Helping Children with Anxiety, when Returning to – or Starting – School

The following is a small excerpt from my ‘The Starting School Book’ that I thought was very relevant now for those of you worried about your children returning to, or starting, school soon:


1.     Listen and observe

Find a good time to speak with your child about any worries they have about school. Often bedtime is the time they will open up the most, after you have read a story and tucked them in. Ask your child to think about things that make them feel sad, or angry, or make them have an uncomfortable feeling in their tummy. Observing them is as important as what they say too, watch what they do in the playground at drop off and pick up time.

2.     Empathise and Support

Whatever your child tells you, you should remember to validate their feelings. Something may sound trivial to you, but it isn’t to your child. Don’t say “don’t be silly”, or “you’ll be OK”. This sort of toxic positivity is not helpful to them and may make them clam up and not confide in you in the future. Help your child to see that you understand and that they are safe to tell you anything without reprimand or belittling. Some appreciate a hug and physical closeness for support, some prefer their own space, some like to be distracted (after the talk) with play, others prefer to just sit quietly with you, respond however you feel is instinctively best for your child. Above all else, it’s important for them to know that you’re on their side.


3.     Make an action plan

Together with your child, brainstorm any activities, props or plans that may help them. Request a meeting with the school  (virtually is probably most feasible at the moment) and discuss your concerns and suggestions with them and ask if they have any other ideas (remember, they are very experienced at dealing with anxious children). Ask if you can have another meeting to review in a few days, or a week. Things you could consider here include: starting, or staying, part-time, flexi-schooling, slightly earlier or later drop off times, coming home for lunch if you are at home and live nearby.
4.     Focus on the positives and your child’s growth mindset

Help your child to see that it isn’t school as a whole that is scary but instead there are certain aspects they are struggling with. This doesn’t mean that school itself is bad, or that they will always be unhappy there. Spend some time talking about the things at school that they do enjoy, or are looking forward to, with them and focus on building excitement and happiness on these points. If they tell you that they don’t like anything once started, then ask their teachers to let you know what they have enjoyed throughout the day, so that you can bring it up with them. Finally, empower your child by helping them to realise that anxiety isn’t all bad, it’s a sign that they care about themselves and their brain is trying to prevent them from getting into danger. The problem is that sometimes, in trying to keep us safe, our brains over-react a little and make us very fearful of situations that aren’t as scary as we first think. Help them to reframe the anxiety into a sort of magic power, a bit like their favourite super-hero. It is strong because it wants to run quickly and hide or fight to protect us, but although the super-hero is cool, they sometimes do the wrong thing at the wrong time. Encourage your child to talk to their anxiety super-hero and say, “hey buddy, thank you for trying to protect me, but everything is OK right now”. They can imagine themselves shaking hands with ‘Captain Anxiety’ (or whatever else they want to name him or her) and saying “it’s OK, I’ve got this. I don’t need you right now” and telling it to go away. If your child likes drawing or painting you can even encourage them to paint a picture of Captain Anxiety so that they can picture them more easily and visualise saying goodbye when they need to.


5.     Check-in regularly

Even if the anxiety seems short-lived, make sure that you check-in with how your child is feeling regularly. School anxiety can often ebb, and flow and you may be lulled into a false sense of security once one episode has passed. Scheduling in special chats regularly can help you to keep on top of things, before they escalate. It also helps your child to feel supported and know that you are interested in how they feel, which in turn makes them more likely to open up to you.


6.     Provide a safe haven at home

Home should be your child’s safe haven. Often school anxiety can materialise in very difficult behaviour at home. When children are at home they should feel safe from anything that worries them at school. It should be a place for them to relax and feel comfortable enough to be themselves, so reign in a little on the discipline and take some time to work on ways to keep yourself calm. Remind yourself they are not deliberately giving you a hard time; they are acting this way because they are having a hard time. This also includes focusing on your own beliefs and behaviours, remember they are catching! If you are highly anxious about your child at school, or are really struggling with the transition, they will very likely pick up on your feelings. Do whatever you need to do (and sometimes you need more than simple self-care, sometimes speaking to a counsellor or therapist is incredibly useful) to present that calm, confident and reassuring presence your child needs from you.
The following practical tips can be particularly helpful for children with separation anxiety:

·        Draw a heart on your hand, on your palm, and draw another heart on their palm, in the same position as the one on yours. Hold your hands up to each other, palm to palm and tell your child that you will always be connected, that there will always be a little bit of you in them and vice versa and that the heart is a reminder of this. Tell them that when they are missing you, they should touch the heart on their hand and remember that you and they are connected and will always come back together again.

·        Find some embroidery thread (something stronger than regular cotton), in a colour your child loves. Unravel the thread and tie one end around their wrist, like a bracelet, then tie the other end around your wrist, in another bracelet style. There will be a long-connected piece of thread between you. Don’t cut it just yet. Tell your child, these bracelets connect us, just like they do right now, with this thread joining me to you. Then, cut the thread and say, “we may not be joined by the thread anymore, but when we wear these bracelets it is always a reminder of our connection and how we are always joined, even if we are not together.” Encourage them to touch the bracelet and think about that joining thread when you are apart, and they are feeling sad.

·        Make some ‘bravery spray’. Use a little, travel size, spray bottle and fill it with water and a drop of food colouring in their favourite colour, add some edible glitter too for extra magic. Blow some kisses into the mixture before adding the top. Then explain that if they are feeling scared when they are away from you, all they must do is to spray one or two sprays into their mouth, or onto their body somewhere and the power of your kisses will help them to feel braver.

If you use one of these techniques, do make sure you make the teacher aware, so that they don’t confiscate the bravery spray, wipe off the heart mark, or tell the child to take their bracelet off.

If you’re looking for more tips about preparing your child for starting school this August or September, helping them to settle during their first year, or you are about to apply for your child’s first school place this year, then my ‘The Starting School Book’ is available in paperback, ebook and audiobook. Click HERE for the UK and HERE for the rest of the world.


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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