Back to school – for some, it’s great. But for others, (parents/carers and kids), it’s a nightmare.
So what can you do to help an anxious child?
- Recognise that fear takes different forms. For one child it’s an obsession with getting everything ‘right’ … for another, indifference and refusal to try. As adults, we can take a step back. What is the child communicating with their behaviour? Are they trying to get attention because they need reassurance? Are they opting out because they’re frightened of drawing attention to themselves? They’re not ‘just’ playing up. They’re saying something.
- Remind the child that everyone worries, (including you!) Explain that it can be good because it helps us to think about things we’re scared of and talk about them and then work out how to make them smaller or sit with them or let them go.
- Get as much information as possible in advance. If they’re starting a new school, take them to see it or look at the website. Find out what the day will look like and draw a chart, so they know what to expect. Pray through their fears and remind them that even though you won’t be in the classroom, Jesus will. Communicate with teachers. Let them know if the child has any special needs; for example, if they’re autistic and need a quiet space. Practice the new routines – laying out school clothes, making a lunch box, explaining where they will be dropped off and picked up. Give them something familiar to carry with them, that will help them to feel safe.
- Talk to the child about their fears – and act out how they can handle them. For example; if they’re nervous about needing to go to the bathroom in a new place, practise what they can say and who they will ask. If they’ve got to give a talk and hate speaking out loud, get them to do it with you, pray with them, encourage them and talk about times when you’ve done things that are hard; and what happened.
- Encourage and praise character over looks or achievement. So, rather than ‘that’s a brilliant picture’ or ‘you look so pretty,’ you could say, ‘well done for keeping going, even though you wanted to give up. I love that you stuck at it.’ Or ‘that was such a kind thing to do. I’m so proud of you for looking after other people.’ Here’s the tough bit – do it for yourself and other family members too. There’s not much point in affirming your son if you’re always criticising your husband. Or telling a girl she’s perfect as she is, whilst moaning about your own baggy eyes.
- Before you tell a child it’s going to be okay, take time to listen. Empathise with their worries and fears. Help them to calm down (e.g. by asking them to pretend they’re blowing up a big balloon to the count of 5; or by getting them into a position where they’re physically comfy, e.g. with a toy or cushion or rug). Pray, then talk about the possibilities – and how they can respond in different situations. Pray again. Sometimes it helps to write down the worries on a bit of paper and then ‘post’ them to God or crumple them up, so the child sees that God has got them. And talk about the different ways that God could help, (not necessarily by taking the situation away but by giving them courage, or a friend to support them).
- Make the worry smaller. For example, use a toy or character and give them the worry; then ask the child to talk back. Or make a worry box, where they post their fears. If they can’t articulate it, ask them to draw it. Have a set (limited) time when you talk about these fears and pray them through. For example, ‘which worry do we need to start with?’ Listen and ask questions, ‘what will happen next? And after that? And after that?’ If the child becomes upset and overwhelmed, take a ‘worry break’ – go for a walk or dance or sing a song or count to 100.
- Check the basics – sleep, snacks/meals and water, time to be quiet and time to run around, cuddles.
- If the child is anxious about a specific task, (like walking to school), try not to avoid the situation, but help them break it into smaller parts. E.g. work out the route and get them to do it, bit by bit over time – first with you, then meeting you half-way, then on their own. Celebrate not just their success, but the fact that are trying. Remind them how proud of them you are and that they are brave, because they’re trying, even though they’re scared. (This is braver than not being scared at all!) Stick up reminders of how they moved through their fears and use them as examples when they’re starting a new challenge.
- Read stories about children or characters who are scared; and talk about how they move through their fears, (e.g. Kathryn Cave and Nick Maland, You’ve Got Dragons). Use Bible stories and characters as examples of God looking after scared and weak people, and talk about how He helps you when you are scared. Teach them bible verses about God’s promises, (God says, “Don’t be scared, for I am with you.’ Isaiah 41:10). And say thank you when God helps them (and us!) face our fears.