As many schools reopen after months of uncertainty, coupled with the need to understand new COVID-safe requirements for face-to-face learning, we know this can be a stressful time for parents.
But experts agree that heading back to school in any and every form can also be a source of worry and even anxiety for children.
“Back-to-school anxiety is a common experience for many kids, especially following extended periods away from the usual school routine,” says Dr Addie Wootten, clinical psychologist and CEO of the not-for-profit meditation program Smiling Mind. “This can come from a range of factors, but most commonly it stems from the worrying thoughts our brain has the tendency to generate in order to fill in the gaps when we’re managing uncertainty.”
As a result, back-to-school anxiety can even occur after a COVID lockdown. Dr Grant Blashki is a GP and Beyond Blue’s Lead Clinical Advisor and says this can come down to something as simple as not being in the habit of socialising regularly.
“Like any skill, socialising is better when it’s practised and I think all of us, children and adults alike, have felt a bit clunky and out of sync whenever we’ve started socialising again after being in lockdown,” he says. “And then there’s also a sense for some children that there’s this virus doing the rounds and that might trigger concerns about their own safety or their family’s safety or just a general uncertainty about things.”
Regardless of the specific circumstances, Blashki says it is important to acknowledge that a certain amount of worry, concern or stress around heading back to school is to be expected.
“And that isn’t necessarily cause for concern, remembering that an expected level of worry isn’t the same thing as an anxiety condition,” he says. How to tell the difference? “The truth is there isn’t a fixed line in the sand where one becomes the other, but there are some things to consider and look out for.”
So, is it worry or anxiety?
To decipher whether your child is experiencing anxiety in response to returning to school rather than a “normal” level of stress that’s likely to resolve itself after a period of adjustment, Blashki suggests asking yourself three questions.
1. How severe is it?
“If your child isn’t sleeping, isn’t eating and is just really agitated or flatly refusing to go to school, that can give parents a good sense that there’s something more than a bit of passing worry going on for their child.”
2. Is it affecting other areas of their life?
“So rather than being purely about school, consider whether it’s started to impact other things. Perhaps they don’t want to attend family functions, participate in things they usually enjoy or are even reluctant to leave their bedroom.”
3. How long-lasting is it?
“If it’s a week or two into a new school year or term and they still haven’t settled, then you might want to look into it a bit further, remembering that, with an expected amount of concern or worry, the anticipation is often worse than the reality and once they get back to school, they return home having had quite a good day.”
How you can support your kids
Bear this handful of tips in mind, regardless of whether your child is experiencing worry, stress or anxiety.
Help them feel prepared
It’s preparation that helps us deal with situations that feature a lot of unknowns. “For younger kids,” says Blashki, “preparing might mean catching up with friends before the school year or term starts, doing a drive-by or even visiting the school and perhaps letting them get dressed in their uniform a few days out. Talking the situation up with young ones – reinforcing that it’s going to be fun and creating a sense of excitement – can also be really useful.”
For young children, an introduction to Soapy Hero might be in order, for a fun brush-up on protecting themselves and their friends through as simple as hand hygiene.
For older children, helping them get back into a school-life routine, with appropriate and regular bed and wake-up times a week before school starts, and practising getting to school if that’s new to them, may help them feel better prepared. You can read our How to guide teenagers through COVID-19 article here for further tips.
And when it comes to COVID-19, it’s important to reassure your child of the steps and measures taken to ensure their safety and that of their fellow students and teachers. Whether it be regular RAT testing, vaccine mandates for teachers, mask wearing, conversations with your child about what to expect may help them ease back into school life.
For more helpful advice on how to support someone you care about, visit our Better Minds website here.
Foster a calm home
Wootten says this starts with looking after your own mental health. “Children can pick up on emotions around them, so take active care of your own wellbeing to reduce feelings of stress, anxiety and reactive responses within your own home,” she notes.
This is particularly important if your child is worried about COVID, says Blashki. “While it’s important to be honest about the situation in an age-appropriate way, curating the chat you have about COVID is key, so that your kids can keep it in perspective. Parents have a real opportunity to provide a sense of calm and hope around this.”
Encourage them to open up
Wootten says talking to your children about how they’re feeling helps them check in with themselves and understand their emotions. “It also provides an opportunity for you to normalise their experiences and reinforce that emotions are normal, as well as strategise some tools they can use to help them regulate their emotions and find calm in moments of stress or anxiety.”
Introduce mindfulness meditation
“When it comes to anxiety, mindfulness helps us learn to manage our emotions with awareness, openness and curiosity and can support children to cope with any worries or concerns they might have in returning to school,” says Wootten. Meditation is one way to practise mindfulness, and Wootten says a good way to explain it to your kids is by describing it as a workout for the mind. You can read more about the benefits of meditating for your child here.
“Often the best way to introduce your kids to a meditation practice is by establishing one for yourself.” The Smiling Mind app is not only free, it features easily accessible activities and meditations that are suitable for the whole family. “My advice would be to download the app and start practising!”
Smiling Mind’s family toolkit can also help you integrate mindfulness into your family routine. With activity sheets, tips from psychologists and information on the benefits of mindfulness, the toolkit supports wellbeing for the whole family.
Encourage a healthy lifestyle
The benefits of healthy eating and regular physical activity can’t be overstated. Not only can they help your child get a good night’s sleep, and cope better with stress and other emotions, it can prove help in the classroom as well, boosting their memory and learning abilities.
Here are some healthy snack tips for kids we prepared earlier. And for healthy food swap suggestions, check this article out.
And for more information on the mental health benefits of exercise for kids, read this.
Seek help if you need it
A number of support services are available to children, including Kids Helpline for children as young as five, and headspace, the National Youth Mental Health Foundation providing services to 12- to 25-year-olds. As a parent or carer, you can also reach out to the Parentline service in your state or territory or Beyond Blue’s support service. If life is in danger, call 000.
“And don’t wait until you or your kids are in a real rut,” says Blashki. “Getting some objective advice early on can be really helpful.”
Getting the right kind of support is equally important, so we’ve prepared some information to help you find the right mental health support for your family’s needs here, along with some advice on how your Medibank health cover may assist. You can also view our COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions here.