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Managing Back to School Anxiety

Rugby-based Clinical Psychologist Dr Claire Leonard offers some tips for managing back to school anxiety in the midst of a very strange 2020
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Young Minds completed a survey with young people and found that 83% reported their mental health had deteriorated during lockdown, with 31% reporting their usual mental health support wasn’t available. Sadly 87% of young people felt lonely during lockdown, despite keeping some contact with their friends.
Young Minds, 2020

We are living through a very strange (and anxiety-provoking!) time.  A global pandemic doesn’t leave much room for ‘normal’ life and we are constantly being expected to adapt to a “new normal” but no-one quite knows what that normal looks like.  This is unsettling for all of us but for some it can induce significant anxiety. 

Getting back to 'normal'?

Our children have been off school for the best part of 6 months.  Returning to school or starting school for the first time is an anxious time for any child, let alone when they are going back after such a long period of being at home which they have been told is ‘safe, versus ‘out there’ which ‘isn’t safe’.   They might be asked to do things differently; to remain in a bubble, not have contact with children they might usually, or for some older children – wear face coverings in school.  School drop offs and pick ups might be different and there may be local lockdowns meaning extra periods of time off school and the back to school anxiety starts all over again. 

Five top tips to help

1. Preparation

Find out as much as you can to help ease the transition.  Contact the school and other parents to be able to explain in as much detail what will happen.  Make sure you have all the things they need and help them to organise them so they can find them easily.  Some parents find having a set of plastic drawers with one for every school day helpful so you can put in what they needs for those days.  This also promotes their independence for getting ready.

2. Talking about things openly

Talk about the topic of school openly and about how they might be feeling.  They are likely to be feeling a whole host of emotions about it and we can help by aiding them to acknowledge them all, including the anxiety.  Get them involved in planning what their morning routine might look like or what activities they would like to do when they get back from school.  Giving them some control over their day in this way will help them to feel more at ease.

3. Getting the basics in

This means eating well, sleeping well, drinking enough water and getting some exercise.  Sometimes we all need to review what we are doing with these as they can be the first bits to be impacted when we are struggling.  Can you make some tweaks to what you family is doing with some meal planning or a family walk after school and work?  Can you chat with your young person about meal planning or changing their bedtime routine – getting them involved in the planning can help get them on board.

4. Promoting other ways to reduce anxiety

This is where Google can be your friend! Anxiety reducing activities such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation and grounding techniques can be helpful and you can use Google to find child-friendly versions of these.  Practice them together.  Practicing this regularly both when feeling calm and feeling anxious is the key so they become familiar techniques to use. 

Picture Credit: Huffington Post

5. Hug/Cuddle Buttons

This is to help your child feel connected to you during the school day if they are struggling with some separation anxiety.  You both draw a heart or similar on your hands and hold them together in the morning to ‘charge them up’.  Explain to your child that during the day if they need a cuddle they can press their button (and if you need a cuddle, you can press yours) and you will feel both it.  Sometimes an X stitched inside the sleeve of their school jumper can also work if they worry about others seeing it.  It is important you review at the end of the day if you both used it as this allows them a chance to talk about how they are feeling with you. 

Anxiety on returning to school is normal and to be expected.  If the anxiety is more significant, leading to panic attacks, sleep problems or getting in the way of their daily life – it may be helpful to seek some professional support.  You can approach your GP to access this through the NHS or you can choose to use a private provider and pay for this yourself.