Chrissy Orson, a child psychotherapist at bMindful Psychology, shares fantastic advice for children concerned about returning to school next month.
The biggest thing is to talk to them about it and listen to what’s going on for them. If they’re expressing anxiety, listen and take it seriously. Don’t just say, “Oh, it’ll all be fine!” Be open and hear what they’ve got to say. You don’t have to fix it for them.
Get back to basics with routines, especially sleep. Early bedtimes and help, especially if they’ve been having late nights over the summer, and you could try increasing physical activity to tire them out. That doesn’t need to be fancy; it could be just dancing around the kitchen.
What causes a lot of anxiety among children and families is that they feel like they’ve forgotten how it all works, so creating a sense of routine is important.
Difference between nerves and a mental health condition
It depends from child to child. You need to look at what areas of life are being impacted and the length of time that impact lasts.
If they’re just a bit nervous but go back to school as normal, and it lasts just a day or two, that’s very different from separation anxiety (where a child might be clingy). A mental health condition might look like it’s very difficult to get into school, they may be avoiding activities that they usually like, and it’s going on for weeks or months – then it’s time to look at getting some external support.
Nerves vs excitement
It’s important to consider the physical symptoms we associate with anxiety or nerves. Flutters in the tummy, tight-chestedness, maybe even becoming a little bit shaky. They’re all the same physical symptoms as excitement, but often, what we do as parents is jump to the conclusion that it’s anxiety and we worry.
We forget that it’s normal to be excited and it’s normal to worry! Many young people won’t have seen their friends for six weeks, and things like social media or not being included in a group chat can cause them to be nervous, but we shouldn’t instantly assume that that is a mental health issue. Anxiety is a normal and really useful emotion.
We aim to foster a sense of belonging, particularly in secondary schools. Many children who are looked after mainly want to feel like any other child. They don’t want to be singled out or treated differently; they want to be able to do the same things. They want be able to do the normal stuff, go round to someone’s house for tea or sleepovers and things like that. Just don’t treat them any differently.
My top advice, particularly for children transitioning from primary to secondary school, is encouraging them to talk about their feelings.
Ask them what they’re worried about. The really helpful thing is to ask them, “If you were me, what would you want me to say?” and generally, they will say, ‘I want you to tell me everything’s going to be alright, or I want you to remind me that there are going to be friends and people I know at school’. They tend to come up with their own answers.
The difficulty is that we want to jump and fix it, but in reality, starting with “well at least…” isn’t going to fix it for them, but them making that connection might. More often than not, children have a good sense of what they need if you let them discuss it.
Another top tip is, if you are concerned that your child is particularly nervous, don’t be afraid to contact the school. Give them a call, chat with the receptionist and ask them to pass a message on to the teacher that so-and-so was worried about returning to school today, or even drop the teacher an email if you have their address.
Schools are often open to receiving that information so that they can keep an extra eye out.
Just remember, it’s normal to be a bit anxious, it’s normal to be excited, it’s normal to be nervous. If it’s lasting, say, more than the first half term, consider getting the child some support.
Chrissy Orson, a qualified Child Psychotherapist at bMindful Psychology, is a BACP registered psychotherapist. You can read more about Chrissy and the rest of the bMindful team here.