As the nights grow cold and the stores fill with crayons and duo-tangs, families everywhere begin to prepare their children for the return to school. It is normal for a change, like returning to school, to bring up feelings of anxiety. Whether it’s the stress of adapting to new family routines, taking the leap into a new grade level or anticipating upcoming learning challenges, change can be hard.
This September presents a bigger change than normal. Children have been away from school since mid-March, they have had less practice being around groups of people as they have been more socially isolated over the summer and there is an increase in the general level of anxiety due to Covid-19.
It is important to help children feel safe and supported as they head to school. Being in a state of anxiety has negative impacts on children’s health, their ability to learn and retain information. Talking about tough feelings and helping children feel ok with expressing their worries is a path towards feeling safer and more ready for school.
Respectfully explore the feelings.
If your child tells you that they are scared or uncomfortable about going to school, let them know that you hear them. One way to help your children feel heard is by asking one or two simple questions. This helps your child explore their feelings and gain insight on the specifics of their worry. They may not have all the information and can benefit from knowing how schools plan to limit the spread of Covid-19.
“Is there anything specific that you’re worrying about?”
“Is there anything about going to school you’re wondering about or feel you would like more information about?”
“What do you think would help you feel better about heading back to school?”
Frame discomfort as normal.
Aim to accept and validate feelings as normal, even the tough ones. Don’t jump in to fix or discount what your child is saying. One way to help your child prepare to head back to school even though they have worries is to tell them about a time you were feeling nervous about starting something new.
“You know when I started my new job I felt…..”
Show that life has ups and downs. Rose, Thorn and Bud.
Offering a balanced perspective helps us avoid the one sided thinking that can come from seeing life through the lens of fear and anxiety. Your family may want to create a routine of reflecting on the school day. By asking each family member to name something from their day that they enjoyed (rose), and something that they did not enjoy (thorn), you help your children realize that life is never black or white; every bad day has it’s moment of light and every good day has a little bump in the road. By practicing seeing the ups and downs in each day we build a habit of seeing life in a balanced way, neither all good nor all bad.
A third question to ask your family is what are you looking forward to in the next few days (bud). This question prepares your child for tomorrow by framing their expectations in a positive future orient outlook.
If your children have a hard time naming something good, bad or hopeful gently re-ask the question in a slightly different way. Even the darkest day will have some little slice of OK. Even looking forward to a favourite TV show or snack is still something to look forward to. Aim to allow each family member to share their rose, thorn and bud at their own pace and without corrections. By allowing each person to share their feelings without comment or correction you show that every person has a right to feel and express themselves in a genuine way.
Appropriate challenge is good for development.
As tough as it sometimes can be, helping our children engage with challenging situations and supporting them as they move through challenge creates positive growth. We can’t shy away from the difficulties of today, by hiding and avoiding hardship we deepen patterns of anxiety. That being said it is important to notice if your child is experiencing an overwhelming level of anxiety about returning to school. A child needs to still feel safe and supported even though they are engaging with challenging situations. If you find your child is shutting down emotionally or having behaviours that seem new and outside of what you feel is normal for them, reach out to school staff, your family doctor or a mental health professional for support.
Bill Wood is a Counseling Therapist with Inspired Living Medical. He offers family therapy as well as individual counselling for children and adults. Call (902) 407-6600 to book an appointment.