Overcoming Back to School Anxiety

back to school anxiety

Overcoming School Anxiety – its not just for kids!

As those heady days of what was essentially a fantastic Summer of 2018 dwindle, many parents are having to deal with separation anxiety – and not just their child’s but their own anxiety too as their children start or are returning to school. The idea of having a quiet house and perhaps some free time that comes with sending their children back to school may not be something some parents relish. Seriously who really looks forward to the morning rush, the dreaded homework and generally the quicker pace of life that comes with September? But dreading the return to routine doesn’t mean that some parents dislike their children going to school or that the children don’t like school, it is simply that the return to school may lead to increased stress or for some parents (me included) may simply just miss having their children around the house. On the other-hand some parents may be counting down the days to the return of a more stable routine after a summer of constant change or the endless spontaneous bickering that erupts between siblings.

Spare a thought for those parents, watching their child leave for school for the first time or transitioning from primary into secondary school (or indeed University). This transition can cause great anxiety in some children as they try to adjust to new routines, teachers, premises, classmates, timetable, exams, homework, the pressure not just to achieve, but pressure in general which can even extend to socialising afterschool. There may already be tell-tale signs where you have had glimpses of your child becoming more silent or withdrawn – or maybe not so silent with meltdowns and angry outbursts – at the mere mention of school.  Some parents may have noticed their soon to be Junior Infant regress to sucking their thumb or even to baby talk. Some children may not feel like ‘you’re a big girl/boy now, isn’t it great to be starting big school, are you excited? ‘Are you dying to meet your new teacher and make new friends’? that well-meaning people say. For this child, making those statements may induce a sense of fear, not just about doing those very things but also about separating from their parents. But alas, they may not be able to articulate this.  Just remember that age is no indicator that your child will feel less anxious.

Even teenagers can feel extremely anxious about returning to school. The fear of new teachers, the fear of having to ‘fit in’ again having had time away from classmates, the thoughts of no longer having those long lie ins that they may have become accustomed to and knowing that without them they will be exhausted. However, back to school anxiety is both understandable and normal.

Anxiety likes to feed on ‘fear of the unknown’. Taking time to talk with your child, find out what is causing them to feel anxious by simply asking them how they feel about returning/starting school? and try to take away as much of the unknown as possible.

The key to avoiding ‘separation anxiety contagion’ is to prepare your child both psychologically and physically thus helping them to have the best possible start to the school year. It is really important to organise and establish a routine as early as possible as this will help to alleviate some of the stress.  Give your child some responsibilities, no matter how young, by getting them involved in decision making around school supplies or school lunches for example. Establishing a routine of making lunches the night before may help to ease their anxieties and cause less stress all round in the mornings. Routines are really important as they help children to feel safe. Think about establishing a homework area as this too can also help children to feel more in control.

For school starters, tell your child what they should expect will happen throughout their day.  By now both you and your child will have met with their teacher and visited their classroom.  Remind your child what their teacher said about hanging up their jacket, where the toilets are and what time lunch will be. If the school is close enough, over the coming days, walk or drive to school a couple of times as this will help them to become familiar with the route to and from school.  Knowing the answers to these simple questions can go a long way to relieving some of their anxiety.

The way you talk to your child about school will shape your child’s perception of what school is about, so think carefully. It is important not to reinforce anxiety by telling your child that you will miss them when they go to school, (even though this may be so true for some – me included!) as they may worry what you will do without them (if they only knew!).  Focus on the fun parts by talking to your child about all the new friends they will make and let them know that they can have play-dates after school.  But also look for signs that socialising is scary for some children. Tell them about the activities you loved in school. Talking in this way may encourage your child to ask question relating to things that they fear. Sometimes parents try to reassure their children that everything will be ok when in fact they are really reassuring themselves!  (Guilty your honour on all counts!!).

Time goes by in a blink, to think that eight years from now your little one will be starting all over again in Secondary School. This prospect can be even more daunting than Primary School for some children. Just like the younger ones, teenagers like routine, even if they try to tell you they don’t. Whilst in primary school your child may have been used to being in one classroom, now they have to contend with not only different teachers but most likely multiple classrooms. For some children trying to navigate around a new school can be terrifying. Add to the mix that they are coming from a school (primary) where they were ‘top dog’ being the oldest and in some cases the biggest children in the yard to now starting from the bottom of the pile – can be very daunting! In addition to all of this they now have to take ‘responsibility’ for things, like bringing the correct books on the assigned days, remembering what homework needs to be done for what class – and where in fact is that classroom?. If your child hasn’t been given the opportunity to be responsible before, they will find this a big challenge as they are now expected to do all this by themselves. Which is why it’s important to start giving your children some responsibilities from a very young age.

Further anxiety may surface about break and lunch times as they are left to fend for themselves. Spend some time over the coming days to helping your teen to familiarise themselves with their timetable, you may find it helpful to put a copy of it in your diary or on the fridge door. For the first few days help with the transition by reminding them to bring in certain things, but don’t let your teen come to rely on you to do all the remembering for them! Keep reinforcing with them not to stress out if they get confused and bring in the wrong books – its normal for the first few days and teachers are aware of it. If possible try to link up with other children who will be attending from their primary school class before they start.

If you work in the home and know that you are going to miss having your children around having ‘time for yourself’ may not be what you want. The overwhelming silence in the house can be deafening! Perhaps it might be a good idea to meet up with some of other mums over coffee or take up that long promised exercise class or hobby. Read that book you’ve been dying to open, take a course or volunteer at your local charity shop and before you know it the first day will be over.  Above all else, remain calm. Anxiety is contagious, if you are nervous, your child will be nervous too, even at University going age! Try to remind yourself that you got through Junior Infants and the transition from Primary to Secondary school and on to University! While separation anxiety doesn’t just end after their first day at Primary school…this too will pass!

Sharron Grainger
Lead Psychologist & Psychotherapist

Phone: +353 1 2100 600
Fax: +353 1 278 9851
297 Beechwood Court
Stillorgan, Co Dublin