Going back to school can be a tough transition for the whole family - whatever age and stage!
OK, so I know at some level (probably) most parents are YAY at the thought of getting some semblance of your lives back once the kids are back in school.Remember that meme that goes around every year in various guises?
#relatable? So funny... BUT
it's not celebration for everyone.
Tips for anxious kiddos heading back to school
Identify the anxiety: For me the first thing to do it check - is this your child's anxiety or yours? This might seem like a odd question but we adults can often confuse our own anxiety with children's and make assumptions based on that! If it's yours then you can deal with that in your own time.
If not then know that not all children (or adults!) will tell you they're anxious - they may not know, they may not want to worry you, they may not want to 'make it worse' by naming it for themselves. They may not know that it's normal to feel some anxiety around change. But you might have feeling that something is up - trust that.
And so there are some red flags to look out for:
changes in eating or sleeping patterns.
changes in toileting - more poos, less poos, no poos...
pains in tummies, heads, shoulders, backs. Wherever you as a parent might feel stress, this too might be where your child feels it. But they may not make the connection. As adults we often don't ourselves!
fear responses to noise and sudden movements that are new.
reluctance to go out to socialise that is new
search history on social media connected to mental health, bullying, school or exam stress.
increase in self soothing behaviours like carrying soothers, older toys, or for older kids comfort eating, alcohol or smoking uptake or increase.
irritability or tantrums that are new
Name it. I know that not everyone will be onboard with this but it is my experience that naming a concern outright can prove more helpful than skirting around a potential issue. This doesn't mean telling them they are stressed. It could be "Sweetie, you seem stressed. I notice you are tired /having a lot of headaches/ feeling sick a lot/ not eating/ avoiding us/ recently? Sometimes these are normal signs of anxiety. I want you to know you can tell me if you're anxious OK? And we'll figure out what to do about it.
Presenting it this way you're showing them that you see them, that you don't want to make assumptions but that you know what stress can look like and that it's normal. That you're not afraid of it, you don't think they're strange and you believe there is a solution that you can help them find if they want your help.
Listen and empathise. It may not come that hour or even day but when they come, listen. Offer solutions only if asked. If you really can't listen at that time, it's important to let them know that you know they want to talk, and you will talk to them at 7pm that night or whatever works for them. IF they bat you off, insist on the reschedule. They might simply be hurt that you're not immediately available and try to hurt you back. It's not personal!!
Avoid the temptation to "in my day" it. This might land as a judgement or comparison or worse, a lack of faith in their ability to solve a problem. And remember that a lot of the issues your child might be anxious about didn't exist in your day! None of my friends were worried about their class-mates looking at porn when I was in first year... But if they want to hear about 'your day' and a time when you experience something similar - definitely go for it!!
Get them to bed. Now is the perfect time to reintroduce (or introduce for the first time) a tight sleep schedule. Kids need more sleep than we do. And they need distraction free wind down time. This means - you guessed it!! - take the phone from them! (Apologies to all teens reading this who many know me... but you know right??) Same goes for adults while I'm here. No-one is immune to blue light and melatonin reduction. Never mind information overload and social-media-related-self-esteem-my-life-sucks crashes. It's just how we're built - studies are published almost weekly to support this! Well, certainly monthly...I've often had kids tell me they wish their parents would take the phone off them so they can get sleep and blame their parents next morning if anyone is odd that their snap wasn't answered or their pic wasn't 'liked'.
Make 'week' plans. Whether you are together as a family or separated and sharing responsibilities between two houses, plans will help ease everyone's anxieties. So even if it's hard and creates bitterness around fair work division, planning will definitely help. I understand that of course this isn't always practical, in some cases where there is complete communication breakdown. Where that's the case, plan as much as you can yourself, enlist help where possible and let your child know that there's a plan, you've got this.Even if at some level you think you may not have. The chances are you are far more able than you realise!
Make an agreement - together - on a noticeboard - around daily homework time, housework time, family time - ideally eating together - and play time. This is just another way of helping your child to be boundaried and to value down time and rest time. If we only schedule work time, rest-time and family time can become somehow devalued. That goes for us grown-ups too! Kids need to see adults enjoy themselves, talk and relax as well as work. Eating together is a great way to have conversations and find out what your child's life is like. It's a golden opportunity to talk about stressy as well as fun things, and to show support in a casual easy setting.
If you have concerns that you feel are beyond the realm of 'normal' - like if your child is not eating at all, or is self-harming in some other way - then feel Ok about seeking professional help. We are fortunate in Ireland to have a lot of mental health counsellors, therapists, play therapists and psychologists. It can be overwhelming though to try to find a 'fit'. If you need assistance choosing the 'right' one this piece might help:
While I wrote it with late teens and adults in mind it's relevant to parents as well. And I know some parents will be dealing with ASD and other issues in this run up to school. This is a particularly difficult time for you and your families so again, please feel OK about seeking that extra piece of support if you need it.
Good luck everyone! And sure it's nearly the Christmas holidays any way... ;)