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How to manage back-to-school anxiety

With the nation’s schoolchildren poised to go back to school, it’s a tense time for everyone. So, how, as parents, should we control our fears? Muddy finds out.

Do they need to wear masks? Will they really keep one metre away from their friends? What happens if they *gasp* bring home someone else’s jacket by mistake? These questions, plus many, many more, are racing through every parent’s head as the start of school looms. Because – let’s be honest – none of us have had to deal with school vs. a global pandemic before so it’s uncharted territory for everyone. So we’ve spoken to three experts on the topic to find out how they think we should square up to the challenge. Breathe deep parents, we can do this.

THE COUNSELLOR
Joanna Burridge is a fully qualified counsellor, based in Somerset, who specialises in anxiety.

“I’m a mother too. I’ve got a teenager returning to college and I’ve been shielding so anxiety has been quite a thing for me personally as well as for my clients. First of all, I  would say it is entirely understandable and normal to feel anxious. Because from the start of lockdown to pretty much now, the messages have been to stay indoors, stay home, stay safe, stay away from everybody and from this invisible thing. Psychology wise, it’s put us in our threat system and thousands of years ago, when we were defending ourselves from wild animals, this threat system would keep us safe. It’s a primitive part of our brain and it’s probably on an uber drive at the moment because we’re feeling really threatened but we can’t see that threat, so we’re on high alert. However, when we’re on high alert, cortisol and adrenaline are racing through our bodies and our brains. And that produces knee-jerk reactions to things. We’re not able to think rationally, we’re not able to access our rational minds. So when I’m working with clients, we work on trying to get out of that threat system and get into a soothing system. 

Grounding is good to distract an anxious mind. Grounding techniques – things we can touch, see or smell, for instance – get all our senses involved. If you engage your senses, you can be more present and not leap ahead and catastrophise. Our anxious minds tend to be more concerned about what’s going to happen in the future but the more we can bring ourselves back to the here and now, the better. Grounding can distract, calm anxiety and helps release oxytocin. For children who are anxious, often just a little Lego minifigure in their pocket to hold onto or a tissue with their mum’s perfume on can be really helpful. For parents, just being aware of our breathing is a good one. We shouldn’t try and breathe in any particular way or force anything, just be aware of how we feel in our bodies. Or try activities that are relaxing and engaging. Mindful colouring is a good thing to do, baking, anything that absorbs your attention and doesn’t give your mind a chance to spiral into deeper anxiety.

And we need to be kind to ourselves rather than listening to our critical voice that says, ‘Oh, stop being pathetic’ or ‘Stop making a fuss’. Remember, it’s really understandable that we’re feeling so anxious right now because we love our children and we want to keep them safe. That’s our primary role as parents. We genuinely would do everything we can to protect them so it’s going to make that primal response kick in. Be reassured by that. If you’re anxious, remember, it makes perfect sense.”

Find Joanna at Welldoing.com or at her personal website jbcounselling.org

THE SCHOOL HEAD: William Phelps is the headteacher of The Beacon School, a leading independent boys’ prep school in Amersham, Bucks.

“The top thing is about communication. Every school needs to have produced a risk assessment plan and this has to be published so everyone has an opportunity to understand all the things that are being done to try and reduce the onset of infection in our schools. Our school has put in place socially distanced classrooms, hand sanitising, flow in shared spaces so we know which way to walk – all of those procedures that we need to teach the children in a clear and calm way. But you’ve got to have courage to get out of the car and join the team and that applies to the child and the parents. And it’s important for parents to feel the school is on their side and the only way you do that, ultimately, is being steadfast and true. You have to consistently communicate to say, ‘We’re getting there and we’re doing this,’ and showing the details behind all the plans.

So, for me as headmaster, it’s been about looking at the little details that affect our school and situation and trying to mitigate the dangers wherever we can. For instance, if you don’t have a large amount of movement in your school, you don’t really need masks. You can arrange your curriculum, as I have, where your children don’t move classrooms – the teachers come to them and that reduces the need for masks. But it’s a very fluid situation and you make changes as the situation unfolds. For instance, our pupils normally come to school in black shoes but I’ve said come in trainers because then you don’t have to change shoes to do games, which reduces the level of potential infection. And we have a very traditional school blazer which is dry clean only. I want parents to wash the uniform every week, so we’re ditching the blazer until we know we’re in full control of this virus.

If you are anxious about your child’s fears, I would say that what a child wants from their parent is for them to be honest and authentic. There’s no hiding from this virus: they’d have watched endless news articles, seen their parents worried, they’ve been through lockdown. You have to be honest with them and get them to understand their responsibility in coming back to school. You have to say, ‘This is what’s at school, this is why we are doing it and will you please follow that instruction.’ That is the key.”

THE AUTHOR: Sarah Rayner is the author of Making Friends With Anxiety

“A massive trigger for anxiety is that feeling of panic about what’s going to happen in the future. And obviously in terms of schools, what I’m hearing is: ‘What’s going to happen if there’s a Covid-19 outbreak in school?’, ‘What if they close the school again?’ and ‘What if my child gets it and they get bad symptoms?’ If people are getting into that sort of mental state, I would suggest trying to pull themselves back into thinking one day at a time. Just take it slower. For instance, just think, ‘Right, today, we’re going to school.’ Thinking ahead to three months’ time and panicking about how to manage the kids at home or if the economy will collapse is in no way beneficial. So try and bring yourself back to the present. If I’m having a really anxious day, sometimes I just take it an hour at a time and see where I’m at come 10am. For instance, you might think: ‘All I’ve got to do in the next hour is get the kids on the school bus and I can hide under the duvet after that.” But normally, if you get that far, you don’t need your duvet an hour later.

The trouble with anxiety is that it’s self-perpetuating. You worry about something, it sends all your ‘fight or flight’ hormones into overdrive and that just makes the situation worse in your brain. The more you can make friends with the situation rather than fight it, the quicker you can lessen the physical reaction, which is better for you. That comes from understanding that anxiety is a normal and healthy reaction, it’s an ancient part of the brain that is just reacting in the way it’s designed to in order to protect us. So recognise you feel anxious, accept those feelings, see them for what they are and you can calm things down.

Another useful tip is to make changes gradually. Instead of saying, ‘Right, I’ve got to send my kids back to school with every piece of homework they’ve been set on lockdown and ensure they anti-bac every 20 minutes and not touch any surfaces’, just think about what you can achieve today, which may well be: ‘I’m going to dress them in their uniform and get them through the school gate’. And tomorrow, you might feel you can achieve a little more. Take each day as an accomplishment and recognise those accomplishments. Say, ‘Oh, wow! We did that. We managed to get through that.’ Because a lot of people have been at home and in control of their environment and now they’re having to venture forth again and put themselves in contact with a lot of people. So keep expectations manageable and don’t overwhelm yourself with trying to be perfect. Give yourself a break: being good enough is all you can ever be.”

‘Making Friends With Anxiety’ on Amazon or via her website www.sarah-rayner.com.

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