January 10, 2023

When The Words ‘Back To School’ Create Anxious Feelings

As the ‘back to school’ advertisements hit the TV and retail stores in Australia directly after New Year, my phone starts to ring frequently. This reminder of the approaching school year has the potential to instigate feelings of fear and worry into both parents and children alike and I’m often called upon to support children and families through the process of beginning a new school year. 

For some children, this blatant reminder of the approaching school year creates excitement and anticipation of reconnecting with friends, teachers and learning. But for some children, it is a reminder of feeling unsafe, or unworthy, or feeling incapable of meeting the academic requirements and pressure. 

More importantly, if your child has found school challenging during the previous school year, it may also potentially provoke feelings of uneasiness or worry in you. Understanding that our emotions are very easily read by our children through a process called ‘neuroception’, which is the way that our autonomic nervous systems communicate with each other to keep us safe, is essential in supporting our children and ensuring a smooth transition into a new school year. 

So, what can we as parents do to provide our children with the most effective start to the 2023 school year? 

  1. Feel all the emotions – it is helpful for us to understand that all emotions need to be felt. We have a destructive habit in our society of welcoming in the ‘positive’ emotions such as joy and pushing away the ‘negative’ emotions such as fear and anger. When we understand that all emotions are equally important and what we feel is a direct response to how our body has interpreted those emotions, we can learn to sit more easily with the uncomfortable feelings that may arise when thinking about going back to school. It is critical to sit with those feelings and allow them to be there. We do not need to act on them, just allow them to visit. You can say to yourself “I notice I’m feeling really anxious about my child going back to school”. Being aware of your own feelings is a powerful resource for supporting your child.

  2. Notice the signs – when our children are experiencing emotions that don’t feel very comfortable, we will often observe behaviours that show us they are feeling nervous, scared or worried. If your child’s behaviour shifts at all after the New Year break, they might be experiencing some anxious feelings around what is to come. Our mind naturally tries to predict the future as a way to keep us safe. If our child has had a negative experience at school previously, the threat detection part of their brain  will automatically predict the worst case scenario, reinforcing the fear or worry that they are experiencing. 

  3. Provide opportunities to express the feelings – allowing your child to express their feelings without fear of being judged, dismissed or told “not to worry” is very important. All feelings need to be expressed. If a child is taught to suppress uncomfortable feelings, these will eventually come out in destructive or aggressive behaviours. Ask your child to share what they are feeling through conversation, drawing/painting, or play. Children are often unable to find the words to express what they are feeling, but they can tell you how it feels in their body. They may feel a sense of tightness in their throat or chest, they may experience butterflies in their tummies or their heart racing when they think about going back to school. They can express these feelings by drawing a body outline and adding the parts that feel uncomfortable or strange via a colour, shape or pattern (called a Somagram).

  4. Let them know you believe in them – ask yourself if your feelings are sending a message to your child that you believe in their ability to handle challenges? The more our child sees and feels our fear, the more they get the message that they should feel unsafe and that they are unable to manage the situation for themselves. Of course there are certain situations that a child most certainly needs the support of an adult and they should be provided with that support, but there are also many situations in which a parent intervenes to smooth things over for the child that they could handle for themselves. Each time we intervene too soon, we take away an opportunity for our child to build skills in resilience, assertiveness and self-efficacy. These skills are vital in helping us manage challenging situations throughout all stages of our lives and we can build these critical skills throughout our time at school. 

  5. Build practical and effective strategies – allow your child that chance to talk with you about what they feel their options are in terms of the challenge they are facing. 

    Are they feeling nervous about having a new teacher? Explain to them that our brain naturally gives us feelings of nervousness before we try anything new. Share with them a time you felt nervous starting a new job or joining a new group and how those feelings settled once the situation felt more familiar. 

    Are they feeling fearful of a child at school who has made things difficult for them in the past? Ask them what they feel they could do in this situation once school starts back. Having a list of practical options builds their sense of self-efficacy and allows them to feel more in control of the situation. 
  1. Ask how you can help – before intervening, ask your child if there is anything they feel they would like you to help with. Often, they want to handle things for themselves, at least in the beginning. It is important for them to know that you are there for them when they need you, but that you also believe in their ability to handle challenging situations, but also know when and how to ask for help when they need it. 

If, after going through these steps both for yourself and with your child, your child is still experiencing overwhelming feelings of fear or nervousness about the transition into a new school year, I would suggest contacting the school counsellor or a children’s counsellor to support both you and your child through this transition. Communicating with your child’s teacher/s about their fears is also helpful if your child is open to this.

I wish you and your children all the best for a smooth transition into the 2023 school year. 

With Gratitude