so that they can learn to manage their anxiety regarding this. Start this process early during the holidays ideally a few weeks before they return to school.
⇒ Re-establish any associated routines such as a set bedtime and waking up at a certain time.
⇒ Talk about school with your child – focus on positive memories and what they like about school e.g. activities, favourite lessons etc and what they can look forward to e.g. seeing friends etc.
⇒ Discuss what a typical school day may look like
⇒ Have a look at the school website – look at term dates, photos of the school etc
⇒ Make it a habit to walk or drive past the school on a daily basis (if possible)
⇒ See if it’s possible to speak to your child’s teacher (in person or online) or even visit the school
Whilst doing the above will raise initially cause some anxiety, by gradually exposing your child to their school you can help them manage their anxiety in stages. The repeated exposure to the thought of or sight of their school will help their anxiety diminish and they will be far more able to cope when they do return to school InShaAllah.
Learn Coping Skills
Anxiety will naturally decrease by itself as it comes and goes like a wave – it rises, peaks, then falls away. Knowing this alone can help your child feel better.
However, there are many coping techniques that children can learn to help them manage their anxiety and which can be used whether they are at home, on the way to school or in school itself. Below are some suggestions.
Ask your child to think of a colour they associate with feeling calm or being relaxed. Have them imagine their breath being this colour and then get them to take a big slow and deep breath in through their nose right down into their tummy and slowly out again. As they breath in they can say something in their minds such as ‘I’m breathing in calm’ and as they breath out they can say ‘I’m letting go of my worry’. They can also say things in their mind such as ‘Allah is with me’, ‘La illaha illa Lah’ or other Islamic phrases that will help calm them.
Feet on Ground Exercise
This can be practiced anywhere and is especially good when your child is sitting at their desk etc. Have you child take a deep breath and tune into the sensations in their feet as their feet touch the ground – they can notice the feeling of their feet in their socks, in their shoes and the pressure caused from their shoes on the ground. Get them to notice how their feet connect to the ground and the sensations they can notice. They can then tune into the different sensations felt by their body being in the chair – their legs on the seat and their back against the back of the chair. As they notice these sensations, they can take a few deep breaths.
Have your child use their 5 senses to notice what is a round them. For example, if you’re in the playgro
und waiting for the bell to go – ask your child to name 5 things they can see, 4 things they can touch, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell and 1 thing they can taste.
Imagine Anxiety as a Cartoon Character
An effective and fun way to help your child manage their anxiety is to get them to visualise their anxiety as a funny looking creature or cartoon character. Get them to describe it to you and even draw or paint it. Give it a name! This externalises the feeling and lets the child know it is not actually them. They can then talk to, even befriend their ‘anxiety’ but also tell it how it is getting in the way.
For example – if your child names his/her anxiety ‘Knuckles’, have your child speak to Knuckles and to tell Knuckles that they understand that Knuckles is going with them to school to try and keep them safe but that actually Knuckles is getting in the way of them enjoying school. They can thank Knuckles for trying to help them but then tell Knuckles that it would be better if Knuckles went somewhere else or could shrink down to the size of a pea and stay inside their pocket until actually needed.
Make sure to teach and get your child to practice these techniques at home so that they will feel familiar with and more confident in using then when they need to at school.
Discuss a Plan of Action
Spend time discussing with your child how they can manage their anxiety if it becomes a problem at school. You can remind them of their coping techniques and what they may use and where e.g. Feet on Ground exercise when in class; 54321 when in the playground etc.
Encourage them to drink or sip water as this will also help reduce anxiety. Decide on who they can speak to at school if they are struggling. You can also inform the school and your child’s teacher in advance that your child is experiencing anxiety so that they will be supportive InShaAllah.
NB. When you drop your child off at school and once it’s time for them to go to class, do not hang around but make sure you leave promptly. Say goodbye to your child confidently and with a smile and tell your child you will see them when school ends. It will be far easier for your child to separate when they believe that you are ok (even f you’re not) and have confidence in them that they will be ok.
Back at Home
Set aside an allocated time after school to process the day with your child. It is important to set a boundary around the time to discuss these matters so that school does not become the centre of attention when your child is at home.
⇒ Validate their feelings but also focus on their strengths and how they coped and discuss any positives from the day.
⇒ If they still have anxieties then discuss what is causing the anxiety, whether it is something within their control; how they can manage their anxiety with their coping skills and so on.
Other things that can help:
♥ Plan a fun activity to do with your child e.g. cooking, playing a game, going to the park or playing a sport etc to help focus them on something positive.
♥ Practice a gratitude exercise e.g. have your child name 3 blessings or 3 things they are grateful for from the day.
♥ Ensure bedtime routines are established as the predictability of routine can help the child feel secure.
Signs to Look Out For
Not all children will let you know that they have anxiety about returning to school so it is important to look out for signs that your child may be struggling. Anxiety can manifest in various ways by the below are the most common:
⇒ Physical symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, headaches and stomach aches
⇒ Behavioural changes e.g. erratic sleep, change in appetite, irritability, withdrawn
⇒ Avoidance e.g. refusing to see friends, refusing to discuss or prepare for school
If you are concerned and/or your child is still struggling despite trying to prepare them for school, then please seek professional help. Many schools now have a counselling service, or you can speak to your GP of a mental health professional.