Coping with Back to School Anxiety

back to school

When we are faced with something new or unfamiliar our threat or fight/flight response kicks in.  We have evolved to respond in this way, it’s a survival strategy, if we aren’t sure what awaits us, nature believes it is best to expect and prepare for the worst:

In the days when we might have found ourselves foraging for food, if a nearby bush rustled it was best to assume there was a predator lying in wait and run, if we were wrong all that was lost was some foraging time.  If our ancestors didn’t adopt this ‘worst case scenario’ strategy it could have led to a ‘game over scenario’.

Starting or going back to school triggers our threat response (for both us and our children) and leaves us feeling as anxious as if there is a man tiger waiting in the classroom.  So when thinking about how to help your child start or return to school, remember that there is nothing wrong with feeling anxious, it is a normal and very adaptive part going back to school.

However, the following strategies will help to ease this process:

1. Refocus attention:

Our worst fears lie in anticipation and as discussed above we retain the tendency of our foraging ancestors to expect the worse.  To counter this tendency encourage your child to refocus their attention on what is happening right now, keep thoughts of going back to school and imagined worst case scenarios at bay for as long as possible.  To achieve this make sure that you plan enjoyable activities in the lead up to their return, ones that refocus your child’s attention on what is happening right now and maybe act as warm up to their return to school for example a trip of their choice with a few of their school friends.  Make the last few days of the holiday so much fun that it is difficult for them to see beyond them.

2. Prepare:

Some preparation for the return to school is helpful; knowing how you are going to feel and why does make it feel more manageable.  So discuss with your child why people feel anxious, what it is like to be anxious and what they can do when they feel anxious.  For example:

When we have to do something new (or something we don’t want to do) it is like we have 1000 butterflies in our stomach.  If you stand really still and concentrate you might be able to feel them.  The butterflies are there because when we have to do something new we need extra energy for concentration in case there is something we have to learn or remember.  However, once we begin the new thing and we realise that it isn’t that different or difficult the butterflies begin to fly away and we start to feel normal again.

When you have butterflies in your stomach the best thing to do is to remember they are there to help you and that they will soon fly away.  Taking a few deep breathes and thinking about the nice things that you will do later makes the butterflies fly away more quickly.

3. Motivate:

We can all benefit from a bit of motivation to do the things that we would rather not do.  So scatter treats through the first few weeks back at school to help your child feel as if there is a tangible benefit to returning to school for example:

  • A special ‘back to school breakfast’ that they are allowed to shop for
  • A surprise to be opened when they get home if they are brave
  • A trip of their choice at the weekend

4. Be Available:

Knowing that a parent or carer is close by ‘just in case’ is one of the most comforting things for a child.  So make sure that you are and talk to your child about where you will be in case they need you.  For example:

  • Go in to work a few hours later and say that this is what you are going to do for them
  • Tell your child that you will sit in the school car park until 09.30, just in case they need you
  • Tell your child that you will call their teacher at break time to check that they are ok

Children rarely need to use this ‘option’, especially if you always approach challenges in this way but it is human nature to feel better about a situation if we know where the exit is.

5. Normalise:

Knowing that we are not the only ones feeling a particular way is incredibly reassuring so discuss with your child the fact that every single child, teacher and probably parent will have some butterflies in their stomach, make a game of it, ‘guess how many butterflies they have’.

6. Deal with your own anxiety:

Children are like little sponges and so will pick up on it if you are feeling anxious.  It is helpful for them to know that you will miss them and that you will think about them whilst they are at school but any more than this will overwhelm them, even if nothing is said directly.  So work through your own feelings about their return to school and the fact that this highlights that your babies are growing up well in advance of the event and away from your children.

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