5 ways to help your child deal with back to school anxiety
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Suffolk psychologist Dr Sarah Clark shares her tips for the transition back into the classroom.
As millions of pupils across the UK head back to school this month, it’s unsurprising that children may be worried at the thought of going back, after having been taught at home since March due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
However, there are a number of ways that parents can not only alleviate any worries their children may be having, but also their own, as the nation comes to terms with schoolchildren returning to the classroom.
Chartered clinical psychologist and experienced cognitive behavioural therapist Dr Sarah Clark runs Abbeygate Psychology in Bury St Edmunds, and specialises in working with young children, parents and families. She has experience of working with a wide range of difficulties, including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), anxiety, trauma and low self-esteem.
While Dr Sarah hasn’t seen as many referrals as she had expected to during lockdown, she is however anticipating an influx of new cases over the coming months as schools reopen. “The majority of referrals for anxiety work have come from the parents of young people who had anxiety difficulties that predated the Covid-19 pandemic, but who have been struggling to get a service, or have been waiting until restrictions eased before trying to access support,” she said.
“However, as a mental health professional, I remain concerned that there will be a large increase in young people suffering from OCD and health anxiety at some point in the future - I think this is inevitable.”
Interestingly though, Dr Sarah also notes how the extended break away from the classroom has in fact served some children well, and has actually lessened their anxiety in many instances. “In some cases, children who might typically experience social anxiety, achievement-based anxiety, perfectionism or low self-esteem, seem to have reported less anxiety while away from school.”
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Whether you’re worried your child may have suffered from anxiety previously, or could be at risk of it over the coming weeks, there are a number of tell-tale signs that parents should look out for.
The NHS lists a number of symptoms for anxiety in children on its website - these include the inability to concentrate, suffering from poor sleep or nightmares, not eating properly, feeling tense and fidgety, having negative thoughts, frequent crying, feeling angry or irritable, using the toilet often and complaining of tummy aches/feeling unwell.
With that in mind, Dr Sarah explains what it is that causes anxiety, and how parents can use that information to support their children during this transitional period.
“Firstly, is important for parents to validate young people’s concerns. The transition back to school, after such a long break, is going to be challenging for many young people and it will be important for them to realise that they are not alone in feeling anxious or worried.
“Anxiety is a normal human emotion, and we all have it for a good reason. When we perceive ourselves to be in a dangerous or threatening situation, a physiological response is triggered - often referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response. This response is activated in order for us to remove ourselves from danger and get to a place of safety quickly.
“When we are faced with new situations, or situations we haven’t faced for a while, it is likely that our anxiety response will be triggered. When we feel anxious, we often try to seek reassurance from those around us and we also try to avoid the situations we feel concerned about. While these strategies can give us a short-term relief from anxiety, they actually cause the anxiety to grow in the longer term. We can become dependent on reassurance and require more and more of it to help manage our anxiety. Similarly, if we avoid situations that are concerning us, we don’t get to learn that we can manage and cope in that situation, making us feel even more anxious when we are faced with a similar situation in the future.”
With emotions likely to be high as pupils return to school, Dr Sarah shares a number of techniques parents can use with their children to help ease any worries that they may express.
“For example, if young people have had limited contact with peers over the past few months, it might be helpful for them to have a socially distant meet-up with a friend prior to their return to school. Walking to school with a friend is also likely to be helpful, too. In addition, ask the young person’s school to provide a detailed plan of how the school day will run and what they can expect, so they are less likely to worry about unknowns.
She also advises that parents help their children try and re-establish good sleeping and eating routines, and engage in exercise where they can. “These areas have a huge impact on our emotions and our wellbeing, and are likely to have been disrupted over the past few months.”
While a parent’s number one concern is the health and wellbeing of their child, it’s just as imperative for parents to remember that they need to look after themselves as well - and any anxieties they may be feeling in regards to their children are just as normal.
“It is okay to acknowledge that you feel anxious with your child or teenager - this may in fact help them to open up about how they are feeling and their own anxieties. It is likely that anxiety is just one of the emotions you feel, as we often experience a mixture of emotions. Naming how we are feeling, rather than trying to keep our emotions hidden, is extremely helpful.
“However, try not to fall into the traps of reassurance seeking or avoidance behaviours. Model being brave and facing fears wherever possible, and try to make time to engage in activities that help reduce anxiety. For example, engaging in physical activity, mindfulness strategies, or activities that simply provide you with a sense of escape and pleasure will be important. And finally, be kind to yourself - you can’t support your child if your own personal resources are depleted.”
For more information on Dr Sarah Clarke and anxiety in children, visit abbeygatepsychology.co.uk