How to support your child's mental health and wellbeing as they return to school
Updated: Aug 23
A number of parents have spoken to me over previous months about how their children have demonstrated changes in behaviour during the coronavirus pandemic. In any time of change, it is to be expected that children will act in ways that are not their norm.
Whilst it is hard to gauge exactly what impact it will have had on our young people, I think it is fair to say that (much like the general population) for some it will have been an enjoyable and fun time. For others it will have been unpredictable and traumatic.
Similarly, the return to education will be very welcome for many of our young people. For others, it is likely to be anxiety inducing. There will be a certain amount of apprehension for parents and young people not having been in school for such a long time. Barnardo’s research has shown 16% of primary school parents and 21% of secondary school parents would prefer students not return to school. (Though I personally wonder if these figures are conservative based on anecdotal evidence).
There will be a period of psychological adjustment after such a long break. Many anxieties however will subside once children are back at school and feeling safe. In the meantime, I have put some tips together to help you support your young people navigate their emotions as they head back to school.
Check your own temperature
For parents and caregivers, the start of the year can be a time of high emotion and anxiety. The pressure is very much on to get back to routines after a longer than usual break (routine in itself is a challenge under regular circumstances). It is worth taking some time to check in with your own stress. Recognise what commitments you have and make an effort not to take any additional ones on that will make family life more demanding. I regularly speak about the next pandemic I feel is coming; the pandemic in relation to mental health and wellbeing. I spoke in a previous blog about anxiety being (arguably) more contagious than the virus itself. It is this contagion effect that is important to be aware of when we are around our children.
Anxiety is often linked to the unknown. Though children of all ages know that there is ‘something’ going on, they will not necessarily understand the bigger picture. Nor do they need to understand the bigger picture.
Young people’s ears pick up all sorts; from adult conversations, the radio, TV, any variety of sources. They miss nothing. Rather than leaving them to fill in the gaps with scary outcomes, how about giving them bite-size and age appropriate chunks of information? Doing this gives them a greater sense of control. It reduces fear and anxiety. It also reduces the catastrophising process.
Furthermore, you may want to make time to talk through some of the changes that will be happening within your child’s school or nursery. Indeed, sharing positive messages from staff in the school will help put your child at ease.
A sense of control
What we don’t know or understand can be scary for all of us not just young people. If young people feel safe, their anxiety can be reduced. Simple things like teaching them to handwash carefully and coughing into their elbows will give a sense of control to young people. The World Health Organisation continues to class hand hygiene as one of the most effective way to stop the spread of COVID19.
Encouraging good handwashing does not need to be a scary conversation. For younger children, you could make it fun – using a song or fun actions (The staff in my 4 year old’s nursery, taught them how to wash their hands with a fun tune. It became so embedded in our house that my 2 year old who is in the early stages of her language development, sings happily to it!)
Emotional check ins
Following on from the point above, proactive conversations are crucial. Emotions are states and therefore will change frequently. Creative activities like drawing or role playing with dolls/ teddies etc can help children to demonstrate and communicate their emotions in a safe way. It is a safe way to explore how they are feeling by role playing with characters. Those with younger children especially, will recognise how imaginative play mirrors what is going on in real life (I was telling my 4 year old about microchipping animals today. She then spent a very enjoyable half an hour playing vet with a dog toy using a wand to find the chip. You will be pleased to know that the imaginary owner was contacted and reunited with his lost animal!).
Another great tool I use is mood cards. Young people can find it hard to verbalise how they are feeling. Images can really support this and choosing a face to illustrate how they feel is an effective technique. This is the set that I use and they work with people of all ages: https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/9781859063927?gC=5a105e8b&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIyZ_9wuyB6wIVWu3tCh3pQgrnEAQYAiABEgKOdfD_BwE
An observation based approach to information gathering
It is perfectly normal for us to worry about children, especially in these strange times. When children do get back to school, be aware how you communicate with your child. Question and answer conversations sometimes give parents and carers the information they need, however they can stress young people. A simple shift from a question to an observation based approach may be a gentler way to extract information from your child. So for instance, instead of asking ‘How was your day’?, how would it be to say instead, ‘You look like you’ve had an interesting day’.
A note on nursery children and young primary children
For little ones who have just gotten used to going to nursery/ school (prior to Lockdown), it will take some time to readjust. Repetition is integral (especially for younger children) to their learning. It may take a few weeks for them to get used to schoolwork again. The key here is consistency; consistency both in terms of routine and the message. Be patient with them as they may have forgotten much of what was covered prior to lockdown.