Friday, January 12, 2018

Helping Anxious Children During the Holidays

I think the question was first asked on January 1st, around 4 p.m. in the afternoon. “Mum, how long till we have to go back to school?” I paused for a moment, my 7 year old is an enthusiastic student and she generally seems to enjoy school. However, when I saw the concern on her face and heard the tone of her voice, I could tell that she wasn’t asking because she couldn’t wait to go back to school. She was asking because she never wanted school holidays to end. I told her that she had 31 days until school returned on February 1st. She sighed. And then we got on with our number one school holiday past-time, hanging around in the lounge room together.

                                  Image result for anxious child

For my 7 year old, the return to school will be relatively easy. She is going into grade 3 with two of her best friends that she has had since she started school. She has met the teacher on several occasions (and knows that I have known this teacher for 18 years) so she is very relaxed going into his class. Finally, although the transition from grade two to three is a bit of a jump, I know that her grade two teacher prepared her well. Despite all of this, my daughter is still not totally sure she wants to return to school.

If my daughter is your average school child, then it is likely that most kids will experience a few ‘new school year jitters’. When I think through the classes I have taught in the past few years, perhaps 75% of the students will be feeling mildly nervous, but not stressed about going back to school. However, for a growing number of children, the thought of returning to school is causing them significant anxiety. This anxiety may manifest in being short-tempered with family members, feeling sick in the stomach, experiencing headaches, displaying a depressed mood, not sleeping well, demonstrating an increasing addiction to devices….you get the idea. As parents, we tell out anxious kids to stop worrying about it, or to not think about it – but when you are an anxious young person – it is far easier said than done.

When they watch television, there are ads for ‘Back to School’ savings at Officeworks. The Target catalogue in the letterbox is showing off discounted shiny black school shoes. Facebook feeds are full of articles about how to be organised before school goes back…….Then there are all those friendly grown ups who ask our kids what grade they are going to be in this year. And to add insult to injury, we drag our kids to the crowded shops to wait in line to buy school shoes and then we sit in Just Cuts, waiting for the back to school haircut.


No wonder our mildly worried kids end up in an anxious ball on the bean bag by Australia Day. Everywhere they look, they are being reminded that school is starting up in a few weeks. But what our anxious kids need is a total break from thinking about school for as long as possible.
So what can we do to help our anxious kids in January?

1) Plan some family activities with your child that they can look forward too.

                             - a trip to a suburban pool with great waterslides
                             - a camping trip for a night or two
                             - a movie marathon – complete with junk food
                             - a trip to the city
                             - a trip to the beach
                             - a visit to the Melbourne museum or Scienceworks

              * Notice that all these activities are low-cost, family friendly activities

2) Don’t talk about school! Let your child know that if they want to chat about anything they’re worried about, that you are really keen to listen to them. But don’t remind them of school if they aren’t thinking about it.

3) Quietly work out if your child needs any new items for school. If your child is the anxious-type, attempt to purchase the items discreetly rather than embarking on a full-scale expedition to purchase grey socks. If your child does need to try on school uniforms, shoes or have a hair cut, don’t build the entire day around that event. Take them to the shops for an ice cream and then ‘pop in’ to the shoe store in an apparent spontaneous act rather than giving your child three hours to stress about the experience. My son DETESTS the experience of going to a hairdresser. If you warn him that it is ‘hair-cut’ day, the day is doomed from the start. However, if we just ‘happen’ to walk past a barber who just happens to have a free moment to do a quick trim, the event is over in an instant. I should add that a trip to Bakers Delight or McDonalds immediately after the hair cut significantly aids his recovery process. But you get my point don’t you? We might think buying a school bag is no big deal – but to an anxious child, the thought of going out to the shops to purchase a school item is yet another reminder that school is approaching.

4) Let you child’s teacher know how your child is feeling. This is something that you can only do a day or two before the school year recommences. It is very possible that you won’t have the email address of your child’s new teacher, but an email via the admin me office or to last years teacher will find it’s way to the right person. Here is how I would write the email:

Dear Mr Smith, (fictious teacher name)
We hope you had a relaxing and refreshing Christmas and are ready for a productive year!
We just wanted to keep you in the loop with how Johnny (a fictious child) is feeling as he prepares to return to school. Johnny has had a lovely summer holiday with the family, however he appears to be feeling quite anxious about returning to school. We have been speaking positively about school when the topic comes up, but he has been complaining about stomach aches and headaches a fair bit the past few days, which I think is related to his anxiety. His anxiety seems to be linked to friendships and not being about to keep up with the increasing complexity of his schoolwork.

Would you mind just keeping an eye on Johnny as school returns? Would it be possible for you to just make sure he has a friend to go out to morning tea with? Would you mind just checking in with him every now and then to make sure he knows what he is meant to be doing?

Thank you so much for teaching our son this year, we know he has incredible potential, we just want to get his anxiety under control. Please let us know if there is anyway we can encourage Johnny at home.

Thanks so much

Bob and Betty Brown. (fictious parents)

Now a lot of you would think that this kind of email is incredibly bold. However, as a teacher, I really appreciated this kind of email. It gave me insight into how I could best support a child from the moment they walked through my classroom door. It also signals to the teacher that you as a parent want to communicate with them. Now that you have established contact, it will be much easier for the teacher to hit ‘reply’ in the coming days and let you know if there are any concerns that you should know about.

5) Seek help. My final piece of advice is to seek help if your child’s anxiety is spiralling out of control. If their anxiety or their related behaviour is making it almost impossible for them to relax and enjoy their holidays – go and see you GP. They can recommend a course of action that will assist your child in managing their anxiety. There are summer holiday activities, support groups, counsellors and even medication that can help your child face school with a little less fear.

Anxiety related to returning to school is very real and is impacting more and more children every year. Let’s try and make things as easy for our kids as possible.

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