As the first day of school edges closer, we get busy organising school uniforms, picking up book orders and sorting out art supplies. There are new shoes to buy and after-school activities to plan. It’s exhausting, and expensive, but for many families it’s also exciting.
Parents feel anticipation. We get our lives back (at least a bit) once the kids are back at school. It means relief!
Our children don’t always feel as positive as we do though. Many kids experience anxiety – sometimes profoundly – with fears about new classes and teachers, or maybe even new schools and friends.
Anxiety can be hard to recognise in our children. They don’t typically say, “Mum, I’m feeling genuine and deep fear about going to school next week.” For a start, they’re typically not that ‘verbal’, preferring to keep their fears to themselves. Secondly, they may not actually recognise what they’re feeling.
As parents, our job is to watch for signs of anxiety so we can coach and support our children.
What does anxiety ‘look’ like? Sometimes it can look like illness. ‘I don’t feel well’, or ‘My tummy hurts’, are common complaints. Unfortunately too many parents accuse their children of being hypochondriacs rather than understanding the source of their pain.
Other times it can show in the form of defiant or angry behaviour. Our child acts out, argues, and creates conflict – at home or at school. We think they’ve got an attitude problem or a behavioural problem, but they’re actually worried and don’t know how else to show it except via anti-social outbursts. And then we get them in trouble!
Whatever form anxiety takes, anxious thoughts are actually a sign of a brain that is doing its job. We are wired to keep ourselves safe. Anxious thoughts are the brain’s way of saying, ‘You might be in danger’. When our brain identifies a threat – real or otherwise – our fight or flight response is triggered. Our bodies are flooded with neurochemicals that build anxiety. It all comes from feeling unsafe. Whether the danger is real or not is entirely irrelevant.
When it comes to school anxiety, we may feel that our child is safe. But we don’t know what they know. They may be fearful of a teacher, a fellow student, or simply being away from us. It could be the school yard, the school bus, or the toilet block. Telling them, ‘You’ll be right. Don’t worry about it. Stop being so silly’, is not going to help them overcome their anxiety.
Instead, I recommend the following:
My favourite saying on this topic is “If you can name it you can tame it.” Talk to your child about what anxiety is, how it makes you feel and where it comes from. Research shows that putting feelings into words can disrupt the brain’s anxiety instincts and alleviate negative emotional responses.
But timing is everything. As emotions go up, intelligence goes down. Talking about things in the middle of an anxious moment won’t help. Wait for a time when your child is calm and open to conversation. Then speak to them in a way they can understand about why they feel anxious. Explain that their brain is simply trying to protect them. Tell them that it is normal to feel this way and that there are ways they can help themselves to feel better.
Brisbane psychologist, Karen Young, says kids should use brave thinking to replace negative thinking. We need to teach our kids that when anxious thoughts are occupying our brain, there’s no room for other happy thoughts – they’re crowded out.
But we can replace anxious thoughts with brave thoughts. ‘Brave thoughts (‘I can do this.’) lead to brave behaviour. Calm thoughts (‘Breathe in… breathe out.’) lead to calm behaviour’, Karen says. Encourage them to talk back to their anxious brain, with brave thinking.
Provide Practical Support
Sometimes our anxious kids may still need a little bit of practical support from mum and dad as well.
Think about your child’s individual worries and brainstorm (with their input) ways to tackle those worries. If your child is starting a new school, help them become familiar with the school before starting – take a tour, meet the teacher and see where the facilities are. Or, if your child is worried about seeing friends, organise a playdate for the week or two before so they have a chance to reignite friendships.
It also helps to get back into the routine of school at least a week in advance. Take some time to work out all the worries about uniforms, and how to pack their backpack and lunch boxes.
Shower Them With Love
The last and best thing you can do for your anxious child is to show them love. Love is associated with reduced depression and anxiety, and it’s an easy thing to do for our kids.
To combat first day anxiety you could put a small toy in their backpack that has a kiss on it, or give them a kiss for each hand to take with them. You could write funny notes on their lunch bag or pop a little picture of yourself in their backpack. It could be any little token that helps them to feel safe and brave and loved.
Finally, be understanding. Don’t dismiss or disapprove of the anxious feelings, even if they seem to be sticking around. Being brave takes time. Back to school anxiety is very real and can be paralysing. But it doesn’t have to be. Name it, explain it, teach brave thoughts, and always, always give love and you’ll find anxiety significantly decreases (for your kids and you)!