Returning to school after the summer holidays has always been an anxious time for children, whatever their age but the pandemic has added to their worries. Feeling anxious is actually quite normal, especially when faced with tackling something completely new. It’s an inbuilt safety feature to give ourselves time to consider things before doing something dangerous.
Having anxiety is a different thing altogether. When a child starts to feel anxious all the time or obsesses about one particular thing which starts to get in the way of daily activities, something needs to be done.
RTT Method, the research arm of RTT therapy, has identified six ways children can combat anxiety as part of their resilience and wellbeing challenge – I Can’t To I Can – being launched this autumn.
If you notice any sudden change in behaviour in a child such as interrupted sleep, being particularly clingy, unexplained stomach aches and uncharacteristic outbursts of anger, these could be signs of anxiety.
Identify the cause of anxiety
Whilst some children will be really excited about going back to school, many others worry – be it a change of school and fitting in, an increase in workload, whether their friends will still like them after the long summer break or ongoing concerns about Covid.
It is important to encourage them to identify exactly what is bothering them so that they can know their enemy. Don’t ask them leading questions and don’t force the issue if they don’t feel ready to talk about it.
Once the cause has been established, talk about it and reassure them there is always a solution without amplifying the situation. ‘I understand you’re worried and that is fine and I am here to support you through this’ is the message you want to get across. Ask your child if you can work out a worry together by asking ‘ What can we do together to help you to feel calmer?’
Sharing an opportunity to work together will support your child to recognise they can be part of the solution and this empowers them to become more resilient.
Taking slow, deep breaths instantly tells a person’s nervous system that there’s no real danger and helps you relax.
• Begin by slowly blowing all the air out.
• Then, gently inhale through your nose to a slow count of 4.
• Hold at the top of the breath for a count of 4.
• Then gently exhale through your mouth for a count of 4.
• At the bottom of the breath, pause and hold for the count of 4.
Repeat this 10 times and see if your child notices how much calmer they feel.The most important thing is to breathe deeply enough that a child’s stomach distends when they breathe in. Like any new habits, deep breathing takes practice.
Our mind responds to the pictures we make in our head and the words we tell ourselves
Get your child to close their eyes and picture a time when they were having fun at school – this will encourage their mind to focus on the good things about school. Tell them to take notice of everything – who they were with, what they were doing, what they could hear, what smells were around, what were they holding or touching? The more they notice, the more they engage all their senses and the more the exercise is repeated, the more they will start thinking of school as a positive experience.
Our minds don’t care whether what we tell them is true or false. They believe what we tell them. As well as the above exercise, encourage your child to keep saying things like ‘school is fun’, ‘I really like school’. Even if they don’t believe it at first, saying it over and over again will convince their mind they really do like school.
Our minds also like feeling excited and respond really well if we link exciting words to a place or event. To make the word mind hack even more effective, get them to think about the most exciting words to use about school, so that they start to say ‘I love school’ or ‘I just can’t wait to be back at school’ .
As well as being bombarded by news about Covid-19, there are issues such as climate change and the situation in Afghanistan that can add to a child’s anxiety if they are exposed to too much media coverage either through broadcast media or online. Whilst it’s good for children to understand big world issues, we can all suffer from information overload which adds to our anxiety. Make sure a child has down time from electronics and spends time outside enjoying the fresh air.
Make a list with your child of all the things they need for school well in advance and that they have exactly what the school has asked for. Children will fret if they don’t think they have the correct uniform or right school bag for fear of being different. Ask your child what else they think you can do to get ready for the new school year which might help you recognise some things you hadn’t considered of importance to them. Get creative and make a poster or checklist with stickers for each part you have achieved.
Most importantly remember you might have anxiety too about your child going back to school, especially if it is their first year or they are moving up to secondary school. Some of these techniques might help you too but make sure you create ‘me time’ so that your anxiety is dealt with and not obvious to your child – it can be contagious.
In some cases, you may need to seek professional help for your child. Talk to the mental wellbeing lead at your child’s school or approach your local GP.
If you would like more information about RTT and its schools’ resources, please email email@example.com or call Sara Stewart on 07833 467774