Back to School - The Happiest Time of the Year?
In a previous blog post - Managing an Anxious Child – Where to Start – I wrote about symptoms of anxiety and my own experience with my daughter. Fast-forward and now we are heading back to school, or as most parents call it, the happiest time of the year. I wouldn’t necessarily call back to the school the happiest time for my house; it is, however, the most anxious time. As August comes to an end, the complaints of stomach aches and the case of the what if’s begin – “what if my friends aren’t in my class, what if I don’t know anyone in my new class, what if I don’t like my teacher.” If you have a child who struggles with anxiety, you will understand how stressful the new school year can be.
When I was a child, the anticipation of new school supplies and new books to smell was all I needed to get me excited about going back to school. It’s no surprise that not all kids feel the same way, but for kids like my daughter, the thought of returning to school is overwhelming.
When my daughter started kindergarten, we expected the separation anxiety that we experienced when we dropped her off at pre-school or for that matter, pretty much whenever we tried to leave her at any activity or birthday. We did have those days – the days when she wouldn’t detach from my legs, and I had to push her into the class and try to close the door without closing it on her fingers. But after a few rough months the year went well, so we thought the worst was over.
Enter grade one. Unfortunately, we weren’t aware of the chaos that happens during the first week of school from grade one onwards, and so we were not prepared for what was to come. If you have kids in elementary school, you will know what I mean – the kids are moved around during the first week while the teachers determine class sizes. So each new day is met with a new set of uncertainties about the day ahead- what class she would be in, who would be her teacher that day, what kids would be in her class, who she would play with at lunch, and where we would pick her up after school. A new challenge for her, but she made it through the week like a champ and once again, we thought the worst was behind us. The first part of the year went pretty well; however, towards the end of the year, she started to have difficulties.
It happened overnight. One day, she was excited to go to school and the next she no longer wanted to go to school. Each night as bedtime approached, she would begin to complain of stomach aches and obsess over potential events that may or may not occur the following day. Luckily she liked to talk about what was going on, so we managed to learn that something was going on at lunchtime and that she didn’t want to be at school during lunch. The source of her stress got increasingly worse, and the dread of school turned into flat out school refusal. She didn’t want to go to school unless she went home for lunch.
I’m the first to admit that I did a lot of things wrong, and yes, I did pick her up from school and take her home for lunch on some days. I know I shouldn’t have given in, but on some days, I felt that I had no choice. Some days it was the only thing I could do to get her to let go of the side of the house or get her in the classroom.
The good news is that my daughter was lucky to have support from a counsellor who really understood her and worked with her – and us to develop tools to help her cope with her worries over lunchtime and I’m happy to report that things have been going really well and last year; she didn’t go home for lunch once – a big win for us! What’s more, today is the first day of school and this year; she didn’t complain of stomach aches leading up to this day. And last night I asked her if she was excited to go back, she said, “Yes.” I don’t know what this year will bring, but I’m happy for the small wins that we celebrate.
I know that when we started out, I had no idea of what to expect and no idea of where to begin. We listened to people who told us that it is something that she will grow out of, and we believed it, thinking that we were out of the woods after kindergarten. Although things are better, we still work on managing anxiety every day. If your child is experiencing anxiety and you don't know where to begin, I’ve included a diagram for treatment from the Anxiety Canada website below. The diagram provides some tips on where to begin, but if you have questions, your family doctor is always a good place to start. I’ve also included links to our self-help resources on our website below.
Anxiety Canada Resources
1) “Self-Help: Children’s” section of our website. (https://www.anxietycanada.com/parenting/parent-child). It’s important that you get some background knowledge of what anxiety looks like in a child. From the link provided, you’ll see within the children’s section, there are subsections called “Childhood Anxiety & Related Disorders”, “Fact Finder”, “Anxiety At Home”, and “Creating a MAP”. These are all good areas to focus on, as they go in depth with information on the different anxiety disorders, and cover how to talk about anxiety with your child in the first place, which can be a hard task to navigate through. Providing your child with a compassionate, informative, and encouraging atmosphere for opening up about anxiety can be found here: https://www.anxietycanada.com/parenting/talking-your-child-about-anxiety.
2) Next, we have evidence based tools and exercises you can work on with your child. In the “Creating a MAP” section, you will have access to My Anxiety Plan (MAP), which is our free online anxiety management toolkit and step-by -step guide for parents with anxious children. It has been developed by Anxiety BC and a psychologist so parents can use the plan from home. M.A.P. can be found on this direct link: https://www.anxietycanada.com/parenting/creating-a-map. So far, the resources have been focused on children; however, parents need the same amount of focus.
3) In the role of a parent, you may get so caught up in taking care of your child that you neglect taking care of yourself. In order to help your child in the best way that you can, you need to be cared for and nurtured, so you have the proper fuel to supply the same care for your child. We have resources strictly for parents themselves at: https://www.anxietycanada.com/parents. We have personal stories from other moms provided for “Moms to be” or “New Moms”, and information and tools to manage your anxiety.
4) If you ever want to seek help from a professional, either for yourself or your child, take a look through our public services directory: https://www.anxietycanada.com/directory-public-services. You will be able to find the contact information for services in your area, and descriptions of each service to see which one is most suitable for you. Opening up and searching for information and resources are positive steps you can take to manage anxiety, and to find out that you are not alone.