How To Manage Back-to-School Anxiety

Reading Time: 4 minutesWhat a relief to be able to wave goodbye to our children at the beginning of the school year, grateful that schools in Hong Kong have worked hard to be able to operate under EDB restrictions with some semblance of normality. Relief and gratitude are one thing, but they don’t mean the usual ‘first day’ nerves have gone away, not to mention the pervasive undercurrent of uncertainty and fear that stalks us while still living in the midst of a pandemic. Last year was a huge challenge and mental health issues in children are on the rise. Not only are there children starting school for the first time, there has also been a lot of movement of students between schools in Hong Kong. Many of these new students will have nerves jangling over the coming weeks. However, a good deal of younger children have had little or no schooling prior to this term, so how can we help them manage this back-to-school anxiety?

Is it time to allow ourselves a little cautious optimism that things are going in the right direction? How must our children be feeling? The feedback from parents and teachers early in the term is that children are thrilled to be back and excited by the prospect of after school clubs, sports fixtures and some kind of regularity to their day. What about new students?

Since the beginning of term, parents may have attended orientations and coffee mornings which are a way for schools to help get parents on board to support the settling in process. Children thrive on certainty, rituals and regularity and in these meetings, schools impress upon parents the importance of routines, early bedtimes, healthy meals, allowing time for relaxation and play and less screen time (if you’re feeling guilty about screen time, forgive yourself, we’re all in the same boat)! 

child feeling anxious with her mum going back to school

How to Manage and Reduce Back-to-School Anxiety

Set a Routine

Since young children don’t have a great sense of time, the new routine of school can be tricky for them to adjust to and give them anxiety. To help young children manage this back-to-school anxiety, ensure their schedule is very clear, maybe draw it together, allow them to know who will meet them off the bus, what their afternoon snack will be and so on. This will go a long way towards helping to settle them and can give them a sense of certainty. Picture books can be a great way to get talking about the new routine, to empathise with others and do a ‘dry run’ of first time experiences. Similarly, drawing and playing together can give you a better idea of how your child is feeling and might initiate useful conversations. 

Parents are often surprised at the first parent-teacher meetings when the teacher praises a child’s good listening skills, lovely manners, and kindness to others. Parents might think, “Really? If only they were like this at home!” Our children spend all day long interacting with their peers, listening to teachers, following directions; it’s challenging and exhausting. It’s normal to come home and have a ‘meltdown’ in a safe space.

Watch Out For Physical Manifestations of Anxiety

At the beginning of the school year, parents may expect some regression in children such as trouble sleeping, dressing themselves and going to the toilet. These skills may be tested in the first few weeks. Most kids will get comfortable and bounce back to where they started. If these changes persist more than a few weeks, or if your child is very clingy or tearful, talk to the teacher to see how they are at school. Sometimes children’s worries may manifest themselves physically such as having tummy aches or headaches. Look out for the signs, listen, and do your best to tolerate them without jumping in to solve issues right away.  

boy feeling anxious in school

Manage Your Own Anxiety

What about children refusing to go to school? The first thing is to make sure we as parents manage our own level of anxiety. Children look to us to know the level of feeling they should be having. Our job is not to remove every problem from our children’s lives so that it is completely anxiety free, but to help our children develop the skills to manage their own anxiety. When it’s time for school, parents have to ensure the boundary is clear: school is non-negotiable. Avoidance exacerbates anxiety. At the same time, saying, “you shouldn’t feel nervous,” or “there’s no need to feel afraid,” can belittle how they are feeling. If your child shares a feeling, try not to close it down but discuss it openly. Rather than using direct questions, try instead, “I remember when I was in P2 I felt …,” “I was wondering whether…,” “I noticed that…” Stay receptive, curious and open to what your child is saying. If school refusal becomes an issue, seek help from your child’s school or a counsellor.  

All periods of transition, at any age and whatever form they take, can render us fragile so it’s important that we look after ourselves and each other at these important times. These are also the times that offer us the most potential for growth. There’s no question that last academic year was a challenge; we can dare to dream that the experience of the past will develop this generation of children into resilient and compassionate people with a real understanding of the importance of human connection. 

Book Recommendations to Help With Separation Anxiety

Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney

The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn

The Invisible String by Patrice Karst

Flora Scott is a Counsellor at Kennedy School and can be seen by appointment at Central & Stanley Wellness Centre (www.stanleywellnesscentre.com).

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