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How to Help Back to School Anxiety

I’ve always struggled with getting my eldest child into school.

It started in nursery when Maggie was aged 3 and we only really just got a handle on it at the end of last year, after she had turned 8.

5 years (minus lockdowns!) of breaking her heart every time she leaves me at the school gates… and due to husband’s work, it’s always fallen on me to do the school run… great!

First day at nursery… all smiles before she realises it means saying goodbye to me!

Fast forward 5 years and a second, wild, child and I’m back in the same position…

After 6 weeks of summer holidays, my youngest Arthur has now decided to take up the mantle of the child with ALL the feelings.

At first day back at school a few days ago, history repeated itself and then some…

Crying, screaming, kicking, swearing and eventually trying to make himself sick to try to prevent going into his new classroom. He eventually had to be restrained to stop him chasing after me and to allow me to leave the school.

As you can imagine, I was a mess, oh and Maggie was STILL with me at this point… I still had to get her to her new classroom, at which point she started crying after seeing her brother so upset….

Maggie & Arthur now - just going into Year 1 & Year 4!

The thing is, all you see on social media is those proud ‘back to school’ photos of smiling, happy kids raring to go back and play with their friends… but for some children it really is a struggle, and we need to talk about the REALITY of back to school anxiety.

I wasn’t prepared for Arthur to have those worries too. He’s always been the confident one! However now I know, I’ll GET prepared.

I’ve been here before… I don’t have all the answers but I DO have 5 years of trial and error and I can tell you no amount of ignorance, bribery, anger or trickery will cut it.

You need to face it head on… so here’s what I’ve learned!

  1. Your child isn’t deliberately being difficult

I know it may seem that way but honestly this is a deep-rooted worry… if they could switch off their emotions and NOT feel that anxiety, they would, just like any of us when we get that awful feeling in the pit of our tummies.

So, try to be empathetic - what helps you when you’re feeling anxious? It’s easy to get angry, especially if you’re going to be late for work (been there, got the t-shirt!) but put yourself in their shoes.

Tell them that you get nervous too sometimes, give them an example of this and tell them what you did to help ease that fear.

You are their rock, their world, their comfort and, most importantly, their safety blanket. It’s no bloody wonder they don’t want to say goodbye!

Separation anxiety may be hard to deal with, but it shows you’re doing a great job, your children adore you!

  1. Tackle the problem, head on

It might seem like a good idea to just try to distract from the issue or just ignore the fact that the dreaded moment is getting closer BUT it really helps to talk your child through their worries.

Ask them what their fears are, what they are scared about or which part of the goodbye do they struggle with most… you may well come up with a solution depending on their answer, or they may be able to offer one up themselves!

  1. Give them a little piece of YOU

A little something they can keep on them, or in their school bag that will give them comfort, and remind them of you, can really help.

Maggie sometimes wears my favourite necklace under her school shirt and one of her Daddy’s Harry Potter pin badges on her tie. She’s also taken in a hoodie of my partners that ‘smells of him’ (hopefully in a good way) and she’s even given it to Arthur on the playground one time when he was having a sad moment!

Maggie loves my ‘evil eye’ necklace as it helps her feel safe, and reminds her of me!

  1. Seek support!

Don’t just deal with it by yourself!

Teachers have seen this a thousand times before, ask them for help or set up a meeting with the school.

They may well have a few tricks up their sleeves or some helpful hints or tips that may work, such as going in a different entrance or going in earlier or later in to make the situation feel calmer.

If your child has a favourite teacher or classroom assistant they may well help collect your little one or have some ‘special jobs’ ready for them to get them in with more ease.

  1. My heart is YOUR heart

A lovely little idea I saw on social media was the heart trick.

Draw a little heart on your child’s hand and tell them that whenever they get sad to ‘push that button’ and they’ll remember you.

They can even draw a heart on your hand as well if they want and then you’ll have matching hearts to remember each other during the day.

  1. Give them something to look forward to!

Something that really worked for us was writing a special note for Maggie, to open only when she was in school.

Every morning I’d write a few little words on a piece of paper and fold it up and put it in the front of her backpack. I’d tell her she could only read it once she was inside… so she’d race in to see what it said, she even started leaving notes for me too!

She also told me that other children would ask her to read the notes aloud and it helped them too, she said they would pretend it was a note from their Mummy or Daddy!

If your little one is unable to read, maybe a chat with the teacher to read it to them if they have time?

I used to prepare a weeks worth of notes at one time and have them ready to slip in each day!

  1. Invest in some tools

There are LOTS of companies now producing some great tools to help children with anxiety.

We found Mala Llama Calming Cards as a great little ‘go-to’ support to pop in the school bag. Lovely little quotes and affirmations to help children through any situation, these were really successful for Maggie and she often used them with her friends as well if they needed cheering up.

Big Life Journal was also a lovely find and we used this after school to talk and write about how we were feeling and to really understand our emotions a bit more.

For younger children there are some AMAZING books out there that you can read to them that cover BIG emotions and feelings of anxiety. A firm favourite in our house was ‘Lucy’s Blue Day’ by the fantastic Chris Duke which really simplifies feelings of sadness, and how it’s OK to feel like that.

We found Mala Llama cards really useful!

  1. F**k what anyone else thinks!

And finally, I couldn’t write this piece without touching on YOUR feelings, OUR feelings as the parent.

It’s bloody gut-wrenching! Seeing your child so upset and feeling powerless to help can pull at even the coldest of heart strings, and it’s no wonder it can evoke a range of emotions within us.

From anger to shame to humiliation to real deep feelings of guilt and your ability as a parent… I get it, I’ve felt them all on that school yard.

Your child is feeling all the emotion, you’re then feeling all the emotion… don’t add to that the worry of how anyone else perceives that moment. Try to keep calm but don’t worry if you too start to get upset, it’s perfectly understandable!

Forget what else is going on around you, fuck Super-Mum Sindy from the PTA and don’t worry about what the teacher, care taker or lollipop lady thinks of you… it is YOU and YOUR CHILD in that moment.

Let them feel seen, let them feel heard and support them in their moment of need.

After that, you can always just do what I do and go home and ball your eyes out!

The saying ‘this too shall pass’ is easier to say than believe but promise me, it will.

I worried at one point that Maggie would become too reliant on everything I was doing, the notes, the personal belongings, the rituals and more… but she stopped needing them when she was ready - and eventually she no longer needed anything.

We had worked through it and come out the other side… just in time for Arthur’s shining moment!! 🤦🏼‍♀️

You are doing the best job you can and believe me, being a parent is the hardest job in the world.

You’ve got this!

Happy smiles after a terrible first day back… even when it doesn’t go to plan, they still end up having a wonderful day!

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