How to help anxious children settle in school, according to a child psychotherapist
Anxiety in children is on the rise and this hasn’t been helped by the pandemic.
The start of a new school term can be exciting, but many children struggle with anxious feelings as this new chapter begins.
Understanding anxious children can be difficult for parents, especially because it plagues you with worry too.
We reached out to child psychotherapist Helen Spiers who has shared her expert advice with parents.
There's no doubt this will help ease your child's nerves as they adjust to this new stage of their lives.
Remember that these things take time so go easy on yourself too.
What are the signs of anxiety?
Anxiety in children is on the increase and this hasn’t been helped by the pandemic. At our counseling service we’re seeing more social, health, and separation anxiety in particular, as a direct result of the various restrictions, lockdowns, and school closures.
Signs of anxiety can be fairly obvious, so if your child is having panic attacks or has physical symptoms such as sweating, shaking, feeling sick, or crying, then they may well be struggling with anxiety. Similarly, if they’re finding it hard to regulate their emotions, having angry outbursts, or being highly irritable this could also be an indication.
However, there can be more hidden signs such as if they’re becoming increasingly withdrawn, if they’re struggling to sleep or if they’re losing weight. This could all mean that they’re struggling with their mental health.
Sometimes anxiety can be quite misunderstood. For those who have never suffered, it can be easy to dismiss it with phrases such as ‘we all feel nervous sometimes’ or outdated ideas of ‘pulling your socks up’ and ‘getting on with it'. However, for those with generalised anxiety, it can be completely draining, as the body is operating in a heightened state of fear.
Imagine how your heart races if you hear a noise in the night or if a speeding car is coming towards you - for many people with anxiety they can be in this state almost constantly. The adrenalin required for that means they’re exhausted, and their ability to concentrate, make decisions, or engage in normal activities is really compromised.
Advice for supporting children with anxiety
It can be really distressing for parents if their child struggles with anxiety. They can feel really powerless, not knowing what to do to help. If your child is in a heightened state of anxiety, they don’t have the ability to think rationally and process what you’re saying, so that isn’t the time to explore the cause of it or try to give complicated strategies, instead just let them know you’re there for them and try to soothe them.
If you can catch them when they’re feeling calm and content, this is a better time to talk about their anxiety and see if you can understand what triggers it. It can also be helpful to use these times to practice anxiety-reducing strategies.
There are lots of grounding and mindfulness activities that can help, an easy one is 7/11 breathing. You breathe in through the nose for a count of seven and then out for eleven. This helps to regulate breathing by slowing it down and it also gets oxygen pumping around the body.
If you practice these techniques when your child is calm, then when they are feeling anxious you can offer the very simple instruction of ‘breathe in, one, two, three, four.... etc’ and they should remember what to do.
Advice for supporting children who are anxious in school
For children really struggling with anxiety, seeking the support of a professional is advisable. As parents, there are lots we can do to help with this. Humans crave structure and routine so one of the most helpful things we can do is make sure the start of the school day goes smoothly and to plan.
Having children lay out their uniforms and packing their bags the night before will help them to psychologically prepare, and will avoid the morning panic. Ensuring they go to bed at a reasonable time and have a good breakfast will also help them feel more prepared and ready to face the day.
Anxiety is often a fear of the unknown, so if your child is nervous about the re-opening of schools then there are a few things that could help them know what to expect. Finding a picture of their new teacher on the school website and talking about what you know about them can help, as can practicing the school run the day before.
A long walk or car drive is also the perfect time to engineer a conversation about how they’re feeling about being back in school so you can answer any questions they have. Try to help them to focus on the positives: ‘Who are you looking forward to seeing in the playground?’ or ‘What have you missed most about school?’ but don’t dismiss any negative comments they make.
It’s important to normalise and validate their anxieties; let them know that you’re here to listen, you understand why they’re nervous and that lots of other children will be feeling the same way.
Have something fun planned for after school so they have something to focus on if the nerves begin to feel overwhelming.
Hopefully, the back-to-school nerves should subside after the first week or two, but if they do continue to struggle, speak to a member of the school pastoral team. They’ll have lots of experience supporting anxious children and they’ll be able to offer them lots of additional support through the transition.
Helen Spiers is a child psychotherapist and head of counselling at Mable Therapy