Sarah Rayner

Sarah Rayner

Worry and Panic?

Anxious About Children Going Back to School?

5 ways to manage worry about an uncertain future.

Posted Sep 03, 2020

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As pupils return to school for the first time since lockdown, many parents, teachers and caregivers are anxious about what will happen. Here are some simple ways to manage anxiety, which will help maintain perspective and keep you grounded. 

Often, much of the worry involved is concern over what might happen rather than what will happen for certain. 

"I'm worried that a case of COVID will shut the school down and delay my children's learning again."

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Talking to your children about school can help normalise it for both of you. Remind them that most of the routine will be familiar to them.
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Rarely, if ever, are our worries about what has happened already. This way of thinking is often called catastrophising and there is a reason our minds work like this. Our brains have evolved to protect us and keep us safe. It would not serve us, for instance, were we to see a car speeding directly at us, to conclude the driver is probably going to brake in time. Instead, our senses go into alert to ensure we get out of the way, fast. This is a form of negative bias, and when you find yourself imagining the worst, it’s useful to remember the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of a bad outcome.

Anxiety is your body reacting to what it perceives as a threat and it causes a reaction in the most ancient part of the brain, the amygdala. Along with many other physiological reactions, we release stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. The irony is that constantly feeling anxious causes the stress hormones to spike a lot of the time, which in turn suppresses the immune system.

"Anxiety can create a very fertile ground for any virus or pathogen—they just love a stressed human! It follows that if I can manage to keep my anxiety under control, I should be less likely to succumb to illness."

Rationally, we know that churning over and over the fear of what might happen serves little, if any, purpose, but managing anxiety is often easier said than done. And when it comes to children who find it hard to express their worries, it can be particularly hard to know where to start.

Tip 1: Take it one day at a time.

One hour at a time is often an even more helpful mantra. Taking the situation step by step helps reduce the constant worry about what might happen later.  When I'm feeling really worried, I break my time down into manageable chunks even within a day. Let's have a cup of tea, for instance, I might say to myself upon waking. Then let’s get dressed and get breakfast. Doing this can reduce the sense of overwhelm, especially if you reward yourself and your kids for their achievements as you go.

Tip 2: Control what you can, not what you can’t.

Being in limbo is horribly uncomfortable mentally and often a source of anxiety. The uncertainty of the situation is what gets to a lot of us, especially given our tendency to fill in the blanks with worst-case scenarios.

"The government don’t know what they’re doing. They keep changing their minds. Just look at exams fiasco."

"We’ve had no clear guidance from the school and my kids haven’t a clue what to expect."

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Pupils will have had different lockdown experiences. It may have been safe and enjoyable for some, distressing for others
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For many, it is not the virus that is a worry, it’s the lack of support and clarity around how a return to school is going to work in practice. The UK government has U-turned several times on issues that impact parents directly, most recently with respect to GCSEs and "A" levels. As a result, many parents and students are finding it hard to trust the authorities.

"I'm finding it hard not to tell my son to wipe every surface he comes into contact with at college with antibacterial wipes."

In situations like this, it's important to remember there is only so much you can control. In the short term, you can't control government policy and you can't control what your kids will do when you're not there, but you can give them the means to protect themselves.

"Before they leave the house each day, I make sure both my children have a pocket-size hand sanitiser, a packet of antibacterial wipes and at least two face masks (I factor that they’re bound to lose one). I've also clearly labeled their stationary and pens so it’s easier for them to stick to using their own things. I make them to wash their hands the moment they are home from school, and the rest I leave to fate!"

To ease your own sense of uncertainty, it's quite reasonable to opt out of regular news and social media updates that only remind us perpetually how up-in-the-air everything is.

"I check the infection rates in our local authority twice a week to get a handle on if closures look likely. So far they haven't. I find that much more helpful than reading endless headlines."

Tip 3: Maintain your boundaries.

With family members, it can be especially hard to separate ourselves out from one another.

"I need to protect my kids, if I don’t look out for them who else is going to?"

"I won’t be a good parent if I don’t look out for their welfare—it's my job."

Many of us are prone to this sort of internal conversation. The problem is that it can mean our loved ones absorb our anxieties and vice versa. As schools and colleges start up once more, parents and caregivers have to learn to let go as much as children do. Everyone has been more isolated from each other and now we need to be brave and step out into the world. It’s like the first day of primary school for all ages of children, happening at once. Talk to your children about the positives of returning and seeing their friends and try to take your own worries to your own support network.

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Treat yourself as a good friend would.
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Tip 4: Allow yourself to be imperfect.

It's all very well being told COVID-19 doesn't impact young children, but for all the talk of bubbles, that doesn't take into account the risks to those looking after children. What if you are immune-compromised or in a high-risk group? Or what if you're caught in the "sandwich generation" and have elderly parents who you are responsible for, too? It's also worth remembering that adolescence and menopause are times in our lives when our hormones are likely to cause high anxiety anyway. Many families have a double whammy there. Women have carried a lot of the burden during this pandemic, so ask for support whenever you can. Remember, whether you’re a teacher, a parent or a caregiver, being "good enough" is all any of us can ever be. Treat yourself with compassion or, to put it another way, treat yourself as a good friend would.

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'Make friends' with the situation
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Tip 5: "Make friends" with the situation and your anxiety about it.

By this, I mean accept it rather than continue to fight it. Continually beating yourself up over your inclination to worry won’t make it disappear—believe me, I've tried! Ignoring it isn’t the solution either. Instead, try to observe your fears more objectively, from a distance, by taking a step outside of yourself. Ask yourself: Is it helpful to have this worry? Is it a half-formed idea? Is it true? We think we can't control our minds, but we can make a choice as to how we react to things—it's one few aspects of living through a pandemic that we can control.

You can never get rid of anxiety completely as it’s a natural physiological response, but its impact can be reduced. If we can bring our personal and collective levels of panic down, then we will feel better able to cope with the current situation. Meanwhile, I wish you and your loved ones strength and courage, wherever in the world you are reading this, and if you've any further tips to share, please put them in the comments section.