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Returning to School Anxiety

Updated: May 16, 2020

Recently we have all been riding a roller coaster of emotions. The world has changed so much and incredibly quickly. Anxiety levels in general have remained quite high as we all try and make sense of the world we are living in. Understandably, as parts of our world returns to normal these changes can trigger another rush of anxiety.

It is hard after living in your little safe bubble at home, to stretch out and return to school or other activities. It can be hard for parents too. There has been some reassurance in having your family together and having some control over where they go and who they come into contact with. Returning our children to school can be hard on all of us and that is okay. None of this is easy, we are all doing the best we can at the time. For a lot of us that means we now have to adjust to some of the restrictions that kept us safe being lifted and that is scary. For the first time in months children and parents are separating for the school day and whatever you and your child are feeling, that is okay, there is no normal.

While some kids are desperate to get back to school where they can see their friends, teachers and have some much needed space from siblings, others are terrified. One minute kids are told that it is not safe to be at school, they need to stand more than 1.5 meters apart, sports are closed, parks are closed and they need to stay home. Now schools are starting to open. They are being told that school is okay but with conditions. Play equipment is being cleaned at least 3 times a day, there is hand sanitizer EVERYWHERE and they aren't going to school every day. It can be hard to understand that what they were told was "unsafe" is now "safe" and if it is safe, then why do we need so many precautions?

So how do we handle the anxiety around returning to school?

1. Acknowledge it.

We can't manage what we don't recognise. Ask your child how they are feeling about returning to school. If they are young or find it difficult to express their emotions, then name it for them. You could say "it feels a bit strange to go back to school after so long doesn't it? It's okay to feel nervous to go back". Be careful not to jump on their worries with answers. Anxiety is rarely logical so saying that what worries them is "silly" or not really an issue is not helpful, it is real to them. Acknowledge that whatever their fear is would make them feel scared. Now this isn't agreeing with the fear, it is validating the emotion. You could say "yes that does sound scary" or "I understand why you feel worried". When a child ( or anyone really) feels heard then they will feel safe enough to find a solution with you.

2. Explain Anxiety

It doesn't really matter how old your child is, by explaining the basics of anxiety you are helping them to understand what their body is doing and realise that their feelings are normal.

You don't need to go into the whole brain science of anxiety but you might be surprised how much your child is able to understand. Explain that it is our brain's job to keep us safe from anything that might harm us. But sometimes our brain works too well and causes us to feel anxious when we are safe. I usually say something like, "back when there were cavemen, if a Saber Tooth Tiger came into your cave what would you have to do?" The answers usually involve a fight or flight response. Explain that when your heart beats fast, your breathing is quick, your muscles feel tight or wobbly, these are all signs that their body is getting ready to "fight" (often seen as a tantrum) or "flight" (resistance/defiance). But there are no Saber Tooth Tigers and sometimes we need to train our body and our brain to calm so that we can think clearer and feel better.

Draw out what they are feeling in their body so they can visually understand that these feeling in their body is normal.

A fantastic children's book to help explain anxiety is "Hey Warrior" by Karen Young. You can order this on her website

3. Release the Anxiety

Before we can do any problem-solving or any sort of logical thinking we need our kids to calm their body. Quite literally, when we are anxious, the logical part of the brain has been shut down. That's why we can be highly anxious about things that make absolutely no logical sense. There is no point telling your child that everything is safe they don't have to worry. They are worried, and while they are in a state of "fight" or "flight" they are not going to respond to your reasoning.

I know that I have been over this many times in previous posts, but breathing, breathing, breathing is key. There is so much research to support that slow controlled breathing will cause the body to calm and in doing this, the logical part of the brain will start to work again. There are so many ways to do this. I have spoken about finger breathing where you trace your hand with your finger. Breathe in slowly as you go up your finger, hold at the top and then slowly breathe out as you go down your finger. You could do "hot chocolate breathing" where you pretend to smell the "hot chocolate" as you breathe in and then slowly breathe out to cool it down. There are so many options and they can be fun, have a look at some of my previous posts if you want some more ideas. Find one that your child enjoys and practice it regularly so that is easy for them to do when they are anxious.

With all that built up "fight/flight" energy and adrenaline sometimes your child might need to do a burst of physical exercise. A few star jumps, kick a ball or jump on the trampoline. This will help to release the physical tension in their body.

Then when the body is calm there are ways to stop our mind from running away with thoughts. Anxiety is based in the future, it is the "what ifs". We can help stop this by grounding ourselves in the here and now. What are 5 things you can see, hear, smell, touch or taste. This simple mindfulness technique is very effective in helping to calm our minds into scenarios that haven't happened.

4. Make a Plan

Only after we have done all the previous steps can we begin to talk about problem-solving. Once the child feels heard, they understand what they are experiencing, they are able to calm, then they are able to logically cope with the worries they have. If we try to skip these previous steps we are likely to hit resistance and not bring any peace for our kids.

Talk about what is it that specifically worries them. If it is the germs and the threat of getting sick, help them recognise that the precautions that the schools are are making are keeping them safe. Would they feel better having their own hand sanitizer? What else could they do? Work together to come up with ideas.

If they are worried that their friends won't be there on the day/s they go, then talk to them about what else they could do. Role plays work so well with children. Have them practice asking someone else to play. Focus on what they would enjoy about being back at school.

Sometimes children are worried about their parents when they have to be apart. They might worry that something bad will happen to their parents when they aren't together. Remember that anxiety isn't logical. If your child is calm you can try and talk logically about these fears. Ask the child, "has anything bad like that ever happened before?" "What are the chances that this would really happen?". They might just need to feel close to you while you are apart. It can help for them to take something special of yours with them to school. A necklace, scarf or anything that is yours that they can take it with them as a reminder that you aren't far away and you will be together again soon.

In this crazy changing world we need to recognise that normal is not normal anymore and what was once safe could now trigger fear. But if we work through this together, what may have caused incredible anxiety could teach our kids resilience and skills that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

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