Any parents will know that September is a time of real transition and often anxiety, as children make their way back to a new term at school. A new year often means a new teacher, new routines, sometimes new peers and for some, a new school. The level of unknowns and uncertainty is high for some children to tolerate. If your child has a vulnerability to feeling worried or anxious, this could be a hurdle for them to manage. For some children, this tendency to worry is not a reflection of difficulties they encounter, but simply an anticipatory anxiety which many of us can empathise with. For others, coping with the school environment and the emotional, social and educational demands that come with it, is a significant ask. In comparison to their peers, children are often aware of what they struggle with. If not supported well with praise and opportunities for individual success and progression, a child’s sense of self and confidence can plummet quickly. Does your child struggle with any of the following? If so, they could be more vulnerable to anxiety and poor self-esteem.
- A lack of confidence, doubting their ability to give things a go
- Shyness or difficulty getting along with peers
- Vulnerability to sensory overload – struggling to tune out noise or stimulation around them
- Difficulty sustaining their attention and concentration
- Cognitive difficulties: difficulty with understanding verbal or non-verbal information, difficulty remembering things, processing information slowly.
- Difficulty organising themselves
As with adults, anxiety and a lack of confidence, can be managed and expressed in different ways. Some will express fear and distress at going into school. Some will resist efforts to get them to school, leading to tricky behaviour and frustrated responses from parents. Family conflict around the morning or bedtime routine can escalate quickly. Children may resort to avoidant behaviours to manage their anxiety; perhaps refusing to give things a go, opting for the ‘I don’t know’ response, or diverting away from the task at hand through distracting behaviours. Some children will present with somatic symptoms of anxiety or stress. Aside from the fact they are tolerating difficult and uncomfortable feelings of anxiety, they are also potentially creating perpetuating cycles of worry, difficulty, and avoidant behaviours which become increasingly difficult to break. For these children, it can be hugely beneficial for them to better understand the cycle of anxiety and to learn some skills for tackling this. If they have this vulnerability, they are liable to struggle in the longer term. Giving them the skills to recognise and challenge anxiety is going to be a vital life skill for them. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for anxiety, low mood or poor self-esteem has a good evidence base for children. Take a look at www.peterkinpsychology.com for more information or contact firstname.lastname@example.org to talk things through further.
In the meantime, what can you do to help give them the best start to a new term?
- Start talking about the new term in advance. Think with them about the exciting bits, the nerve-wracking parts and what they might be hoping for in this new term. Within this, think about those friends or teachers they know who may be a source of comfort or guidance.
- Help them to name some of the things which they know about the school environment or routine already.
- If a worry comes up, validate how tricky this is for them to feel. The temptation can be to convince them not to feel that way; that they have no reason to be anxious. While you will of course offer some level of reassurance, it is more helpful to validate how they are feeling, show you understand, and then help them think things through more collaboratively; what is it that they are worried about, what would be bad if this happened, what are the chances of this happening? Spotting flaws in their thinking and gently pointing these out can be helpful.
- Once you have offered some comfort, think through what they could do to manage if that were to arise. Who could they tell or let know, how, what might happen, what might help? It is important, depending on the age of your child, to do this collaboratively to support them to develop their problem-solving skills. Anxiety is as much about the perceived ability to cope, as it is about the perceived event itself.
- Trial runs of walking to a new school can be helpful. Most schools offer transition support for those children moving from primary to secondary school. Take advantage of this and keep conversation going around it over the summer holidays. Talk to teachers about particular concerns so that they are able to offer more individualised monitoring and support if at all possible.
- For young children, photos or pictures to remind them of things from the previous term can be helpful. Reminding them of the routine and what the day will look like will help.
- While it’s much easier said than done, trying to be organised on the first day of term will help. You need to be calm and available to support them with their emotional arousal on the day. The more organised you are, the more proactive you can be in supporting them.
- Plan something for them to look forward to at the end of the school day, or first week back; whether it’s watching a movie together or cooking their favourite food.
- Give them the message that while these things can be a bit scary, you know they can do it. It will get easier; just think how much more confident they will feel by the end of the week!
Despite these tips, some children do benefit from some added support. Therapeutic support works best when parents are actively involved in order to transfer learning and ideas into everyday life. It can be surprisingly easy to end up in vicious cycles with control battles and family conflict; anxiety can be a highly powerful and emotive entity within family life. To learn more to support your child, contact email@example.com or visit www.peterkinpsychology.com for more information.