Figures published last year by the children’s commissioner suggest that school absences are at an all-time high. It’s indicative of our kids facing multiple stressors over the last few years; we have all faced stressors, and our kids share them with us. With a new school term about to commence, it’s even more important that we help our children with transition issues, as these have recently become fraught due to a lack of certainty about the future. 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.
Thinking in these terms, we can work as families and take more time than we would usually to ease our kids and ourselves back to school. The Christmas season may well have been more challenging for many of us, so going back to school could be even more important.
When any of us go through transitions, the issue we face is that we may feel less able to cope. So, the key is to remind ourselves and our children that we have a lot of experience with this to fall back on. This return to school may feel more like going to school for the first time, and anxiety could be higher. It’s possible we will see more distress signals from our kids. Noel suggests this is a common reaction, and we need to validate and normalise it. Putting it into context and understanding it is crucial.
Get ahead of the problem by preparing your child in advance:
- Explain that it’s OK to feel a bit low about going back 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 You Feel by Changing the Way You Think, can be a great help.
- Treat your kids. Have a list of 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 making sure you have regular family meals.
- When talking to an anxious child, relax your muscles and lower the tone of your voice, whether you think there’s a problem or not. Your child will copy you.
- Normalise emotions. Explain that stress hormones mess up 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 moods, and it doesn’t have to be the great outdoors; your local park is just as good! In fact, 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 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 are:
- Feeling of nervousness or being on edge, e.g., 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; constant fidgeting.
- Becoming easily annoyed or irritable.
- Feelings of doom or as if something bad is going to happen.
How to help children deal with their anxieties?
In general, what works with helping kids deal with their anxieties, especially when this is predictable and therefore predictable anxiety, is to increase those behaviours that provide comfort and support prior to starting back and for the first few weeks after going back, therefore:
- More cuddles.
- More one-to-one time.
- There is lots of time to talk about things.
- Normalisation techniques (“Of course you are feeling worried, darling; we all feel that way when starting school, seeing friends after a long time, etc.”).
- Encouraging self-soothing through special toys.
- Try to organise contact with classmates before school begins.
- Try to arrange a visit to school before it begins to reacquaint your child (we call this transition work).
- Model emotional communication by sharing what your fears about starting school would be (as though you were the child).
A safe school environment
Schools provide for the emotional and psychological health of children by promoting neurological growth, allowing children to experience social challenge and diversity in a safe and supportive environment, developing learning in a social environment that emphasises positive relationships and trust, and mitigating against adversity through the safe adults in the school (teachers, etc.) who, in their empathetic and warm relationships, buffer the negative impact of adversity.
Social interaction is central to healthy development
The social learning aspects are crucial in child development, both in the sense that learning takes place socially and that children learn social connection skills. Through interaction with peers and adults in school, children grow emotionally, cognitively, and psychologically. Children that have faced difficulties in the home environment can find those deficits reduced by schools, especially when attachment relationships are looked at closely. Attachment is a strong, warm bond between a child and an adult that encourages safety and growth.
Mental health expert Noel McDermott is a psychotherapist and dramatherapist with over 30 years’ work within the health, social care, education, and criminal justice fields. His company, Mental Health Works, provides unique mental health services for the public and other organisations. Mental Health Works offers in-situ health care and will source, identify, and coordinate personalised teams to meet your needs.