Anxiety and Return to school and Routine

                          October 2021

One month into the new school year and families and children have slipped back into routine with gratitude and some nerves. Many children and young people will have experienced Covid specific losses to their family unit in the last 18 months such as bereavement or unemployment.  Most young people have missed play, socialization, rites of passage, routines as well as opportunities to build relationships with trusted adults. Some anxiety and uncertainty are to be expected in the coming months and it will be important for the adults in their lives to model self-care and allow space for ‘big’ and not so big feelings to be expressed safely. Children have demonstrated flexibility, resilience and compassion for others and it is important that we acknowledge and affirm this in addition to providing supports for them to express frustration and grief.

So how can we support children and young people in a post pandemic world? I like to summarize my approach with 3 C’s, connect, communicate and compassion.

Connect                   Communicate                  Compassion

  • Connections are crucial. Relationships provide vital emotional connections for children which buffer against stress and anxiety. Take time to nurture relationships in your family. Make sure that your family schedule as time for exercise, play and free time and quality time together. Use a visual schedule, if necessary, see www.ncse.ie for some great ideas on how to use visual schedules
  • Communicate clearly and consistently by explaining expectations, setting boundaries and creating routines
  • Develop a Sunday evening plan to support young people prepare for the week ahead. This could include going over the routine for the coming week, reminding them what is scheduled and writing them on a calendar. Take time to calm any fears by providing a safe space for worries to be discussed. Focus on the positive- What three good things happened this weekend?
  • Some children will have difficulty ‘changing the channel’ and find it hard to move past anxious thoughts. Respond with compassion. Consider setting aside some ‘worry time’. Worry Time should last about 15 minutes. Sit your child during Worry Time to listen to the worries they have. This should be a peaceful time so no TV, no phones, no interruption from the rest of the family for any reason. Drawing or writing worries during this time can help and putting them in a Worry box can also help. Develop emotional literacy by supporting children to name their feelings. Naming how they feel makes it easier to deal with the feelings, this ‘name it to tame it’ approach is highly effective.  
  • Time in nature and physical activity have a strong evidence base for decreasing stress levels- get out for a walk, throw a ball or do a listening walk. A listening walk is a great activity to teach mindfulness in nature. Have the children go outside to a garden or a wood. Listen carefully to every sound, what you can you hear? Is it a bird? A dog? A person? Can you identify it? How many sounds can you hear?
  • Outdoor activities to promote wellbeing with younger children- Play with them, get some chalk and draw silly faces on the patio, teach them hopscotch, chalk a ‘road’ or ‘train track’s, take a few minutes out of your door to connect with them
  • Communicate with compassion and talk so that your children will listen.
    • Choose your time carefully. Are they well rested and fed? Are they distracted? Would a short car journey be a good time to have a chat?
    • Use a soft tone of voice and explain your point of view carefully and clearly.
    • Clarity of intent, make sure that you lead with your intention is to support and protect your child’s wellbeing and safety.
    • Repetition- Let a few days pass between conversations to allow the young person time to digest and reflect on the ideas presented
  • Teach children basic relaxation strategies, these moments are great for connecting with young people. Model self-care and self-regulation activities so that the practice of self-care becomes normalised in your home.
    • Practice the Pause, take a deep breath, pause, center yourself and then respond
    • Think compassion and connection- focus on remembering or bringing to mind positive memories or successful experience. Reflect on the positive qualities of that memory and how it makes you feel. This shift in thinking can balance out the feelings of anxiety
    • Practice blowing bubbles, bubbles are great for teaching children to control their breathing and also great fun
    • Squish Squash Squeeze- this progressive relaxation activity is very simple. Ask children to lie down with eyes closed. Ask them to squish or squeeze every muscle in their body then release. You can guide them by starting them at toes and working in up and you can help younger children by providing a squash with a cushion etc.
    • Be curious about their day. Ask open ended questions such as ‘what good thing happened today? Who came to visit your class today? Remember it is important to listen to their stories now because even if it seems like small stuff to you, it is big stuff to them.

It is normal to experience feelings of anxiety and it is important that young people feel validated and heard when they express these feelings. Responding with compassion is important. It helps if you can educate yourself about anxiety. Anxiety is normal. It is the brains way of coping with danger. Anxiety becomes a problem if it is interfering with daily living. The link below is an accessible and child friendly explanation of how the brain works when experiencing anxiety.

Anxiety does not always show up as appearing worried. This excellent infographic from http://www.gozen.com illustrates the many ways in which children can demonstrate their anxiety.

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