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Mental Health Expert on Beating the Back-to-School Blues

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Many children will feel anxious about returning to school after the summer holidays. Here, mental health expert Noel McDermott looks at how to spot signs of the back-to-school blues and ways to help prepare your child in advance for starting a new school year.

The great thing is that we know these mixed emotions are coming, so we can plan ahead and ensure we have all those things we know make us feel better when we’re low.

Get ahead of the problem by preparing your child in advance

  • Explain that it’s OK to feel low about returning to school; it’s a normal reaction.
  • Educate yourselves as a family. A lot of the distress children suffer could be alleviated by applying tools and techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). The book, Mind over Mood: Change How Your Feel by Changing the Way You Think, can be a great help.
  • Treat your kids – List those things your children especially like and treat them when you think they deserve a lift; this will also help them regulate their emotions. You also deserve treats – be kind to yourself.
  • If your child shows signs of the blues when school starts, try behavioural interventions first, like re-teaching good sleep hygiene and ensuring you have regular family meals.
  • When talking to an anxious child, relax your muscles and lower your voice, whether you think there’s a problem or not. Your child will copy you.
  • Normalise emotions. Explain that stress hormones affect how we think and feel during a transition. Then explain that we can deal with this by looking after ourselves extra well. This approach, known as “psychological education”, is a great way of turning stressful times into learning opportunities.
  • Get outside – Nature is brilliant at lifting mood, and it doesn’t have to be the great outdoors; your local park is just as good! Even noticing something simple outside, like the tree at your local bus stop, will elevate your mood! Take a walk in a park or do a mindful meditation together. Both biophilia (an innate affinity between humans and the natural world) and mindfulness have been shown to lower stress while improving health and well-being.

Mental health expert Noel McDermott comments: “To tell if the back-to-school blues have strayed into more worrying territory, look out for a combination of signs, or just one significant change, like not eating or sleeping, that persists for more than three to five days.

“If the above advice doesn’t work, talk to the school and your GP, or invite a mental health expert to come and work with the family. They’ll help you to develop a healthy family system that builds resilience. So, if your child does suffer a future bout of the back-to-school blues, it’ll be less severe and prolonged.”

The classic signs of anxiety in children

  • Feel nervousness or being on edge, for example, sitting on the edge of your seat, nail-biting.
  • Not being able to stop or control worrying, feeling like your head is spinning like a hamster on a wheel.
  • Worrying about too many different things at once.
  • Difficulties relaxing
  • Being restless and unable to sit still, constantly fidgeting. 
  • Becoming easily annoyed or irritable. 
  • Feelings of doom or as if something bad is going to happen.

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