As summer comes to an end and children reluctantly trade in those relaxed summer days for a return to the classroom, you might begin to notice a change in behaviour. The thought of heading back to school can make young people feel anxious and nervous, especially for those who are already struggling with their mental health.
The increase in grumblings and tantrums at this time of year is almost a rite of passage for many parents, but for those who have a child struggling with an eating disorder it can be a very challenging experience, especially if you’re worried about the effect it may have on their recovery.
Fortunately, we’ve been joined by our Children and Young Person’s Coordinator, Holly, who is here to offer some advice and support to help guide you through the next few weeks, and hopefully make going back to school easier and less stressful for you and your child.
First of all, you’re not alone! Thousands of students across the UK are heading back to school this week and with that comes feelings of excitement as well as trepidation. Your child might be really excited to see friends and get back into the routine of school and after-school clubs, but they may also have heightened anxiety around the challenges which the new academic year will bring. They may even be worried about how much they’ve changed over summer, especially if they haven’t been able to see friends over the last few weeks.
So, how can we help prepare children to make the transition back to the classroom a little easier on everyone?
It all starts with a conversation…
It’s really important we encourage open and honest talk about school, keeping it light and positive where we can. Ask them how they’re feeling about it, and make sure you accept and validate whatever they may tell you.
If they tell you they’re nervous, you might tell them you feel the same about returning to work and you’re sure their friends will be feeling the same too.
If you can, try to maintain open daily communication and establish a time for ‘family feedback’ where you can all share things about your day and check in with each other on how they’re feeling about school, relationships and their workload.
Reintroduce a solid routine
Whilst you’re thinking of a good time for ‘family feedback’, it is good to piece together a new routine. Children aren’t always open to change and may fight it, but they do need (and want!) a solid structure and routine.
Why? Because it helps a child feel safe and in control of their situation, especially in recovery.
Prioritise and promote a good night’s sleep by establishing a bedtime where electronics need to be put away and lights need to be off. If you don’t have regular mealtimes already, this is an important step in creating a solid routine and, like sleep, essential for your child’s cognitive and emotional function.
Once you have the basics, try to add a few fun or interesting things for them to do in the evenings and/or weekends. This’ll give them something to look forward to and a reminder that school is just a piece of the life puzzle.
Give them the tools
It’s common for younger children to have anxieties around returning to school, many will often cling to parents in the first few weeks, which could be a sign of separation anxiety. This might look like:
- Refusing to go back to school,
- Increased tantrums and arguments,
- Frequent crying spells when talking about school
Teenagers may also feel separation anxiety, following a year of isolation and uncertainty, although symptoms may look a little different. Try to pay attention to any changes in their normal behaviours. An example could be a talkative child becoming withdrawn, skipping meals, or disengaging from their favourite activities.
Whatever the presentation may be, it’s important to encourage honest conversation as this might help you identify any problems. It might also be useful to teach them some simple breathing or ‘grounding’ techniques to use at school, or any time they begin to feel anxious or stressed.
Start with taking a long, slow breath in through your nose and try to hold that for three seconds. Breathe out slowly and repeat three-to-five times.
You could also suggest a quick grounding exercise they can do such as, looking for things around them and listing them in their heads. They might name four objects in the room, three sounds they can hear, two things they can smell and finally, one thing they like about themselves.
Remember to take care of yourself
It can be difficult to see your child struggling with the return to school so try to give yourself time and flexibility to process these emotions in the first couple weeks. It’s essential we take care of ourselves, afterall, you can’t pour from an empty cup!
If you feel as though you do need some additional support, or you’re worried about the impacts this time is going to have on your child’s recovery know that support is available. Let your school nurse know what is going on, contact your GP and make a referral into our services.