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Back to school: Spotting signs of anxiety and how to cope

Last Updated Sep 10, 2020 at 6:37 am MDT

Students enter the Philippe-Labarre Elementary School in Montreal, on Thursday, August 27, 2020. Thousands of Quebec students return to class in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

TORONTO – The start of a new school year is stressful enough as kids prep for a new grade and make the transition from summer to study mode. Throw in COVID-19 and the worries are multiplied tenfold.

Returning to school under the pall of a pandemic may heighten anxiety, but the signs in children might not be obvious.

Child and youth therapist Tania DaSilva says anxiety around going back to school generally occurs due to an increase in two factors: expectations and unknown factors.

“They’re coming off of summer where the expectations are typically a lot lower,” she says.

When they go back to school, there are academic and social pressures and a lot more is expected than has been over the summer months.

“There’s always that unknown factor too, where they know there’s going to be an increase in what’s expected of them academically or a change in their friend dynamic, but they don’t know exactly what that’s going to look like,” says DaSilva.

This year, both the expectations and unknown factors have increased. Students are expected to learn and follow a host of new COVID-19 safety protocols and there are several unknowns about whether they might catch or spread the virus or whether the province might lockdown once again.

In the midst of the upheaval, children are expected to absorb new information and advance in their studies, which can become overwhelming. Many may not have the language and understanding to recognize or articulate their feelings.

DaSilva says there are a few signs to watch for that could convey your child has anxiety. Things like:

  • Tummy aches or saying they feel sick — apart from any actual symptoms of illness
  • Avoidance or negotiation — not wanting to go to school, making excuses to avoid it
  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • Behavioural or emotional changes — whining, increased tantrums, crying or aggression

 

DaSilva suggests parents take a proactive approach and first seek out social skill groups, parent coaching or therapy to better equip themselves in order to then help their children through this stressful time.

“At a time like this, we all need it,” she says. “So it’s not waiting until you really need it, but thinking about how beneficial it’s going to be if we start doing it before there’s an issue.”

Coping with anxiety will look different for each individual child. DaSilva says it’s best to first create a safe, non-judgmental space to openly talk about issues that might be causing stress.

“If you’re noticing changes, opening up that space and talking about what you’re seeing [is the first step],” says DaSilva. “Giving them a visual of ‘I’m noticing that you’re doing this or saying this’… opens up that space for them to feel safe and comfortable talking about those feelings.”

Once those feelings have been recognized and acknowledged, DaSilva suggests a few coping activities and calming strategies that can help resolve them, depending on your child’s age and temperament:

 

Circle of control

This involves looking at all the things that are within our control and those that are out of our control.

The next step is to comb through the list of things we can control and see how we can plan for each scenario and problem solve perhaps via role playing.

“That way we’re already teaching kids that it’s OK to feel anxiety, but when you’re feeling it, you want to start thinking about how you can manage that,” says DaSilva.

 

Changing self-talk

DaSilva says parents can help children pay attention to their self-talk in order to change their mindset from negative to positive.

This involves helping them recognize what they are saying to themselves, how it is making them feel and how it is activating certain behaviours.

DaSilva says working towards replacing negative self-talk with more solution focused, positive thoughts helps reduce anxiety and create a more optimistic outlook.

 

Recognizing anxiety vs. excitement

Children may be feeling both anxious and excited about returning to school.

“Anxiety feels very similar to excitement,” says DaSilva, and helping kids recognize those similarities can also help with anxiety management.

“We start re-framing — so when we feel those butterflies we’re going to know that both of these things can feel the same, but we’re choosing to focus on the excitement,” she says.

DaSilva says she’s found this strategy to be particularly helpful in helping children refocus their anxious energy. For parents, she says it gives them a sense of control over the situation.

“[They feel like] we get what [our children] need support with but we’re also going to give [them] a strategy to get you in on the right foot, where you’re looking at things that are making you feel a little more excited about joining versus getting stuck on the stuff that’s bringing you anxiety,” she says.

Worst-case scenario breakdown

DaSilva says if a child’s thoughts are spiralling towards catastrophic events, it might be beneficial to play into that and breakdown what it would mean if the worst-case scenario were to actually play out.

“I find when kids are faced with that, it really starts lessening their anxiety because they realize that if the worst case happened and we have to go back into lockdown [for example] — what does that mean? It means it’s going to be exactly the way it was because we just came out of lockdown,” she says.

She adds that facing the worst-case scenario head-on, in a safe space, helps children realize that they can come up with solutions and may have strategies to cope including social and emotional regulation as well as problem solving skills.

Further, she says doing a bit of research and using facts and numbers to dispel fears can also help — looking into things like the percentage of children getting COVID-19, the likelihood of a person their age recovering fully as well as strategies to stop the spread and protect oneself.

 

Worry box

DaSilva says creating a “worry box” where children can write down or draw out their fears and collect them in a box helps them be aware of their anxieties but also externalize them so they’re not ruminating over them.

Thereafter, she suggests families come together in a weekly or daily meeting and explore some of the worries shared in the box. A group discussion to validate those feelings, commiserate and perhaps come up with solutions can then follow.

“It really gives kids a moment where they know, at this time we are going to talk about this worry, and until then I’m going to externalize it and go on with my day,” she says.

Hammer or hammock

Checking in with your kids and simply asking them what they need from you and how you can help goes a long way, says DaSilva.

One way to approach this is to use the “hammer or hammock” method.

The idea is to ask the child whether they would like to hammer out the problem and try to find a solution or whether they need the parent to be a hammock — “someone to lay there with them and let them feel their emotions and process their feelings, cuddle them and give them that emotional support and care,” explains DaSilva.

She adds that this method gives children the language to advocate for themselves and clearly communicate their needs.