'Glossing over anxiety will not make it go away' – How to empower your child to deal with the stresses of the back-to-school period

Worrying and parenting go hand in hand like rhythm and blues. This is especially true during times of transition, such as children’s return to school after the summer, which can reignite a melting pot of anxieties for children and parents alike.

During this time, parents may question their child’s ability to manage issues which may have come up before, with concerns ranging from: “Is my child strong enough? Clever enough? Popular enough? Resilient enough?” Throw a good dab of guilt and self-blame into the mix and you’ll also find parents asking themselves: “Am I a good enough support to them? What if I can’t help them?”

Parents are often concerned that if something presented itself as an issue last term – be it your child feeling left out, bullied, struggling academically, a difficult teacher, or any other challenge – similar issues will resurface again now that school is starting back. However, this is by no means a certainty.

Echoes of childhood wounds

Whilst many of these feelings of trepidation are common, a really important question I encourage parents to ask themselves is the following: “Is this worry about me or is it about my child?”

Your child’s return to school may bring back memories of your own childhood and school experiences. Did you struggle in school? Were you the one children picked on? Did you feel less than supported by the important adults in your life?

All of these feelings can come rushing back to us as adults even if we can’t attach them to a specific memory. They can be really strong and cloud our ability to look at our children’s situation objectively or to even look at our children as their own people.

We all parent in a particular way due to our past experiences. This can be a good thing if we had nurturing childhood experiences. However, it can also act as a buried land mine which limits us recognising our childhood wounds and responding sensitively to our children’s needs.

If you feel that your childhood experiences are significantly impacting on your parenting, then it may be time to seek professional and/or social supports. No shame there – most parents carry emotional baggage around with them, me included. Asking for help lessens the weight on your shoulders and connects you with others which is crucial to your emotional well-being.

Next time your child throws you an anxiety curveball or your own back-to-school worries creep up, bring your awareness to the source of your feelings from how your head, your heart and your gut feels.

Recognise the discomfort (“This feels bad. Is this about me or is it about my child?”); honour the discomfort (“I am hurting because an old wound may have been triggered”); and respond to your child’s need (“I am making a conscious effort to remain calm and pause before responding”).

Problematic parental responses

There are several ways in which parental responses can be problematic. Because children naturally look to their parents for information and guidance on how to interpret their worlds and their emotions, it follows that during their most anxious moments, children look to their parents for help in weighing up the threat and calming them down.

If a child senses their parent becoming anxious (i.e. through their words, actions or reactions) then this could magnify their own feelings. If a parent becomes overly worried about their child’s anxiety and over-engages with their worries to the point that they take on the worries themselves, this can cause the child to believe that there is in fact a threat and that their anxiety is warranted (e.g. “Mum or Dad looks full of worry. They don’t believe I can do this and neither do I”).

On the other hand, if a parent dismisses the child’s worry and tells them to “get over it” or to “grow a thick skin”, the child may end up feeling bad about being anxious, or think that there’s something “wrong” with them and they can’t trust their feelings.

Glossing over anxiety and hoping it goes away will not make it go away. Talking to your child about their worries will not make them worry more. Practising compassionate and calm communication will be of most value.

Be an anchor and validate

To break the pattern of reacting unhelpfully to an anxious child, the most important thing to do is to pause when your child becomes anxious and to commit to remaining calm and still. It’s about becoming a relaxed counterbalance to their heightened state. Visualise yourself as a still point, like an anchor, whilst your child may be in a whirlwind out at sea. This is easier said than done for those prone to worry, so there may be an element of “faking calm” before this comes more naturally.

If you want to know how your child feels about starting back at school, ask them! They may not give you loads of information, but you will certainly get a sense of how they feel if you drop it into conversation. Your child will pick up on the tone of your questions, so be light-hearted.

If your child shares a worry with you, listen to their feelings and validate their experience (e.g. “You feel a bit nervous about seeing those kids again”).

Respond warmly and empathetically and unpack the source of their worry (“What part are you most worried about?”). Try not to smooth things over in a bid to make them, and you, feel better (e.g. “You’ll be fine”).

Supporting them in feeling their emotion is an important step in helping them to move on from it (e.g. “That sounds really tough for you”).

Once they feel validated, you can move onto problem-solving, which could involve practical steps such as building alliances at school, doing something differently or exploring their thoughts (e.g. “Could we think about this in a different way?”).

Empowering you and your child

To be a calm, loving and empathic parent you need to take good care of yourself. Self-care is not just a fluffy term for getting a massage (although I won’t knock massages!). It is the intentional care of your physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and social well-being through repetition of everyday nurturing practices.

Prioritising self-care is vital in building a parent’s capacity for responding to children’s needs as it enables you to take a step back from your feelings to decide on the best way forward. A parent who does not pause to self-reflect is less able to disentangle their feelings from their children’s feelings. A parent who recognises their human struggles is a safer pair of hands.

Although you are heavily involved in many parts of your child’s life, you cannot control their behaviour. Controlling your response to your child’s behaviour is the only thing you really have control over and creating a relaxed environment where all feelings are welcomed.

In empowering children, you need to find a middle ground between empathising with their worries and encouraging them to face their fears (e.g. “I believe you can do this. You managed it before and we will work though any challenges together”). This is what builds true resilience.

Clinical psychologist and lecturer Dr Malie Coyne will release her first book on children’s anxiety with HarperCollins Ireland in April 2020. See drmaliecoyne.ie

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