How To Manage Back to School Anxiety During A COVID-19 Lockdown
The start of a new school year can bring about an emotional mix of excitement, anxiety, and overwhelm for our kids. Emotions start building the night before as you start preparing their uniform, packed lunch, and successfully wrestle them away from the TV or the computer for a bath. The butterflies flutter louder as you wake them up and pray that they will be able to go back to school without any emotional outbursts.
Then, the crying starts. They refuse to get dressed. They say they don’t feel well. They start throwing things. They kick and scream in the car on the way to school. They sob uncontrollably as they cling to your legs. They plead with you not to leave them.
These are all signs of school anxiety and stress. And as a parent, it’s extremely difficult to battle with them as they get more and more clingy which results in you getting more and more stressed and agitated.
But what do you do when ‘back to school’ transition days happen more than once a year?
You thought the worst was over when your child returned to school after the global COVID-19 lockdown, however, many schools around the world are being forced to close for 14 days at a time if a student tests positive for COVID-19 before re-opening.
This can be overwhelming, exhausting, and stressful for you as parents and for your children. In an attempt to support you in alleviating back to school anxiety for you and your kiddos, we put together some strategies that you can do to ensure your children feel safe, listened to, and supported during this weird time.
1. PREPARE THEM FOR CHANGE
Children need stability, routine, and consistency. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted this as much as possible! They’ve already had to adapt to many changes from ditching their normal daily routine to not being able to go to their grandparents house on a weekend. Now they have to adapt to a new way of learning and new rules that they never experienced before.
Being open and honest about these changes will support your child to mentally prepare for them. Firstly, make sure you are well informed about the new rules your school has put in place and go through these new changes one at a time with your child, listening to their worries and answering their questions along the way.
There may be some differences in the school day routine. They may have to interact with their school friends in a different way, bring in their own lunch and they may even be in a different classroom with a different teacher.
These are all changes that will require a period of adjustment, which may create mixed emotions in your child as they navigate their way through these changes. At first, they may feel really excited to see their friends again and then suddenly break down into tears, have a tantrum, or completely refuse to go to school. Some children may even regress and display behaviours that they had when they were younger such as wanting to sleep in your bed instead of their own.
If this is happening, one of the most important things you can do as a parent to support your child in dealing with these emotions that are being brought on by change is to simply let them feel sad and upset. By being patient with your child and validating these emotions, it can help your child process and make sense of these changes.
Try not to show anger towards this behaviour or tell them to ‘stop being a baby’ - this will only make the situation worse. We all get upset when we feel anxious and it’s better to deal with the source of the anxiety than to demand that they ‘stop’ feeling a certain way or show them that their anxiety is making you feel angry or upset.
2. ADDRESS THEIR FEARS
It’s completely normal if your child is experiencing a heightened sense of fear and uncertainty over returning and settling back into school. Especially if they have to do it more than once! They may be feeling fearful about:
- catching the virus
- being separated from you
- not knowing when school is going to close again
- upcoming tests, assessments, or exams
- school not being the same or as 'enjoyable' as before
- social aspects of school (ie. sports) not happening or being different
- the amount of work they may have missed or have to catch up on
- falling behind with their school work
As a parent, you cannot predict the future or control the situation, but what you can do is support your child through these fears. Providing your child with a safe space outside of school to talk openly about their school-related fears and receiving support from you to identify positive coping strategies will help them to manage them better.
There are many ways you can do this:
Create a ‘Calm the Chaos’ corner with 'worry-time'
Choose an area at home where your child feels safe - it can be on the sofa, on their bed, or even in a makeshift tent and set aside 10-15 minutes after school which will be their time to check in, and to think about and discuss worries.
Establishing a specific location and a designated time can reassure your child that they will receive uninterrupted time and attention from you to write, talk, and express whatever is on their mind.
The Pili Pala check-in board is a great tool to use when supporting your child to identify, regulate and problem-solve their anxious emotions.
If they start to worry throughout the day, encourage your child to write them down in a ‘worry’ notebook. This notebook can also be used during worry time and noting down positive coping strategies and methods that they can use during the day when feeling anxious.
Normalise and listen to worries
Worry is a reaction to not knowing how something will turn out. Even us adults worry! Be calm and let them know that it’s completely normal and safe to be feeling worried and fearful.
Rather than dismissing these fears (“There’s nothing to worry about! You’ll be fine!), listen to them and acknowledge their feelings will help them feel more secure. Once your child starts to open up and expressing their fears, as parents, you may feel like you instantly want to ‘fix’ them. However, your job is to validate their feelings (“I know that’s hard”) and demonstrate confidence that they can handle the situation by themselves (“What can you do to feel better when this happens?”).
Don’t ask questions that may make your child feel like they should be anxious over something (“Are you worried about having a new teacher?”) but check in with them in a more casual way (“Do you know what you’re going to be learning with your new teacher this year?”).
Model problem-solving behaviour
It can be easy to get caught up in your own emotions, which can be a positive experience for your child to see that even mummy and daddy feel emotions. However, this needs to be followed by problem-solving behaviour. If your child sees you lying in on the sofa for days and not dealing with your sadness, how can you expect your child to be equipped to regulate and problem-solve their own sadness? Your child will look to you to help them come up with positive problem-solving strategies.
You can do this by talking with your child about feeling anxious, and what you have decided to do to combat that such as washing hands, talking to someone, breathing exercises, etc. This will give them ideas on how they can deal with their own anxious feelings.
Once they have listed out some coping strategies with your help, encourage them to write or draw them. Positive coping strategies could include:
- taking regular breaks
- Doing physical activity
- Breathing exercises/mindfulness activities
- Talking to someone they trust
- Distraction activities
- Playing with friends
Focus on things that are within your child's control
In life, there are things we can control, and things we cannot control. It’s human nature to get caught up in worrying and focusing on the things that are out of our control. Spending too much time here only results in feelings of helplessness and uncertainty, especially during the current crisis. Encourage your child to look at what they can control by listing them out and practicing problem-solving. This will make your child feel empowered, in control, and less anxious.
Praise positive behaviour
When your child is able to calm down and come up with a solution to safely regulate themselves out of an uncomfortable emotion - praise them! Noticing, praising, and rewarding these small (and big) successes when children and young people face their fears will go a long way in encouraging and supporting them to continue with this behaviour, move away from the negative and unhelpful reactions and develop confidence in themselves.
3. SEEK SUPPORT FROM THE SCHOOL
Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask for help and support from your child’s school. They want to help in any possible way. Here are some of the strategies we use and recommend to ease transition stress and anxiety:
Arrange a handover
If your child is reluctant to separate at the school gate, it’s very helpful to have someone there ready to meet and engage with them when you arrive. If the teacher is too overwhelmed to pay special attention to your child, maybe the school can arrange for the nurse, school counsellor or even a friend in her class to assist in a handoff.
The key is to distract your child with an activity and not dwell on or talk about their anxiety or any other uncomfortable emotions. So instead of greeting your child with “Are you feeling better today?” (again, a completely normal question but…) ask them to say something like “Can you help me take these lego blocks to the classroom?”
Giving your child a role or responsibility is transparent - it’s not pretending that you’re not leaving, but helping your child get involved in some way. Kids, for the most part, love to please adults and want to help and be part of an activity and it can really help take their minds off anxiety.
Don’t bribe them, reward them
Many parents make the common mistake of bribing their children to go to school or to not cry. Instead, praise them and offer a reward when they overcome something that was difficult for them, whether it’s attending school for the full day or approaching their teacher when they need help. The school can assist you with this and provide their own incentives to encourage and support your child to seek help and problem-solve their way through their emotions.
Keep close communication with the school
There’s nothing worse than that gut-wrenching feeling of leaving your sobbing child crying out while you don’t look back and make a dash for the car. This can easily set your own anxiety off. What many parents don’t see if after 3-5 minutes, your child will calm down and anxiety will ease once they realise they are safe and cared for until you return.
Kindly ask the teacher or someone at the school to take a photo or check-in with your child so you can be assured that your child has come out of their stress and is calmly getting on with their school day.
If problems persist and you feel like you need extra support, consult the school and request support from the school counsellor or educational psychologist to ensure that there isn’t an underlying cause to the anxiety and for further specialised guidance.
We have a FREE back-to-school activity resource book full of guidance and activities you can do with your child to help them (and you!) through these transitions and all the uncomfortable emotions that come with it. To download your FREE pack, click here to get it sent straight to your inbox.
- Samantha Cleaver