With new regulations and requirements announced days before the school start, many expect that this year will bring more of a semblance of a ‘normal school year’. However, like every year, back to school anxiety is ever-present, whatever the circumstances.
Over the past two years, children of all ages have had to process living with restrictions, with many experiencing loss and grief. During any phase of change and transition, and with the impact of the past year, it is important to know what you, as a parent, can do to help your child to flourish in school.
For primary school-aged children, it is common for them to be nervous about leaving their parents. However, this year, there is an additional factor of COVID-19 protocols that might add to their anxiety. For those who have started their schooling during the pandemic, it may be new to them to go to school and interact with their peers in person. There are, of course, the added restrictions of social distancing between classmates, the need to wear a mask, and teachers no longer being able to physically comfort children in distress, all of which are not easy for a young child to understand.
For older children, middle school and high schoolers, the social element of school is generally the most important part. With a lot of the before or after school interactions limited, many children feel apprehensive about how they will engage with each other socially during the school day. By losing out on the social experiences that take place in hallways, or in crowded lunch cafeterias, these children (and their parents) feel a sense of grief for the lost moments of what is an important time in their social and emotional development. Going back to school will require this age group to acknowledge their difficulties and adapt to what they have become accustomed to new school norm.
As parents 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.