What to do if your child's anxious about going back to school

For many of you, who have found home schooling challenging on a number of levels, the prospect of some return to normality by your children attending school may come as a relief. Don’t feel guilty about this! Lockdown has been hard on pupils and parents alike. It’s OK to feel keen to get back to life as close to “normal” as possible.

Many teenagers will be delighted to have the chance of regular contact with their friends again and a familiar, structured school environment. If your teen isn’t one of these, but has enjoyed more time at home with the family, or feels afraid of the risks of contracting Covid by mixing with more people, don’t forget to give them chance to talk and express how they feel. Notify the school if your child is especially anxious, so they can provide appropriate additional support.

Staying resilient and managing stress is very important to health and wellbeing and there are proven techniques you can teach your child to use to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. It’s perfectly natural

for your child to be worried, especially with all the lifestyle changes and uncertainty that coronavirus has caused – you are probably worried too!

In small doses, anxiety can be a good thing: helping your child to focus, get motivated and even recall facts they were unaware they’d learnt. Prolonged periods or bouts of intense anxiety have a negative impact, but there

are lots of ways you can help them manage this anxiety and use routines to help them keep calm. If you haven’t introduced them to some of these techniques already, we’ve included some suggestions over the next few pages. It will put them on positive footing for lifelong healthy habits.

In some cases there can be times when anxiety reaches exceptional levels and professional support is required. We’ve provided some guidance on how you can tell the difference and where you can reach out.

Get talking

Talk to your children and explain what’s happening and listen to how they feel. Their perspective and concerns are unlikely to be aligned with your priorities, so find out what’s worrying for them. Help them understand that strict measures have been put in place to reduce the risk of people passing it on to one another and to try and avoid everyone being ill at the same time.

Being online

Online resources are great for staying up-to-date and getting the latest information, but they are also a magnet for alarmist stories and scaremongering, especially amongst social media where articles and opinions are widely shared without first checking for accuracy. Check what your children are reading online and enforce regular breaks so they are not barraging themselves with information (or possibly misinformation) through every waking minute, as this can result in reinforcing panicky feelings.

Take care of their physical health by making sure they eat well, get plenty of sleep and stay active. Also, adopt practises to improve their mental health and reduce feelings of panic, such as deep breathing, meditating and spending time in a soothing environment. We’ve got lots more tips on relaxation techniques later in this chapter. Importantly, stay connected. We may not be able to attend social gatherings and get together, but we can stay in touch with those we love using social media, messaging and telephone calls. It’s very important to do this, as isolation and the possible over-thinking without distraction, is very poor for mental health.

Anxious teenage boy looks iPad worried lockdown coronavirus The Parents' Guide to

Signs of anxiety and stress

It’s good to be aware of the signs of anxiety and stress so you can watch out for them. A change in behaviour for a day or two might be nothing to worry about, but if you notice a regular change, then it’s usually a sign that something is wrong.

Some of the more common signs of anxiety include:

  • Losing interest in things they’ve previously enjoyed;

  • Behaving in the opposite way to usual – quiet children can become very chatty, chatty children can get withdrawn;

  • Being grumpy and irritable;

  • Lots of headaches and digestive problems (stomach aches, diarrhoea, constipation, vomiting etc);

  • Worrying all the time, this can show itself in only picturing negative outcomes (what if I fail, I’m going to fail, I can’t do this);

  • Talking over and over the same concern and being unable to either stop thinking about it or to find relief;

  • Physical symptoms (sweaty palms, shaking, fast heartbeat, aching muscles); Restlessness and being unable to stay still;

  • Inability to concentrate (such as taking in what’s happening in a TV programme);

  • Panic attacks;

  • Not sleeping.

Remember to keep perspective. If they have had several late nights, they are likely to be tired and this increases irritability. If they’ve been exercising, they might have aching muscles. If they’ve just run to meet you, they’ll have a fast heart rate. Individual or a short-term combination of the above symptoms are normal.

How to help

If you notice your child is suffering, it’s time to help them. That doesn’t always mean you stepping in (that could add to the anxiety) although it’s good to let them know you’ve noticed something’s wrong and give them a chance to talk to you if they want to. Avoid broaching the subject in front of others, this could make them feel embarrassed or inadequate and make them feel worse (they might think they are doing a job good of hiding it). Don’t forget, the aim isn’t to eliminate anxiety but to teach them how to manage it. There are two ways to help. Encourage them to take part in an activity that will provide a distraction so they stop thinking about whatever is making them anxious. Giving the brain some time out from worrying can help obtain a better perspective later. Physical activities – it doesn’t matter what activity - dancing, football, swimming, walking – so long as it’s something they enjoy, gets their endorphins flowing and requires focus so the mind is concentrating on something different. If you have a garden or park nearby (and are not restricted to staying at home) make the most of it and get them to visit daily. If you are restricted to home and don’t have a garden, try doing something active inside, perhaps following an online exercise workout, dancing or walking from room to room. Sitting still all day is a sure way to get cabin fever!

Music – Music has an amazing ability to transport you to a different time and place. Anything that evokes positive memories and experiences is a good thing. To reduce anxiety, it’s better to listen to relaxing and calming music rather than something that stimulates.

Father and teenage son in kitchen talking anxiety smile The Parents' Guide to

Talking – it may not be to you! A sibling, grandparent, family friend or friend at school or perhaps a charity chatline. Expressing worries out loud can sometimes make them feel less significant than when they’re playing on loop in the mind. Talking aloud also encourages finding their own solutions – prompts such as ‘what would need to happen to make you feel better’, can help them reframe to seeking solutions rather than dwelling on troubles. Avoiding stimulants – bright lights, loud music, caffeine, sugar, alcohol, too much excitement (a thrilling computer game, exciting movie) can all promote adrenaline production and increase feelings of anxiety, so these are best avoided. Reducing lighting (have dimmable lights or table lamps in the bedroom) also helps to increase feelings of calm and can help prepare for sleep.

Teenage boy mindfulness looking countryside fresh air coronavirus The Parents' Guide to

Mindfulness with meditation, breathing techniques, visualisation or yoga. Anxiety can induce rapid, shallow breathing which encourages the heart to beat faster to try and compensate for lack of oxygen. Learning slow breathing and how to take deep breaths has an immediate physical effect and is particularly useful in preventing anxiety escalating. Meditation, visualisation and yoga all encourage positive breathing techniques. Apps like Headspace can be loaded on the phone so your child readily has help to hand in any place at any time. Practising yoga regularly has been proven to improve the heart rate as well as physical strength. Meditation transports the mind to a completely different place and experience. There are many different types of meditation including auditory (describing experiences) and visual (looking at something). These activities can be done in short or long bursts and alone or in groups, which makes them ideal to put into practise when on the go or needing a ready tool when nerves strike. Herbs and smells – For centuries we’ve used herbs and smells to invoke different atmospheres. Essential oils can be burnt in diffusers, added to baths, placed on candles, mixed with water as a spritz or poured on a tissue (great for on the go and to pop in a pocket) and are inexpensive to buy. Some useful staples are: lemon (promotes concentration and calming); lavender (reduces stress and can help sleep), jasmine (uplifting and calming), peppermint (invigorating so helps to clear the mind) and rosemary (acts as a pick-me-up). Herbal teas are a great caffeine free hot drink and, as well as benefiting from the smell, the herbs work within the system too. Try camomile, peppermint, lavender or lemon balm.

Don't forget, subscribe to our parent newsletter and receive all the latest tips, advice and support on how you can help your teenage child straight to your inbox.