Last year Wellington parent Jo expected some reluctance and a few nerves from her two children as they returned to school, but she was completely unprepared for the “frenzy of anxiety” that hit both in different ways.
The night before school started, her eight-year-old son was in bed “wracked with sobs”. He was anxious and upset but couldn’t explain why. The next morning he was fine, meeting his Year 4 teachers and going off with friends.
Meanwhile the general first-morning chaos, dozens of parents and kids unpacking exercise books and pencils hit her five-year-old daughter hard, says Jo. She’d gone from a small, nurturing, new entrants’ class to an open plan hub with 42 kids.
“From daycare to starting school, she hardly ever cried at drop-off. Now she was in tears and didn’t want me to leave. I found it really upsetting.”
Generally, for parents, the start of the school year comes as a relief. After six weeks, there’s finally some respite to the 24/7 childcare that school holidays require. It means an end to constant complaints, from being bored at home (from the kids) or having too much screen time and not enough sun block (from you).
But the start of Term 1 also signals a return to routine for everyone, from school drop offs and pick-ups, making lunches and policing homework.
There’s also a lot to get ready – from ordering school supplies to digging out school bags and labelling water bottles. In 2020, your back-to-school shopping list might also include a laptop or tablet, and some waste-free beeswax food wraps.
Plus, as one school supplies marketing campaign helpfully reminds parents, you should look out for “uniforms that shrink” and “lunch boxes that stink”.
In the US, ‘back to school’ is the second-biggest consumer spend after the summer holidays. Kiwi parents have it particularly tough financially because – on top of, perhaps, a family holiday and general haemorrhaging of money over the long break – it follows an inevitably expensive Christmas.
But there’s often an emotional cost, too. As the big day draws closer, your children may be feeling excited, or nervous, or both. How can parents help their kids put their back-to-school worries to rest?
Fear of the unknown
Returning to school after weeks of summer break is a big deal, says clinical psychologist Holly Coombes.
“The main underlying cause for concern for most children is the unknown: how will my new teacher perceive me? Do they yell when they’re annoyed? Will Sam still want to hang out at lunchtime?
A common sign of anxiety is increased difficulty getting to sleep. “With a new classroom, new teacher, and a new mix of children in their classes, there’s a lot to keep little minds busy with worrying,” says Coombes, who has three young children.
Stomach aches, nausea, and needing to go to the bathroom are other possible flags. A worried child might avoid talking about going back to school. Conversely, the subject might lead to emotional outbursts such as crying or anger, like Jo’s son.
These are also signs that your little one is feeling some scary feelings and might need some gentle support.
There are plenty of practical strategies that parents can use to support their children through their anxiety about returning to school.
Coombes suggests visiting school before the term starts.
“Playing at the school grounds helps re-familiarise children with the environment and links the experience of positive emotions, including pleasure and safety, with the physical school environment.
“Looking in the windows of their new classroom, checking out where they will hang their bags, noting where the closest toilets are, can all help too.
“These provide concrete information that can help reduce worries and any accompanying anxiety symptoms.”
Accept and normalise worries by using empathy. Labelling emotions, too, can reduce their power.
“A parent might say: ‘I can hear you’re feeling really apprehensive about what it will be like when school goes back. I can understand that! Remember when I started my new job last year? I was really worried too!’”
Many children feel worried about returning to school due to social anxiety, says The Parenting Place’s Christian Gallen.
“After all, school is a complex social environment with unwritten rules and hierarchies that can be difficult to navigate.”
One of the biggest protective factors against this is for your child to have at least one good friend. Even the shyest, most anxious kid, he says, can make friends when they start back at school by learning a few tips.
These include being friendly – “smiling at people, introducing yourself and being positive” – which kids can practise everywhere.
Many children worry that they won’t have anything to talk about. Help your kids prepare some fun questions they can ask their friends.
Lastly, it’s good to find common ground.
“All we need to make a new friend is something to connect over. Encourage your kid to get involved with as much as they can when they start back at school to give them tons of opportunities to find common ground with other students.”
Practicing basic anxiety management strategies can help calm the body and mind, says Coombes. She recommends two books, Hey Warrior and Aroha’s Way, for child-friendly, effective strategies.
Smiling Mind and Headspace are useful apps for introducing the concept of mindfulness to kids. This can be learnt and practised to help reduce getting caught up in worrisome thoughts.
It’s also useful to reframe children’s experience, says Coombes. Help them move into an ‘opportunity mindset’ with a focus on all the good things that could happen. In contrast, a ‘threat mindset’ dwells on all the things that could go wrong.
“After all, anxiety is a sign you are about to do something brave, something that is important to you. By being curious, and gently wondering what else might happen when they start back at school, we help them build a more balanced view that can help them move from anxiety to excitement.”
At pick-up that first day, Jo’s daughter came out of class, she says, happy and laughing, as if nothing had happened. “She’d reconnected with friends, made a new one, and was really excited about her new teachers and new class.”
But if your child really seems to be struggling to manage their anxiety, don’t be shy about flagging it with their teacher, says Coombes.
“Teachers are very familiar with this common experience and can often make small changes to put a child’s mind at ease, such as coming out to greet your child warmly on the first day back, or simply letting the child know they are available for extra support during the day if needed.”
Seek support from professionals if the anxiety is having a significant impact on your child’s usual daily functioning. This might include missing lots of school, being unable to focus on schoolwork or withdrawing from friendships or activities.
Talk to your family GP. They may refer you on to other agencies or recommend community-based services. You could also call Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services directly through your local hospital and discuss your concerns with them.
The Parenting Place offers family coaching, to provide parents with one-on-one support and giving them take-home strategies to bring about positive change.
What’s Up is a national helpline, providing phone and online counselling for teens and primary school children. The charity says it receives 300 to 400 more calls per week in school holidays, particularly in the lead-up to the return to school.