In any normal year, the return to school after the summer break always causes kids some anxiety. Let’s face it, this has been a year to remember. Children like stability. Even though they may kick against it, they like structure and they like routine. The pandemic stripped them of these reassurances.
Now, after so long out of the classroom, all our young people are facing a return to something that will look and feel very different. How, as concerned parents, do we best prepare them and support them to step back in with confidence?
Reduce the unknowns
When we’re facing a challenge, we all like to know as much as we can about what we’re up against. Young people are no different. Forewarned is forearmed, and one of the best techniques I know to prepare for something that could induce anxiety is to visualise it. Throughout the pandemic, in my experience, schools have been excellent at communicating all of the changes involved in making themselves safe places to learn. Making sure your child is fully conversant with any new layouts, the timetables, where they will eat, who they will spend their time with, etc., is key to helping them visualise what school will look and feel like. They may be about to start a new school and this can obviously add an extra layer of anxiety.
So, in the next couple of weeks, talk to them openly and reassuringly about what it might be like. Give them time to share their feelings and really listen. If they are putting on a new uniform, have a few practice runs and get them used to the feeling of it. Share your own experiences of school, but make sure to put a positive spin on things. You might share how you felt nervous, but how things turned out better than you imagined them to be, which is often the way where fear is concerned! The more they know what things will actually be like, the more their fears will be allayed.
Many teens are sociable creatures (with friends, as opposed to their parents!) and one of the things the lockdown has robbed them of is the ability to be part of their friendship groups. Though life is returning to a semblance of normality, many teens will still be worried about how this will play out in a school setting. Will they be in the same bubble as their friends? Will their friends even be there at all, having had to move back to their home countries? Will the friends they had before still want to know them? All of these questions might be running through the mind of your child. Teen friendship groups are often a delicate ecosystem and things can change at the drop of a hat, especially where girls are concerned. So, pre-empt this. Find out who they are going to be with during the school day and encourage them to chat before that first day back.
We are lucky to live in such a technology-rich age and even if friends are living in a different country, friendships need not be severed. This will allow them to re-engage and chat about everything and nothing in the way teens do. It will certainly help them to reconnect and make things a little less awkward before they reach the school gates.
Of course, some teens are naturally loners; you as a parent are best placed to judge what is normal for them. However, if your teen is normally sociable and seems reluctant to talk to anyone, this in itself will be a red flag for parents, highlighting that there might be deeper anxieties they need to be aware of.
Getting back on track
Over the lockdown, many of us probably started off with good intentions to use the time wisely and maintain solid healthy routines to help us get through. It has to be remembered, our kids are only human too and just as we adults may have let routines slide, so our kids will have followed suit.
Now, with the new school year almost upon us, is the perfect time to galvanise yourselves for a fresh start. Re-establishing good routines around healthy eating, taking regular exercise, good quality sleep and being prepared will in turn help your teen on a practical level.
To learn effectively you need to be prepared, focused and alert and if your kid has fallen into a bit of an unmotivated stupor over this long period away from school, then now is the time to do them a favour and shake them out of it.
Talk to your child about this and make a plan together. The more you involve them in the process, the more likely they are to take ownership of it.
Russell Hemmings is a Dubai-based lifecoach and cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist, and author of The Mind Diet and Active Positive Parenting (russellhemmings.co.uk).