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How to Unravel Your Child’s Back-to-School Stress and Anxiety

child back to school stress anxiety

Takeaway: Going back to school after months of lockdown can be a strange experience for your child. But if you spot her stress and anxiety issues early, you can teach her valuable coping strategies. Strategies like breaking large problems into manageable chunks, exploring and learning to manage worst-case scenarios, and redirecting attention to notice the positive.

Going back to school in a post-COVID-19 world can be a strange experience for your child.

Perhaps she’s got used to a more laidback daily routine at home? Perhaps going back to school means facing stresses she hasn’t had to deal with in a while? Then there’s the underlying fear of this ‘virus’ that’s out there. She’s used to assuming she’ll be safe when out of the house, but maybe she’s questioning that now? There’s a new normal that she’ll have to have to navigate, and that can be a scary thing.

So, it’s worth finding out what she’s going through.

Talk to her about what she’s feeling, if possible. Try and find out what it’s like being back at school after so long. The trick is to be attentive but not ask leading questions. Rather than asking, ‘Are you anxious about being back at school?’, consider asking, “How does it feel to be back at school?” This way, you’re not feeding any anxiety she may have.

Pay attention to the words she uses.

She may not think of describing herself as ‘stressed’ or ‘anxious’. Rather, she may speak about being ‘annoyed’, or ‘angry’ or ‘confused’. She might even describe a completely different emotion like loneliness (‘No-one likes me’) or sadness (‘Everything is boring’).

Try and get feedback from the other adults in her life.

It’s possible that she’s behaving fine at home but is acting out at school or with her friends. So, try and talk to her friends’ parents, her teachers, school administrators, and the other adults she interacts with. It’ll help you get a clearer idea of how she’s coping with this new season of challenges.

In particular, look out for these red flags.

She doesn’t need to tell you she’s stressed or anxious for you to pick up on the signs. You’ll usually notice some of the following.

  • Feeling unwell. She may start getting headaches, feeling tired, or having tummy problems. She might restart wetting her bed, if she’s young. Or she may just feel unwell and not want to go to school. It’s possible she really is But if the doctor clears her, then chances are she’s reacting to stress and anxiety.
  • Changes in her mood. Is she sad a lot, or crying frequently? Is she restless, irritable, or angry? Does she talk of feeling lonely? Is she complaining about school more than usual? Or is she suddenly scared of going to school, being alone, or (if she’s very young) the dark?
  • Changes in her focus and thinking. Is she struggling to keep up in class? Or having problems concentrating? Does she keep forgetting homework assignments or missing deadlines? Is she worrying more than usual? Or obsessing about things?
  • Changes in her behaviour. Is she withdrawing from you and her friends? Or not doing the things she usually enjoys? Is she sleeping more/less than usual or having nightmares? Has her appetite increased or decreased? Has she developed new habits like biting her nails? If she’s older, perhaps she’s using alcohol, tobacco, or drugs?

So, what can you do to help?

Here are three steps you can take.

1. Try and figure out what the problem is

Adjusting to a post-COVID-19 world is stressful, so you’d think that’s a major cause for anxiety. But it could be a host of other things, too. For example,

  • Is she having problems dealing with a particular teacher?
  • Is she having a tough time with her friends? Maybe she’s being bullied at school or via social media?
  • Is she overloaded? Is she trapped in a too-tightly packed schedule?
  • Are there any significant changes at home? Is she getting enough time with you?
  • Does she have a healthy, steady daily routine? If not, that’s the first thing to fix.
  • Are her learning needs not being met at school? For example, does she have a learning difference like dyslexia? Or is her learning style not being addressed properly?

2. Help her spot emotions when they arise

Anxiety or overwhelm is a part of life, so she needs to realise that it’s okay to feel anxious, stressed or scared. But the trick is for her to notice these feelings when they appear. Otherwise, they can take over, which, as we know is a highly unpleasant experience.

‘Mindfulness’ is a useful tool to help recognise and address anxiety.

It’s a pretty straightforward concept, really — just pay attention to the present moment, accepting it without judgment. And it’s a vital tool your child can use to disarm whatever strong emotions she is facing. Neuroscientists now argue that mindfulness promotes skills controlled by the prefrontal cortex — skills like the ability to focus attention. And the prefrontal cortex develops fastest in children. So, it’s likely that a simple practice like mindfulness can help your child develop her ability to control impulses, make sound decisions, and be patient.

The Mindful Jar: Explaining how mindfulness helps tackle strong emotions.

This is a fun way of explaining mindfulness, created by psychologist Karen Young. Fill a Mason jar with water and a spoonful of glitter or glitter glue. Shake it vigorously and let your child watch the glitter swirl. While she’s doing this, point out that her anxious or stressful thoughts are like that glitter — they’re hard to see clearly. “And that’s why we don’t make decisions when we’re upset,” you could say. By now the glitter would have started to settle, and you can point out that, “This is what happens to thoughts when we observe them and let them be. When we’re mindful.” You can then pick an emotion (say, anger) and talk through various real-life scenarios where you could practise mindfulness. The great thing about this demonstration is that it’s a mindful activity in itself — watching the swirling glitter settle will keep her ‘in the moment’ quite effectively. Note: It’s worth reading up a bit about mindfulness and what it’s NOT. I.e., it’s not about introspection, daydreaming, or examining thoughts.

3. Teach her coping strategies

Once she knows to look out for emotions, you can give her the tools to deal with them when they arise.

  1. Breaking problems up into smaller parts. Every big scary challenge can be broken up into more manageable chunks. For example, the big scary challenge of not doing well in class can be broken up into, (1) Things that need to be studied, (2) Starting a daily study habit, (3) Finding people who can help her with problem topics, and so on. She’ll feel better about having a plan of action to replace all the worrying she’s been doing.
  2. Examine the ‘what ifs’. Encourage her to think of a worst-case scenario and then talk her through what she could do. For example, say she’s anxious that you’ll forget to pick her up after school. You could help her see that she could tell a teacher, who’d then call you or wait with her till you arrived. Repeating this exercise with different ‘what ifs’ will show her how most of her fears aren’t as bad as she thinks.
  3. Refocussing attention. After doing the ‘what if’ exercise, help her focus on the more favourable but equally realistic outcomes. Use facts and reason to help her challenge worrying or scary thoughts. You can also redirect her attention to things she can be grateful for — like how she got to see her friends, or read a good book, or watch a good show. This gratitude practice will help her get some perspective.
  4. Limiting worrying to ‘worry time’. Anxious thoughts pop up often, but not all of them are urgent and important. Your child can learn this by having 15 minutes of ‘worry time’ every day when she writes down or draws what’s bothering her. She then puts them in a ‘worry box’ (an old tissue box that she can decorate) and you’ll help her address the worries at the end of the week.
  5. Getting enough sleep and exercise. Teach her how sleep and exercise help our brains work better. And encourage her to buy in to a daily routine that gives her plenty of time for rest and play.

Has your child been stressed or anxious for more than a few weeks? If so, consider consulting a child psychologist.

The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges, in London.

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