Most of our children and young people are returning to school over the course of this week and next week. Many of them will be happy to get back into the routine of school life and seeing their friends and classmates again on a regular basis. Most parents and carers will be feeling relieved that they can get back to something resembling normality.
However, for a significant minority of children and young people the return to school life will be fraught with anxiety. These are the children who are prone to suffering from anxiety disorders, who may have been bullied in the past, who may be highly sensitive or who may have additional needs such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Daily school life for these children is not easy and what other children take in their stride, these children may find difficult and emotionally challenging.
Separation anxiety is part of the normal developmental process usually displayed between the ages of six months to three years. However, when it is present in older children, adolescents, and adults then it is not normal behaviour and it is pathological. It is a known as Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD).
SAD is the most common form of anxiety exhibited in children which may become more prevalent following the prolonged period of absence from school, because of the coronavirus crisis. Separation anxiety disorder arises when a child displays an abnormal level of distress and emotional discomfort about being separated from a primary caregiver or someone that the child is strongly attached to emotionally and/or the home environment.
There is a fair degree of overlap between anxiety and mood disorders amongst all age groups. If left untreated, separation anxiety disorder in children can develop into a more serious anxiety condition known as School Refusal (formerly called School Phobia) or General Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
When it comes to school, the child is likely to display an excessive level of distress about leaving the home environment, parent, or caregiver. In the present circumstances, it would be perfectly normal and natural for any child to experience some degree of stress about returning to school this September. We are navigating our way through a global pandemic after all and there is nothing normal about the ever-changing situation that we are all having to deal with. Uncertainty, questions, worries, and general anticipatory uneasiness amongst our children and young people before returning to school is perfectly normal.
Getting back into the routine of school life, lessons and learning is likely to be more challenging for some than others and children will need to engage in a process of “learning recovery” which could take a few weeks. Children may seem a little grumpy, restless, and frustrated at times until they become orientated back into school life. Their body clock may need to adjust to the routine of getting up early for school, especially if they have not been getting up at the same time as before during lockdown.
There is likely to be a bumpy ride ahead for some parents and children, but if a child is experiencing a disproportionate level of stress about returning to school or being at school and if this persists for more than the first month, then it is imperative to seek help. Unfortunately many psychological disorders begin to emerge in childhood.
Common Signs and Symptoms
Common signs of anxiety in children including school refusal behaviour include:
Frequent stomach aches.
Tears and tantrums before school.
Feeling nauseous before school or at school.
Feeling faint or dizzy before school or at school.
Repeatedly asking to stay at home.
Inability to concentrate on studies and engage in learning.
Frequently needing to leave class to go to the loo or to see the school nurse.
Never wanting to participate in extracurricular activities.
Changes in eating habits.
Disruptive behaviour at school or refusal to attend school altogether.
Parents need to be aware that some children will hide their difficulties. They will not have the emotional and cognitive maturity to realise for themselves that they are struggling. Somehow, they may feel different from everybody else and wonder why they just do not quite fit in.
What may seem to be “bad” behaviour, tantrums, and meltdowns, could in fact be an expression of the emotional distress that a child is experiencing. When a child is being angry, difficult, and uncooperative it can feel overwhelming for the parent. Challenging behaviour is just that – challenging!
It is so easy to blame the child or to label the child as naughty or badly behaved, but we need to be aware that there could be a serious underlying problem. In instances like this it may be useful to have a chat with your family doctor, your child’s form teacher or pastoral support worker.
I have offered some general advice in my previous blogs about parenting and the coronavirus. Briefly, here are a few tips that you could use to help children cope:
Keep talking to your child about the situation at their school and provide them with the basic facts that you will have been given by your child’s school.
Try to find out what they are thinking. It is important to fill in any gaps in their understanding. Children can pick up information that is incorrect, misleading and fear inducing. Listen to your child and validate their feelings, tell them that you understand what is bothering them, then try to create a sense of safety and security. See if you can come up with some strategies for coping with their fears or anxieties.
If your child is asking questions, then try to deal with them. Do not go into too much detail but try to allay any fears and provide realistic reassurance.
Be mindful of your own behaviour. We can underestimate our children’s understanding and sensitivity to our emotions. Children instinctively pick up on our feelings, noticing things such as our tone of voice, facial and body language. They look to us to assess the extent to which a situation is safe or dangerous. A calm, rational adult who can maintain a reassuring manner is what children need.
A Solution Focused Approach from a Solution Focused Therapist
Try to help your child take a solution focused approach to the challenges ahead. Instead of focusing on the problem, fears and worries try to focus on anything positive that the child can identify about returning to school:
Asking your child solution focused questions can also be helpful. It would be useful to do this before your child’s first day at school, but it can be done at any time. Some questions might be:
This is a noticeably different approach to endlessly dwelling on the perceived negative aspects of returning to school. It is important to keep things in perspective and not to allow a child’s imagination run away with itself.
In general, most schools are very well prepared for the children returning to education this month and teachers, many who are parents too, will be only too aware of children’s concerns. Schools are communities and children often look out for one another. Fostering a supportive environment both at home and at school can help children to feel safe, calm, and relaxed.
A Helping Hand
If you feel that you need support as a parent, then I am here to help. I am a mother, a caregiver, a qualified FE (SEN) Lecturer, experienced Clinical Solution Focused Hypnotherapist and Mindfulness teacher with many years’ experience of using hypnotherapy or mindfulness to help people cope with anxiety and stress. I teach clients how to relax deeply, re-wire their brains by changing their thought patterns and move forward in life towards their desired future.
To find out more:
Text or ring: 07856 201869 or
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