Tackling back to school anxiety

20 September 2022
Nadim Saad
Nadim Saad is a parenting and relationship coach and the author of seven books including the highly acclaimed Kids Don’t Come With a Manual’, Happy Confident Me’ journal series and Raising Happy Confident Kids’. He worked with renowned therapists and teachers, drawing from the latest research in child psychology and neuroscience to develop a programme that’s already changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of children and families. The experienced father of three founded The Happy Confident Company to help children thrive by offering them the insights and tools they need to face life’s challenges and become the best version of themselves. 
As children return to school, the anxiety faced by some of them can be overlooked or missed. If you’ve noticed anxiety within your child, you’re not alone.

Over 43% of children surveyed by Happy Confident Company reported feeling worried about their future, with only 31% feeling able to enjoy the present moment, free from worry. So, what can we do to help them feel happy and confident, without anxiety?

Active Listening and Empathy

Having open conversations with children about their feelings and worries helps alleviate concerns. From early years to late teens, it’s easy for feelings to mount, especially if they aren’t acknowledged, heard or validated. When a child says I don’t want to go to school because it’s boring’ – it’s likely there are other feelings lurking. 

It’s important that children have access to trusted people and opportunities to share feelings, worries and anxieties. A worry box, book or mindfulness journal is a great way to encourage children to share worries as they arise. Allow them to take the lead in deciding what method would help them so that they take ownership and feel empowered. 

Allowing children creative freedom to communicate feelings can also be helpful. Try building a daily time to discuss and ease their feelings and worries. Consider the child’s needs, it could be a short conversation or a more structured activity. 

Ensure you are validating their feelings – avoid dismissing or overlooking them. Being open and empathetic will encourage children to open-up, establishing a healthy approach to reducing common anxieties. Even consider worst case scenarios with children, Even if this worry materialises… we will get through it”. Maintain a positive tone focusing on hope and optimism.

Acknowledge their feelings — Name it to tame it’ is a term coined by neuroscientist Dan Siegel. Research shows that naming a feeling rather than trying to suppress it, reduces the intensity felt in the brain, making it easier to regulate. So in talking openly about feelings, asking children about their day, and acknowledging the range of feelings they may have had, you’re helping them exponentially. Using feelings card games can also help generate discussions about feelings and will help children better express their feelings. 

Physical and mental techniques

Both physical and mental techniques are hugely beneficial in reducing stress and stimulating happiness. 

There are many popular breathing techniques, but a lesser-known calming technique is the Vagus Nerve Reset. This simple technique takes 30 seconds, releasing both serotonin and endorphins (happy neurotransmitters) while reducing cortisol (stress hormone). Do this with children by:

  • Putting your hands together in a prayer motion
  • Clasping your fingers closed but leaving your index fingers together, pointing to the sky
  • Bringing your head back, looking up at your fingers
  • Breathing in for three counts, holding the air in your lungs and twisting your upper body (and head) to your right
  • Counting to six and then releasing the air as you twist back to centre
  • Repeating on your left

Mental strategies involve developing an awareness of how our brains and bodies work together. It’s important for children to realise that they have more control over their anxiety than they think. 

You can help by encouraging them to reframe both their mind and thoughts, shifting focus onto positives, letting go of negatives – or turning them into positives.

To complement this, work together to identify things that help calm them. For example, soothing sounds, favourite smells, music or nature. These can be drawn on to help children settle when feeling anxious or stressed. 

Engaging with schools

Statutory guidance by the Department for Education (DfE) references mental health, acknowledging the school’s role in supporting mental health and wellbeing.

Therefore, you can work together with the school to help your child feel secure. If your child is anxious, nervous or worried in the mornings, try to implement systems with the school to help settle your child. Consider your child’s specific needs and what they’d benefit from. 

Methods that are proven to work well include soft arrivals – an earlier entry in the morning to give your anxious child more time to ease into the school day. It would also help to find out how teachers monitor children’s emotions and feelings during the school day – ask whether teachers check how children are feeling and, if not, could they implement this.

If the school has a buddy system, an anxious child will benefit greatly from having an older peer to turn to. Ensure that this person is well-matched to your child sharing some common ground to ease building trust, connection and a feeling of safety.