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Managing the anxiety of the school return!

The Caterpillar Clinic

Dr. Claire Conlon

Senior Clinical Psychologist

Managing the return to school


What causes anxiety before and around the school gates?

The return to school, starting school for the first time, moving from one school to another, all of these things can lead to anxiety in ourselves and our child in the run up to the big day and at the school gates. Spending some time thinking about the root of this anxiety; where it is coming from, how long has it been there and what exactly is causing us or our child to feel so anxious, can prevent a lot of anxiety on the big day!

For many children, separation from caregivers when they begin or return to school can lead to anxiety and cause distress for both child and adult at the school gates, this is not unusual. However, knowing how to manage this anxiety is so important so that we can teach our child (and ourselves in the process) that there really is nothing to worry about and prevent sleepless night and anxiety related symptoms like sickness or butterflies in our children before the big day.

So in trying to understand what is driving this anxiety, less us think for a moment about a few things. Let us first think about anxiety.

· What is anxiety?

Most people do not recognize their anxiety for what it is, which is a completely normal part of being human. We need to feel a sense of fear or anxiety in order to keep us safe. The fear system is what prevents us from walking out in front of a car or putting our hand on a hot object. It is the body’s way of alerting us to danger in our environment and preventing us from coming to harm by getting the body ready to run, fight or freeze to prevent danger.

The problem is when this ‘alarm system’ becomes faulty and instead of it alerting us to real danger it triggers the body to think there is some danger when there is not. Think of a toaster that burns toast and the fire engine arrives every time!

When this occurs, we feel the physical symptoms of anxiety in our body, our body prepares for this fight, flight or freeze moment but there is nothing we need to run away from and nothing we need to fight. In this case the body has prepared to use this excess blood in our body but instead it gets stored, which can lead to pain/discomfort in our body over time. Not dealing with anxiety also means that we can end up with difficult thoughts or feelings around our ability to cope, which can impact greatly on our mood. There are many things we can do to prevent a faulty system that leads to anxiety and help us and/or our children feel more confident in the face of anxiety.

· Why are we feeling anxious?

Let us consider what the brain is telling us that is making us scared. Is it our child who is feeling scared and we are picking up on this, or are we scared for our child and our child is picking up on our anxiety? It is always very important to check in first about how we are feeling. Are we nervous about the move back to school? Why? Do we feel like the child cannot cope? Are we remembering a time we could not cope being away from our caregivers? What was our first day in school like?

Once we know how we are feeling we can make decisions on how best to manage our own feelings, otherwise we might be expressing these feelings with our children without our knowledge. It is likely that many adults feel a little scared or apprehensive about a child starting or returning to school, especially during a global pandemic! So you are likely not alone. Talking to other adults yourself about this can make sense of your feelings.

· Second thing parents can do is try and understand what might be happening for their child. Why are they feeling anxious?

You know your child best, so what strengths and difficulties do they have that help or hinder this transition. Are they naturally clingy? Are they social? How are they likely to get on with the school work? For children with additional needs such as learning disabilities, communication difficulties, sensory processing difficulties and ASD to name but a few, additional challenges are expected and so a difficult few weeks settling in might be expected as the dysregulation (feeling of the body being overwhelmed) by this change is expected to be greater for these children. Adapting to new routines for any child takes time and patience for the child and the parents. Thinking about your child’s needs and about their social, cognitive, sensory or communication needs and discussing these with their teacher/principal before school to ensure a plan is in place to meet their needs. Doing this can ease a parents and child’s anxiety immediately in many cases.

What are some ways to cope with these feelings of anxiety?

1. Before the first day, think of what might help you and your child to cope with this anxiety. For anxious parents, simply taking the time to consider what is causing this anxiety and talking it through with someone can be enough to ease it. Often talking through this anxiety is enough to make a parent aware of it and awareness is key to beginning to control the anxiety.

2. With the child, consider if there are any steps, meetings that need to take place with the school for additional needs they might have. If you are involved with a team, consult them for additional advice and support.

3. For children who are naturally more clingy or prone to worry, preparation is key. Think of ways to prepare the child, take baby steps in the week or two before the big day and consider preparing the child for leaving them at the school gates.

o Can you walk past their school with them, show them their classroom, talk to them about their teacher, uniform and class peers.

o For some children using a visual representation of how many sleeps there are until the first day can be helpful.

o Having a schedule for the day to let the child know exactly what is happening is often very helpful, a schedule might include the main things they need before we separate at school, such as; breakfast, clothes, brush teeth, bag, shoes, walk to school, meeting teacher and saying goodbye to mammy.

o Also, as a parent ensure you get up early so that you are prepared and not rushing around on the morning.

o Have something in this schedule that reminds them of an activity you will do together later. When I pick up you, we are going to show granny your uniform, or go to the shop and get a treat, or build some Lego together. This reminds the child that they will see you again later and helps them to focus on something to ease their anxiety. Some children love holding onto an object for the day that reminds them of their parents; so, a hair bobbin around the wrist or a little love heart drawn on their hand or a little ‘I love you’ note or picture in their pencil case. All of these helps to remind them again that they will be reunited with their parent/caregiver after the day.

o At the school gates, as hard as it can be, let them see you smiling and waving when they leave, always say good bye rather than slip off so the child is not caught unaware of your absence. It is best to keep goodbyes short and that the child sees that you are not worried about this separation which gives them confidence when they leave also.

o It might be very hard but try to hold those tears for when the child is out of sight. These moments are precious, and it is totally normal to feel overwhelmed, don’t fight it at all, just try and hold it in while your little one leaves. Lastly best of luck!

For more information on managing anxiety, check out the workshop and handouts on the website

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