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Back to school anxiety – what to look for and how to help

01 September 2021

Returning to school after the holidays is an exciting time for many, but it can also generate a lot of anxiety for children and have an impact on their Mental Health and wellbeing. We caught up with charity, Nip in the Bud who produce films and fact sheets to help parents and carers learn more about children’s mental health and discussed back to school anxiety and where parents can get help. 

Given that many adults still feel the sense of “new beginnings” around September – even decades since going anywhere near a place of education – it’s easy to see what a huge impact the start of the school year has on our minds. Furthermore, the impending start of term can generate complex mixed emotions – excitement, nervousness, trepidation, dread – all rubbing along together. And then there’s COVID, making everything even more challenging.

Change is rarely easy, and most of us like to keep things pretty routine. A lot of anxiety is generated because of a fear of the unknown and children making false assumptions. Being aware of this and encouraging your child to share their feelings safely is the most effective way to monitor what – if anything – is troubling them. Keeping to a routine and making a time to ask them how they’re feeling (preferably at the same time every day to build a habit) can be really productive. It may also be useful to introduce school-based routines before they go back to school to minimise feelings of disruption and change.

If communication isn’t that easy, there are certain types of behaviour you can keep an eye out for. Because they don’t yet have the emotional insight or language to express their fears, younger children often display anxiety by avoidance. “I suffered from debilitating social phobia, which started in primary school,” says Stevie, who eventually ended up in psychiatric care as an adult, largely because the condition wasn’t acknowledged – let alone treated – at the time.

“I coped by pretending it wasn’t going to happen. I never told anyone how I felt. But if I knew I was going to have to stand up and talk or do anything where I thought people would be looking at me, I did everything I could to get out of that situation. Because it wasn’t dealt with then, it had serious consequences for the rest of my life. September still makes me feel a bit weird.”

So it’s not always easy to see what’s going on. Alis Rocca, Co-Head at an urban Primary School in Hertfordshire, confirms this. “It’s not just the children who are pulling their eyelashes out because they feel so anxious, it’s the quiet ones in the corner who are trying to hide from sight.” Some children become tearful, have trouble sleeping, go off their food, seem extra tired or extra fidgety – the key is noticing the change, even if it’s very subtle.

If your child isn’t interested in talking about the new term, it may be a warning sign. At the other end of the scale, asking repeated questions over and again about possible “what ifs” is a sign something may be up. Generalised responses like “you’ll be fine” won’t help a child with anticipatory anxiety. Sharing your experiences and coping mechanisms just may.

Ultimately, though, the particular challenges of 2021 are something we’re all still coming to terms with and we’re all a little at sea. Piling pressure on children to get back to normal ASAP isn’t helpful. “Rather than focussing on catching up academically, my school is running a ‘recovery’ programme where we concentrate on lost learning and helping children get back into the groove. We want to reignite that fire to learn,” says Alis. “We have to remember that both children and their parents may be dealing with bereavement, fear and anxiety – some of which they may not have been able to process. All teachers and school staff can be watching out for signs that children aren’t thriving. All behaviour is a way of communicating and the younger the child is, the harder they will find it to express their feelings.”

Alis also mentions the importance of communication between parents and teachers as they hand their children back over into their care. “If we don’t know that the family cat has died, we can’t be keeping an eye out to see how that child is coping,” she explains. “It just takes 5 minutes to check in with that child. There’s a window of opportunity where we can help their mental health if they’re struggling.”

In summary, there’s a lot you can do to minimise their pre-school stress and most of it is about observation and communication. And if you’re struggling to cope yourself, ask for help. You can only be strong for your child when you feel supported.

Visit Nip in the Bud to learn more about anxiety and children’s mental health, watch two of their films below or contact our FamilyLine for support.