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Back-to-school blues? Here's how parents can help

school stress

by Dr Cher McGillivray, clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychology

Returning to school can be scary and anxiety-provoking for many children and recent media reports have highlighted an increase in parents experiencing ‘school refusal’ - the persistent reluctance of a child to attend school.

It can be distressing as a parent to see your child so anxious and upset, on top of worrying that they will miss out on vital learning, socialisation and connection with others.

The good news is that the simple act of listening to your child, validating their feelings and helping them feel safe and secure in their ability to cope with challenges can provide an oasis of wellbeing to help them be ready to return to school.

The transition back to class can mean a return to uncertainty: new environments, subjects, teachers, and friends. Uncertainty befriends anxiety - it’s a survival mechanism. Our brains will try to predict what’s going to happen and how we will cope with all the possible outcomes.

For some children, returning to school means a prolonged period of facing uncertainty and threat – whether that’s from potential bullying, their perceived inability to cope with the school environment or separation from their caregivers and home environments, and this leads to psychological distress.  

Research shows anxiety is the most common mental health problem faced by children, impacting up to one in three. A 2017 study of youths with anxiety disorders found two-thirds reported feeling anxious at school.  

There has also been an increase in the number of children leaving mainstream school in recent years, with a 26 per cent increase reported in Queensland. Remote learning helped many families realise the potential benefits for some children of learning at their own pace, in their preferred learning styles. Research suggests there is no disadvantage in terms of learning outcomes and children can thrive. But it’s not the right option for every family or child.

There are a number of simple steps parents and carers can take to help increase the sense of connection, safety and security in children who may be experiencing school-related anxiety and help them to better cope with the transition back to school.

Active listening

Actively listening to your child - acknowledging their feelings and helping them to feel safe and validated - allows them to feel more connected to their parents.

Helping your child to feel understood, and that all feelings are welcome and OK, means listening without judgement and connecting with them before jumping to solutions. This might mean responding minimally with encouragement to continue such as ‘yes, I see’ or even with silence, and paraphrasing what you have heard to check for accuracy of their feelings and facts. It can also help to name the underlying emotion you can sense they are feeling to help them effectively express it in words.  

Bad feelings are OK

When a child is feeling sad or angry or disappointed it’s entirely natural for a parent to want to take that emotional pain away.

But research tells us that having a chance to express negative emotions, lean into them and feel them can help increase a child’s emotional intelligence and ability to cope. Allowing them to sit with those negative feelings and to move through them, in the knowledge that you are there to support and guide them, helps them feel empowered to cope with challenges and uncertainty.

When a child is upset, it’s important to avoid shutting them down, telling them to be strong and not cry or be upset. Let them know that what they are feeling is valid, that you understand, and that they are safe.

Involve them in solutions

Ask your child whether they have ideas to help them cope. For example, if they are anxious on the drive to school, making a playlist with their favourite power songs could help calm them, or perhaps a box of favourite gadgets or toys to play with on the way. It might also involve making a plan to meet up with their friends at school or planning something fun after school.

Routine can be helpful

Help them to prepare and gain a sense of familiarity by establishing a routine. This might involve making a routine chart and rehearsing the school run. Ask your child to think of everything to prepare for the first day to help them feel in control. Take them shopping for school supplies and prepare their clothes for the first day.  

Have a plan for dealing with stress

The ability to simply take some time out if a child is feeling overwhelmed or anxious during class can be very helpful. It may be worth asking the school to supply a ‘hall pass’ that allows them to leave the classroom for a moment to relax and regulate their emotions, get a cool drink and connect with themselves before reconnecting with the class.  

Some children can also benefit from carrying a small token that helps them connect with their ‘happy place’. It might be a drawing or picture of something they love doing or seeing, or a small object in their pocket that reminds them they are safe and directs their mind towards something that brings them a sense of happiness or joy.

Tips for a stress-free start to the school year 

  • Get back into the school-day routine at least a week early – waking up, eating and going to bed at regular times.
  • Get your child involved in planning their lunches and snacks for the first week back.  
  • For anxious kids, plenty of detail can be calming. Talk through the steps of getting to their classroom: ‘We meet with our friends; place our bag on the rack; we find our seat’ etc.   
  • Stick to familiar routines as much as possible. Try to have a calm evening and allow more time to settle before bedtime if your child is feeling excited or nervous about school. 
  • Help your child pack their bag the night before. A visual checklist can help them remember what they need to take. Lay out their clothes so everything’s ready for the morning. 
  • Allow some extra time to get ready on day one so you’re not rushing.  
  • Help your young person set some realistic, achievable goals for the year. 
  • Talk through any issues or fears they might have, whether these are about friends, grades or teachers. Instead of focusing on hypothetical ‘what ifs’, try and steer them towards ‘what is’ - and what they can do to change the situation. 
  • Have a couple of practice runs at getting to school together, especially if your young person is going to be using public transport on their own. They’re not going to want you cramping their style when school starts, so make sure they’re feeling confident about doing the trip solo.

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