It’s here, isn’t it – for some of us the first day of term is today and for some, with INSET days in place, we have a little more time to savor our summer, take a deep breath, and embrace the routine of a new school year.
Routine – something that hasn’t been constant over the last two academic years!
We’ve had bubbles, isolation, cancellations of events such as sports day, orientation days and settling in days. As our children start their new chapter in their school lives, it is important to recognise that we are still not ‘back to normal’.
It is likely that your children have not have the usual introduction to their new classes or even to their new schools. Going back after the summer holidays can be a challenge for some of our children – there can be lots of anxiety and worry. Sometimes these can be little things – do they have the right shoes? Or they can be bigger things – do I know anyone in my class?
As parents it can be easy to underestimate these concerns and believe that a simple explanation of why this will be okay will be enough to reassure them.
Yes, of course, we KNOW that they will make new friends, we KNOW that everyone is in the same boat and that in reality it will only take a few days to figure out where the toilets and lunch hall are! And, we KNOW that teachers will be there to help them and make allowances as they settle in.
We know all this. But our children may not. We may have survived our first day of Year 7 but they are yet to overcome this hurdle.
In each blog we like to explain a little of the neuroscience that we share in our sessions with young people because understanding how the brain works is really helpful to the children and parents, especially when it comes to getting a handle on anxiety and being able to embrace change and a challenge with confidence and optimism.
What is anxiety?
Every negative thought we have is turned into anxiety in the brain. It’s worrying – often ‘worst case scenario’ about what might happen in the future or worrying about what has already happened. Anxiety sometimes has a purpose, it’s part of our primitive mind whose job it is to ensure our survival.
When we are anxious our intellectual mind, the part that makes a proper, reasoned and logical assessment of situations, is shut 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. Helpful if there was a polar bear – you wouldn’t want to take your eyes off it until you knew it was gone. 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 imagined and so, although in reality our children have generally always had someone to sit with at lunch and always found the toilet in time, their worry has meant that they have imagined this going so very 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.
TIPS FOR OVERCOMING SCHOOL ANXIETY
Ask more positive focused questions rather than always focusing on the worries:
- What are you looking forward to about going back to school?
- What was the best thing that happened at school last year on your first day?
- What are you most excited about going back to school?
Encourage your children to imagine and talk through their day going really well and dealing with any challenges in the best way possible:
- The more vividly they can imagine this and the more positive detail they can add, the more their minds will be able to rehearse and practice for the real thing. Remember the brain reacts in a similar way to imagination as it does to reality so they’ll now have a new blueprint of the day going really well.
Find past evidence to build your child’s self-belief and confidence:
- Ask them to a recall when they have overcome something similar in the past. Explore with them them what worked before and encourage them to list a number of positive actions they could take should they find themselves faced with the same or similar challenge.
Take their lead and ask them what small steps could be taken to help them feel more confident or calmer:
- Is there anything that could be done before going back that would help them feel more prepared or confident?
- How would they like to spend the last few days of the holiday (in a positive way) to ensure they are able to create some lovely serotonin (happy chemical) which will help to reduce anxiety and increase calmness?
- How would they like you to support them best on the morning of the first day – what do they need from you? It could be having their favourite breakfast, asking you to wake them up in a calm way (no shouting up the stairs) or even something as simple as asking you to smile lots and be in a good mood.
Check your own anxiety levels:
- Children will feed off the emotions of those around them and are always listening. If you have anxieties about their return try not to let them overhear you talking about them to friends or family – you may be popping things into their head’s that they hadn’t even thought of or unintentionally reinforcing that belief that they won’t be able to cope. And it may be conflicting to a child if, on the one hand you are reassuring them they’ll be fine and that you believe in them, then they overhear you telling Grandma how worried you are.
It can be difficult to remember that we once had these worries too, only our worries and anxieties weren’t amplified by social media or by the very real and bumpy experiences of a pandemic. Take a deep breath, parents – you’ve got this – remember how much we have already overcome – you too can look back on the positive ways you’ve managed the challenges of the last two years.