In Queensland, schools will reopen to all year levels from Monday the 25th of May. The work of schools is usually both relational and multi-dimensional, but with the closures in response to COVID-19, instruction became remote in a virtual world of online meetings, emails, and videos. Schools are now working to return students and staff safely to the face to face learning environment. One of the challenges parents are addressing, after the disruption to their child or young person’s learning progress, is anxiety about the return to school.
We know that anxiety is a common experience for children, young people, and adults. It is a normal, adaptive reaction, as it creates a level of alertness and protective response to danger. However, it can also be maladaptive when the response is activated for a perceived rather than real threat. One of the primary characteristics of anxiety is worry, which is the fear that future events will have negative outcomes. Children, young people, and adults with increased anxiety are much more likely to see everyday events as potentially threatening. They are more likely to engage in a variety of avoidance behaviours to reduce exposure to the perceived threat.
School as a perceived threat
For some children and young people, the thought of the return to school may be enough to trigger an anxiety reaction. After a period at home engaged in the virtual world, they feel uncomfortable at the thought of going back into social situations where they may find it difficult to initiate conversations and may want to avoid group interactions. They may worry about being evaluated socially and worry that others will view them negatively. At all costs, the child or young person will want to avoid any situations where they anticipate an increased risk of being judged, embarrassed or experiencing failure.
It is important to remember that from early childhood through adolescence, anxiety is a normal reaction to stressful situations. Up to about age 8 years, many causes of anxiety continue from preschool levels with a focus on specific, identifiable events. With increasing age, sources of anxiety become more social and abstract, such as worrying about friends, social acceptance, the future, and coping with transitions. Young people tend to become more worried about moral and justice issues as they continue to develop. In the majority of cases, children and young people learn strategies to cope with these situations and severe or chronic anxiety is thwarted.
What you will notice for children with high anxiety
Highly anxious children and young people tend to struggle with the various demands of school. They may demonstrate inattention, perfectionism, forgetfulness, and may be unwilling to participate due to concerns about failure or embarrassment. They may also avoid difficult tasks, seek easy tasks, and not volunteer or readily participate in classroom activities. Because withdrawal is a typical response to avoid feeling anxious, anxious children may be perceived as unmotivated, lazy, or uninterested. However, they really want to do well and be involved, but the motivation to avoid feeling anxious is high.
Anxious children and young people tend to withdraw socially to avoid experiencing anxiety, which can lead to further problems of fitting in and making and sustaining friendships. Over time, more social problems may occur which can make situations worse. Avoidance and worry may offer short term ways to reduce anxiety, but unfortunately the negative effects are accumulative and cause more problems in the medium to long term.
What you can do
As anxious children and young people tend to demonstrate these patterns at home, as well as at school, parents can do a lot to help. Here are some tips to consider:
- Be patient and be prepared to listen
- Maintain realistic, attainable goals and expectations for your child
- Communicate that perfection is not expected or acceptable
- Maintain consistent but flexible routines for homework, chores, activities, and more
- Accept that mistakes are a normal part of growing up and that no one is expected to do everything equally well
- Avoid being critical, disparaging, impatient, or cynical
- Be consistent in how you handle problems and administer consequences
- Praise and reinforce effort, even if success is less than expected. Practice and rehearse upcoming events, such as giving a speech or other performance
- Teach your child simple strategies to help with anxiety, such as organising materials and time, developing small scripts of what to do and say when anxiety increases, and learning how to relax under stressful conditions
- Do not treat feelings, questions, and statements about feeling anxious as silly or unimportant
- Often, reasoning is not effective in reducing anxiety. Do not criticise your child for not being able to respond to rational approaches
- Seek outside help if the problem persists and continues to interfere with daily activities
If severe, anxiety problems may require professional help. Here are some initial questions when determining what to do next:
- How typical is the anxiety for the child’s age?
- Does it tend to be situation-specific or pervasive across situations?
- Are there any current events, changes, or circumstances that may help to explain the problem?
- What effects on personal, social, and academic performance are evident?
- What has been tried to help the situation?
- What has helped and what has not helped?
Anxiety is a common problem affecting children and young people at home and school and can cause significant problems in personal, social, and academic performance. Often, it is not easy to identify, or it may be mistaken for another problem, such as attention difficulties, learning disorders, or lack of motivation. Left unidentified and untreated, it can worsen over time, causing more problems into adolescence and adulthood. Parents are major sources of support for anxious children, helping to reduce the negative effects of anxiety and encouraging progress. There is little doubt that there will be increases in social, emotional, and behavioural problems for students and adults when schools reopen their physical buildings. We are here to help and support you and your child as needed.
Want to learn more? Book an appointment with one of our psychologists or visit our clinic and wellbeing store in Bulimba.