Many children will currently be feeling anxious about starting or returning back to school for the Autumn term.
Most children will have spent a lot of the summer holidays with members of their family and the transition back to school, going to a new school or even starting school, can be a fearful one.
They will likely have a fear of the unknown, such as how to find their way around the school, how to find their new classroom, where they will eat lunch or where to go should they find themselves feeling upset or poorly. They may be fearful of the changes to the schedule they currently have or be worried about how they are going to make new friends.
It can be daunting for many children to meet new peers and teachers. Perhaps a trusted friend has moved away or the classroom sizes may be much bigger at a new school and this can feel overwhelming and scary.
Maybe your child is apprehensive about the school work itself, or how they are going to cope with the increased homework. This will be especially true if your child was struggling to keep up academically previously or believes they are not as smart as the other children in their class.
Perhaps this year, your child is expected to sit exams or possibly choose which subjects they are going to study, and understandably, this is daunting.
Some children will be worried about not having the right “look.” They may now wear glasses or have braces and are worried about being teased. Some children may have entered puberty during the holidays and they sound or look physically different. Due to social media, children can get body conscious at a young age, and they may be afraid of comments from others.
Sadly, some children will be terrified about returning to an environment where they have previously been bullied and are on the receiving end of mean and hurtful comments from others. They may feel isolated and alone, and always hypervigilant of who is approaching them.
All of these thoughts and feelings are completely natural when we are exposed to such scenarios. They are all related to anxiety.
How Does Anxiety Work?
Anxiety is a perceived fear, overwhelm, dread or nervousness about someone or something in the future. There may be a feeling of impending doom that can be hard to shake off.
Anxious thoughts can be completely normal at times, such as where everything is new and unknown.
When we feel anxious, our fight or flight response is triggered in our brain and we develop physical symptoms that prepare us for immediate action. From an evolutionary perspective, we most likely had to run away from an animal that was hoping to eat us.
Humans clearly don’t have the same dangers now as we did millions of years ago, however our brains can not adapt at the same pace that our world has changed.
Hence when we are scared or anxious, our bodies still respond in the same way we would if we saw a tiger.
Adrenaline is released into your body and helps you react more quickly by making your heart beat faster, increasing blood flow to the brain and muscles and stimulating the body to make sugar to use for fuel.
This rush of adrenaline is a good thing as it is what enables us to instinctively jump out of the way of a car as we see it speeding towards us. We don’t need to think logically about what is happening, we know instinctively to step back on to the pavement, where we are safe.
Anxiety is our body's way of keeping us safe from danger.
Statistics For Under 18s
Current statistics from the Children’s Society tell us 1 in 6 children aged 5-16 are likely to have mental ill health which impacts their ability to cope with life.
In the last three years, the likelihood of young people having mental ill health has increased by 50%. Shockingly, 5 children in a classroom of 30 are now likely to struggle with their mental health.
NHS data shows that in May 2023, there were more than 3,500 urgent mental ill health referrals of under 18s in the UK, this is three times higher than in May 2019.
The waiting lists for referrals have never been longer, and as a result, their symptoms often worsen over time.
So, What Can You Do To Support Your Child?
Check In On Your Own Behaviour
As a parent, it is natural to worry about your children so could you be giving off vibes that the transition to a new school is scary? Children are like sponges and will take on your own behaviours, so it is necessary to check in with yourself first.
When my own daughter started school, I was nervous for her and it took a lot of strength to hide my own feelings.
I was concerned that she would be teased as she would often muddle her words. She was being raised trilingual as she was born in Germany and her father spoke Swedish to her.
Her father and I had made the decision to separate before she started school and my daughter and I moved back to the UK and into a new unfamiliar home.
She has worn glasses since she was 8 months old and other children would take her glasses off her. Not in a mean way, they were just curious. I was afraid she would be teased as she looked different to her peers.
I was worried for her and I was worried for myself. I had been a stay at home mum until that point and I was going to have to return to work. That meant I would miss her terribly. I knew I would need a nanny or childminder to help me out and that was another adjustment for us both. I was already worrying about all the experiences I would miss out on with my daughter.
I tried my best not to let my fears show as I knew this would impact how she felt too. I just about held it together as I watched her go into school on her first day. And then I sat in the car and cried!
I knew that I couldn’t let her see me upset as this would change her own perception of school. I didn’t need to worry. She came out of school beaming, showing me what she had done. I realised the problem was my perceived fears and not her own.
Be Aware Of Their Behaviour
Two of the most common things we hear when a child is anxious is “my tummy hurts” or “my head hurts”.
Most young children are able to say when they are in physical pain, however, they don't necessarily understand or have the vocabulary to express how they are feeling when they are anxious, or mentally in pain. They just know they don’t feel themselves and can't distinguish if the pain in their tummy is caused by something they have eaten, or something they are thinking or worrying about.
Young children may appear more clingy and not let you out of their sight, this may be frustrating for parents so you need to address the underlying anxiety to understand what is driving this.
Older children are more familiar with talking about their mental health and anxious thoughts, but the majority never get the help they need to cope and may go on to struggle with their mental health throughout their adult lives too. Therefore it is best to address how they are feeling before their anxiety becomes a disorder.
You may also notice an increase in tantrums or anger as their flight or flight response kicks in, which could have an impact on relationships at home. This can sometimes be interpreted as naughty behaviour, when in fact it is their anxious thoughts that are driving this.
Negative behaviour is often the result of negative feelings, so if you notice their behaviour change then it is probable that something is worrying them and making them anxious.
You may also notice a change in their eating or sleeping habits, they may shut themselves away in their bedroom or they may become tearful and not necessarily understand why.
Acknowledge how they are feeling and behaving, and talk to them. It doesn’t need to be a long conversation, children are often likely to open up more when they do not feel they are being interrogated.
Listen So Your Child Feels Heard
When we are feeling anxious, the fear appears to be very real. So avoid telling your child that they don’t need to worry, or that it's no big deal. Instead, really listen to what they have to say, without interrupting, and validate their feelings. Saying something like “I can see that you are nervous about your first day” is far more beneficial as it validates how they are feeling and offers them reassurance that you understand.
Sometimes, when we are in a conversation, we can think of how we are going to respond instead of actively listening. Give your child the time and attention they need to feel at ease during this transition phase.
Try and introduce more “feeling” words into their vocabulary so they have a range of describing how they feel. Ask open questions that require more than a yes or no answer.
Asking them about their favourite part of their day is going to offer far more insight than asking if they had a fun day. You can then use this information to understand what exactly is triggering their anxiety.
Be an example of how you want your child to be. This may include being a little vulnerable and admitting to your child that you have times when you have been nervous or anxious too.
Do you have a similar example of joining a new group where you may have felt nervous to start, but soon found your confidence?
Your child looks up to you as their parent so empathise with them and let them know that when you feel that way, what do you do?
What Else Can I Do to Support My Child?
- Remind them that everyone they know was a stranger once as this helps them to understand how they have coped with this situation in the past, and offers reassurance that they can cope again.
- Try and get into a new routine before school, with bedtimes and wake-up times similar to the school day.
- Arrange playdates with some children of a similar age? Quite often there are Facebook groups for the schools so could you reach out and make some introductions before the first day
- Go to the school before the first day and look around, or at least get familiar with the journey to and from school
- Let them know that they are not going to be the only child feeling nervous and the teachers will be expecting it. Reassure them that it is normal, but don’t dwell on it.
- Practice a mantra together from a favourite book. Christopher Robin quotes in Winnie the Pooh “You’re braver than you believe and stronger and smarter than you think.”
- Write messages on dried Butter Beans like Strong, Brave, Love, Joy, Happy, Clever. Your child can keep them in their pocket or bag for when they need reassurance.
- Plan rewards for when they are brave etc. Involve your child in the planning. They may choose a favourite snack when they get home, or you read them a favourite book.
- Try and spend more quality time with your child in the first couple of weeks as they may well be feeling insecure while they find their feet at school. Positive attention from you will help to boost their self-esteem and confidence
- Some simple lifestyle changes can help lessen anxiety over time, and benefit the whole family. Try a physical activity such as walking, swimming or cycling together and spend time outdoors in nature.
- Practice being mindful together. This means focusing on the here and now instead of the past or future. I share some techniques on my YouTube channel here
- Keeping them home from school is not ideal as this reaffirms that school is scary and they can not cope. Teaching them coping strategies is far more beneficial and helps them to realise they can overcome their fear.
If You Need Further Support
Back to school anxiety should decrease after a couple of weeks when they have gotten used to their new environment and routines.
If your child is still feeling anxious, then you may need to understand exactly what is triggering it and speak to the school to see how they can support your child.
When anxious feelings are persistent, and we suffer from excessive worry, it is known as an anxiety disorder. This is when we can lose all rational perspectives and continuously expect the worst, even when it appears to others that there is no rational reason for concern. Children may refuse to go to school altogether at this stage.
If you are unable to establish the root cause of your childs anxiety then you may decide to book an appointment with a trained Anxiety Specialist who can prescribe a personalised plan and help your child develop healthy coping strategies that are focused around your individual needs.
Taking care of your mental health is an essential part of your overall well-being. Left unresolved, anxiety can spiral out of control and have a significant impact on relationships, work, school and family life.
So if you want to take the next steps, click the link below and book a free no obligation consultation call.
Watch some Breathing Techniques to Reduce Anxiety
Read how to have a Supportive Conversation about Mental Health
Download my eBook on How to Help Your Anxious Child