It’s interesting how, for both children and parents, the summer holidays and the inevitable return to school can be such varied experiences.
What’s your experience?
- the whole family loves the freedom of the summer?
- the siblings are definitely ready for time apart?
- summer has been a stressful mixture of holiday clubs and juggling childcare?
It could be a mixture of the above or, perhaps, something else.
No matter the experience, September and the new school year still brings with it change. Change is always scary. Our brain is wired so that we are wary of change, it’s unpredictable and needs us to be on high alert. The change your children encounter may still be small this September, they may be in the same school with the same children, or they may be transitioning into secondary school or new classes with new classmates. Children (and parents) cope differently with change and even the children who are excited about returning will likely have some nervous butterflies as they get ready for the first day back.
The summer has given them (and us as parents) some variety to our routine and now we have to slot back into the termly expectations (at least for the next six weeks). There is a schedule for all of us. And for many, this September it also means longer days as the government are working to help children catch up on lost school hours during the pandemic.
Checking in is really important!
It is likely that you already have some insight into how your child feels about returning to school but it can be good to check in as this can help validate your child’s feelings by giving them an opportunity to share their current emotions. Let them know that you can listen to how they are feeling without trying to offer solutions.
For some children the anxiety will have been bubbling under the surface throughout the summer, with each week that passes bringing them closer to returning to school. While for others, perhaps they usually feel quite confident, but this year they don’t have their best friend in their class. Perhaps their teacher is a new teacher and so they are completely unknown to them.
For some children, the back-to-school blues may not involve anxiety about returning but may be the disappointment that their fun summer (all the things they were looking forward to) are now over and Christmas seems a long way away.
Whether your child is anxious, excited or nervous it can be helpful to understand a little of the neuroscience as this can help manage anxiety and help embrace change and a challenge with confidence and optimism:
- The feelings of excitement and anxiety can feel very similar in the body. We can believe that we have excited butterflies or nervous butterflies. When we are anxious, our brain is on a state of high alert. We can find ourselves looking for the negative and focusing only on the negative experience.
- Every negative thought we have is turned into anxiety in the brain. This leads children to worry, often having ‘worst case scenario’ thoughts about what might happen in the future, or worrying about what has already happened.
- When we are anxious our intellectual mind, the part that makes a proper, reasoned and logical assessment of situations, shuts down.If we are in immediate danger, we want to take immediate action. If we are about to be eaten by a polar bear, we don’t want to be reasoning “has this bear already eaten and got a full tummy?” we need to run and hide! Now, sometimes our small worries (especially as they start to build up and accumulate in the brain) can begin to feel like polar bears and our brains begin to respond in a similar way – creating cortisol, adrenaline and putting us into an anxious state.
- When our brain’s fight or flight is activated, we start to become a bit obsessive about these things that are worrying us. Thinking about them over and over and becoming very tunnel-visioned on the worries often happens. This is helpful if there was a polar bear – you wouldn’t want to take your eyes off it until you knew it was gone – but completely unhelpful when your polar bears are little things that are not really a danger at all.
- We know that our brains don’t know the difference between reality and imagination. Although in reality our children have generally alwayshad someone to sit with at lunch and always found the toilet in time, their worry has meant that they have imagined this going wrong many times and they now believe this to be their reality.
So, what can you do to help your children?
Don’t get us wrong – talking about problems, working through them, finding solutions or a way to cope better with a challenge is something all children should feel they can do. But can you see that if we spend TOO much time focusing and talking about how worried they are, we can be adding to that imagined reality, making it worse and creating more anxiety about something that probably won’t even happen.
On the flip side – just as our brain can work against us by creating these imagined negative outcomes – we can also get it working for us in a more optimistic, confident and positive way.
We want to help the brain focus on the good things, to imagine the more positive reality and to build confidence and resilience.
As we run up to the return to school, we can begin to encourage positive thinking and positive action by:
- Encouraging them to talk about what they are looking forward to. This switches the focus of the brain to the positives, engaging the pre-frontal cortex which is responsible for feeling calm, rational decision-making and problem-solving. In the same way, we can help them to recall all the good things from summer ready to tell their friends and teachers
- Prepare for school early. Try not to leave this until the few days before school starts but start now to select favourite stationery, bags, or to even plan favourite packed lunches and snacks. Focus on the small positive things that they can imagine about their return to school.
- Book, or encourage them to arrange, meet ups with school friends they might not have seen over the summer. This can really help to relieve any anxiety they may have around friendships. It allows them to check-in with friends in a comfortable environment, taking some of the worries out of their ‘worry bucket.’
- If your child or teen is out of routine, beginning to move them towards their usual school routine (meals, bedtime, etc) can be beneficial. Lack of sleep can have a big effect on mood and attitude, as can starting the school day hungry because they missed breakfast. It can be a big shock to the system when they have to be up, dressed, fed and already at school before their usual wake up time throughout the summer.
- Make the most of the end of the holidays. Planning fun activities for the last few days before returning to school, or even a final big event, can help to keep the focus in the moment and help to avoid the over-thinking and worrying about the return to school that only serves to increase anxiety.
- If your child is particularly anxious about returning to school it can be helpful to have a practice return, perhaps visiting school and then doing something positive immediately after. Remember that our brain doesn’t know the difference between imagination and reality and so imagining the first day of school, in as much detail as possible and talking this through with your child can help to create a more positive expectation and reality for the return to school.
Depending on our experience, we may be feeling some anxiety about the return to school as well. If it has been difficult for your child to separate from you or if they have previously experienced anxiety around school, or perhaps have even been a school refuser, you may already be preparing yourself for the worst.
- Your children notice how you are behaving and your mood (and theirs) can be steered by your actions.
- As you encourage your children to think and talk more positively about their return to school, practice this yourself too. Ensure that they don’t hear you sharing your worries with friends or family.
- Be consistent in your approach, if you are focusing on the positives, they are more likely to follow your lead.
It can be helpful too, to remember the influence that social media has on our children today. Where we may have been excited about returning to school and hearing all the news from our friends’ summers, they will likely not have been isolated from dramas which may have taken place and this may add to their feelings of ill-ease or anxiety about friendships and relationships.
No matter how you and your children are feeling about the return to school, open up the topic for conversation now and give opportunities to check-in as they return to school. Remember that the dramas can feel like the end of the world when you are in school, that exams felt like they ruled our futures and that our parents couldn’t possibly understand. So, parents, take a deep breath– you’ve got this – here’s to a second year of full-time education and no home-schooling!
If returning to school is causing your child more than the blues and they are struggling with school anxiety or are a school refuser you can get further help and advice here:
Young Minds – School Anxiety – Further Support
You can also reach out to your nearest therapist at The Youth Fairy at: