During any phase of change and transition, it is important to look out for signs and symptoms of anxiety in children, including somatic symptoms such as headaches, abdominal complaints, muscle tension, restlessness, and difficulty in sleeping, as well as agitation, aggression, lack of attentiveness, refusing to go to school or showing a difficult behaviour when they return from school. As a parent, addressing and helping your child with these emotions is important for them to be processed in a healthy way. As a clinical psychologist, and a parent myself, here are a few tips to consider when dealing with school anxieties:
1. Communicate clearly about school. Communicate clearly about school and answer their questions. The younger they are, the more literal and specific you will need to be in your directions and answering of questions. You might find yourself having to repeat the same answers again and again during the first few weeks of school.
2. Manage your own emotions. If you feel anxious, certainly your children will pick up on it and feel nervous too. You can manage your anxiety by having your own adult support network to talk through your concerns. It would be important to prepare a plan including the ‘other’ possible scenarios so you are not frazzled if they occur. For example, what will you do if vaccination for children is mandated? What is the family plan if a child gets Covid-19? What is the plan if a parent gets Covid-19? Make sure to include your support network in your plans. These plans will help put many of your concerns and anxieties at ease.
3. Create psychological safety. Psychological safety is a sense of safety the child will have to feel whatever feelings are coming up for them as they return. Communicate Family Plan A) B) C) and have it written down. Create a safe space to connect and redirect, for children to be able to ask questions and listen empathetically and non-judgmentally.
For a child to feel safe, it will be important to prioritise your relationship with your child and learn ways to validate their experience. Saying things like “Oh honey, don’t worry, everything will be ok” can be experienced as invalidating for the child unless they feel seen and heard. Ask them about their concerns and validate that it’s understandable that they would feel nervous about school, and remind them of the plans you have to keep them safe and healthy. It would also be important to establish a routine as soon as possible because routines give a sense of predictability, when everything feels like it’s changing and overwhelming.
4. Establish a mind-body connection. Psychological safety is not limited to the mind but also has a deeper connection to your child’s physical health. Watch their diet and eliminate sugar or caffeinated drinks. Make sure they move for a minimum of 30 minutes per day and have a good night’s sleep of 9 to 12 hours.
5. Learn to cope with anxiety. Create a toolbox for coping and a corner for calming within your home. There are also some breathing techniques such as the 4-7-8 breathing and the 5-finger starfish breathing meditation, where they breathe in and out as they trace their fingers with one hand. You can also do activities like visualisation by having them visualise their safe place, a place that is soothing, comforting and engaging all their senses as they visualise; drawing a shield on which they draw their favourite ways to self-soothe and placing that shield somewhere where they can see it every day; writing down all their negative thoughts and trashing them in the garbage; or externalising the anxiety by drawing it, giving it a name and a personality.
Managing school anxiety is not an easy task for parents or children. Transition and change can trigger feelings of anxiety and stress. Parents need to consider how to best manage their children’s anxiety by creating a psychological safety net and planning. Returning to a routine, having open conversations, and practicing mindfulness all help manage and cope with the anxieties of the season.
As a clinical psychologist for the past 13 years, Dr Saliha Afridi has spent 12 years working in the UAE and founded The Lighthouse Arabia in 2011, a community mental health and wellness clinic providing quality psychological and psychiatric care to children, adults, couples and families.