Back to School Anxiety

School has been back for a couple of days now. Some children can become anxious around this time of year when they do return to school, particularly so in this post covid world. All children experience some level of anxiety. Some of the signs include agitation, restlessness, inattention or poor focus, physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches, withdrawal, or tantrums. Sometimes, your child might even refuse to engage in an activity they once enjoyed. Our role as parents and carers is to understand this anxiety and help children to overcome it.

Why does this happen? Signals in the child’s brain perceive a threat or danger (even if there is none). Your child may be worried about changing teacher, the increased homework, or starting a new school. The body is then flooded with a stress hormone (cortisol), which causes a child to react in a certain way. The key is to regulate this part of the brain through sensory engagement, calming supports and thinking strategies.

An important way to support your child if they are feeling anxious is to ensure they feel connected and safe. Research tells us that children need 12 physical touches/connections to feel connected to a parent in one day. So give plenty of hugs and cuddles, especially before and after transitions. I highly recommend 15 minutes of un-interrupted play time with your child per day. Let the child lead, and choose the game that they want to play with you.

Think of engaging all your children’s senses. Sensory and messy play is great to help regulate your child and could also be a great activity for you both. Tactile play with slime, play dough, or messy materials can be fun. Other sensory approaches may involve using lavender oils, which can have a calming effect, or citrus smells which can help uplift, if your child tends to disassociate or withdraw.

Encourage the use of your child’s imagination by getting them to draw or role play their worry. Help them challenge the “what if’s” (your child’s worry) always come to a positive conclusion and state how as a parent you will help the child overcome the worry.

When you play together, facilitate empowerment and confidence by creating little challenges that the child can overcome, “woah, you didn’t think that you could do that and you did it!” I knew you could do it”.

Top tips for supporting anxiety in children

Children express anxiety and stress in variety of ways, from behaviour changes to bed-wetting, tantrums to withdrawal. While their expression of anxiety can be very varied, your response to it needs to be consistent:

Encourage expression: When you’re child says ‘I’m scared’ or ‘I’m worried’ try not to respond with ‘no you’re not, you’re a brave girl’ etc. Let them explain their fear/anxiety and then talk it through together.

Encourage your child to face their fears: Let them know that you will be right there by their side. If it’s a fear of the dark, hold their hand as they enter a dark room. If its separation anxiety, give then something small of yours (a photo, keyring etc.) to keep with then until you’re back. They don’t always need you, they just need reassurance that you’re coming back.

Teach them that perfection is a myth: Whether it’s colouring outside the lines or not doing too well in a game or test, always try to reiterate that everybody has strengths and weaknesses. Knowing that it’s ok to not be the best at everything is a really important life lesson for children and it builds resilience for adulthood.

Show them how to take time out: An over-scheduled child can become an anxious child. Be a role model – take breaks from your work, leave your phone on silent for set periods of time and just hang out together. Down time helps the mind and body to relax but children have to be taught to value that rather than seeing it as ‘boring’.

This article was contributed by Claudia Maloccas, Play Therapist with Hospital FRC, a member of Parenting Limerick.