Family

Back to School Stress & Anxiety

Rebecca Stelea

Worrying is part of being a parent. Wanting the best for your child is a natural, instinctive part of parenthood. The best nutrition, the best care, the best development, the best of everything in life. We can easily control some of these things. Then come the ones we simply need to let the experts deal with in the best way they know. 


First day of school. The day I, as a parent, dreaded profoundly as I started writing this piece - I can’t help but worry how my child will cope. What if he feels abandoned? Or if he’s too shy to say he needs the toilet or that he’s hungry or thirsty? What if he can’t make friends? None of these worries are logical as I know I’ve raised a confident, sociable child who is never afraid to speak his mind (like when he publicly shamed me for offering to buy him a hot chocolate which apparently doesn’t qualify as a healthy treat). Even though I know this child has an answer to everything, I worry. I also worry about safety and the Covid-19 pandemic that doesn’t seem to end. There is so much bubble talk, I’m not even sure I follow what’s what anymore. 


Still, time moves on and children have milestones coming their way. No matter how stressed, anxious or worried we are about change or new things, as parents, we have to do our best to not transmit those feelings to our children.


To say I’ve felt overwhelmed in the weeks building up to the beginning of the school year is an understatement. Sometimes it’s hard to switch off the parent side of us even at work. At Hapi, we’re a small team and almost all of us have young children so talking openly about this I realised my colleagues were in the same boat. They also worry and expect a bit of jitters around the school or nursery start. Talking about it so openly made us think that our community members and parents in general are probably going through the same thing. 


So how do you get help (and help others too while at it)? We simply decided this was a topic worth talking about and started looking for a professional who could put our minds at ease.


We were introduced to Gemma Perkins and decided she ticked all the boxes. She has almost a decade of experience in youth leadership development and holds a first-class degree in psychology. She’s also a fully qualified primary school teacher and has vast experience of helping children and their families through adjustment periods, anxiety and stress. She’s both booksmart and “kid” smart. She doesn’t just quote the books, she gives your real life examples and advice on how to deal with situations she’s already dealt with on the other side as a teacher. 


It’s almost a cliché to hear people talk about how stressed they are. Others might refer to being anxious about this or that. The first thing Gemma’s webinar talked us through was the difference between anxiety and stress and her definitions are below. 


Stress – a short term physical and emotional reaction to external triggers, challenges or threats. This response usually goes away once the situation has resolved. 


Anxiety – feelings of worry or dread about a situation which can persist even after the situation has passed or may have no obvious external cause. Anxiety is less common in babies and very young children because in order to be anxious you have to be able to imagine a bad thing happening. 

Anxiety disorder – feeling worried or threatened by non-threatening stressors. (e.g. phobias, social anxiety).


You’ve probably heard about the “fight or flight” response. There’s actually “freeze” too in which you do just that. These are in fact the type of responses that humans can have to a stressful situation. Short term or acute stress is a natural response and it’s what’s been keeping us safe and alive throughout centuries. 


Once you know what stress is (in theory) you need to start teaching yourself to identify it and recognise its symptoms and put together a healthy coping mechanism. As Gemma described it, an unhealthy one would be worrying about a deadline and overeating or over drinking as a short term comfort. Surely that won’t actually help with the deadline.


For the school milestone, as in most social situations, communication is key. Speaking to our children about their day to day, what they liked, what they were worried about, etc is something we should make a habit of even on days where stress comes at us from all sides. 


If there’s one north star when it comes to how to speak to children it would be “looking for the good”, basically making the positive and mundane trump over negative aspects of the day. A few examples Gemma suggested were:


“What did you enjoy about school today?”

 “What did you do at lunchtime?”

 “Did anything make you smile or laugh today?”

 “What do you want to play this afternoon?”

 “What are you looking forward to today / tomorrow?”


Generally speaking, I’d describe myself as a relaxed parent but the school milestone really threw me into a vortex of emotions. After a long period of spinning a cocoon around my son, I had to take a step back and trust that he’s ready to take on any challenges thrown his way. I have to trust that he will ask for seconds if he’s hungry and that he won’t be too shy to speak to his classmates. Taking advice from a professional really helped me understand how to take the role of a hype mum/ co-pilot in this journey that primarily belongs to my child. Independence comes in many shapes and sizes and this is a very important step.


Want to learn more about how to deal with school stress and anxiety? Watch our full webinar now!

Did you find the webinar useful? Download our resource pack here.

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