Children's Health / 1 September, 2023 / Ellie Thompson
Mental health expert Noel McDermott looks at first-day back nerves and shares expert tips for back to school anxiety.
It’s important to understand that transition anxieties occur throughout life and the transition from holiday/home to school is just one of them. But it’s better to see it in the big picture that your kid is experiencing transition issues rather than back-to-school issues. The reason is that it’s important to avoid creating an issue that probably does not exist, school is, hopefully, not a bad experience for your child, but if you reinforce that they feel anxious because they are going back to school, then you may create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
William James, an early psychology pioneer, described it in this sentence, which is a bit of a mind twister, we are afraid of the bear because we run, rather than we run because we are afraid, and this concept has been demonstrated through research to be valid. We can reinforce a negative thought to create its reality. Think of being afraid of spiders, which in the UK can’t hurt us, but we can train ourselves to react to them as though they can.
So don’t turn going back to school into the bear. If you frame it as a natural and normal responses to change, you reduce that risk or back-to-school anxiety and you also set up a useful learning situation. And the first thing to learn is what we call normalisation. It’s normal to feel anxiety, stress, and maybe a little depression with major life changes, and feeling these things going back to school should not signal a problem, but conversely that you are functioning healthily.
To understand this, think of, say, having a bereavement. We know mostly it’s going to feel pretty bad losing a loved one. What we don’t do is tell ourselves there is something wrong with us because we feel bad about it. We expect it as a normal part of the grieving process, and this helps us manage it. Unlike grieving though, we can and should ameliorate our stress responses to life changes.
There are three major life circumstances that can produce stress in us when they change:
All three are affected by a return to school, and viewing your child’s responses as stress-based is much more helpful because stress can be managed, but the return to school can’t be avoided (managed). This is another crucial lesson for kids to learn, to find ways to empower themselves in the face of the inevitable.
When we feel empowered and that we have choice, we manage stressors much better. When we only feel a victim and out of control, we feel much worse. Two people facing the same objective changes in life can subjectively experience very different things, and the key in this is about finding what one has power over. Usually, we always have power over our responses to a situation.
So, what can you do to help your kids manage back to school anxiety and stress and learn better lifelong coping mechanisms?
Allow time for changes to happen and for the processing of those changes. Think of jet lag. You know it takes time and that prepping and changing sleep habits before you go and allowing time to adjust when you come back makes sense. Use that as a metaphor here. The week before, at least, school starts, change the routines to school ones. Go to bed as though you are at school, get up as though you are. Follow the getting ready and dressing routines for school before kids can watch the TV or play on the computer etc. Do a few lessons. The first week back allows some leeway in behaviour to allow the return to school to bed in. So, allow time and routines for the transition.
Talk about what is going on, and explain the learning about transitions and normalise the experience.
Give your kids and you a break during transition stress: have extra treats, cuddles, allowances made for grumpiness, pleasant activities, and general self-care.
How do you know if there is a problem that needs help? We pretty much express distress in the same ways:
You will see these things in transitions like this, but if they persist (4-6 days) and especially if they persist after the period of transition is over, then you will need to investigate further. Also, if the reactions are very severe, then seek help.
You’ll need to ask your child, obviously, but also check with the professionals in your kid’s life, the GP, teachers etc. Is there actually an issue at school, or is there a medical issue affecting them? If the issue is psychological, then an assessment of their needs and a short course of CBT is usually all that is needed. But if it’s a sign of a more serious disorder, then the earlier you spot it and get help, the better the outcomes for treatment. The GP and school can and will signpost you to services.
Life changes are challenging for all of us, but we can help our kids with better tools to manage them throughout life, and the earlier you begin this, the better. Kids have a lot of change to manage as the pace of change in modern life is only quickening. Learning to be okay with change is a core life skill, as is learning to spot the signs of stress and have better coping strategies in place for this. Often just being able to label the experience for what it is can be enough to manage it effectively. Kids love psychological knowledge. They love learning about how their brains work, and so we can harness this wonder to help them with lifelong skills.
Article by Noel McDemott
Noel McDermott is a mental health expert with over 25 years of experience in health, social care, and education. He has created unique mental health services in the independent sector. Noel’s company offers at-home mental health care and will source, identify and co-ordinate personalised care teams for the individual. They have recently launched a range of online therapy resources to help clients access help without leaving home – www.noelmcdermott.net.