Eight ways to support your child as they return to secondary school

By Julia Clements, Educational Psychologist

After family, school is the most significant system in a child or teenager’s life, and it offers stability, consistency and predictability, as well as a chance to hang out with friends - all of which is important to young people’s emotional wellbeing. Your child may have a real mix of emotions as the new term approaches. Here are some tips to help support your child as they start or return to secondary school.

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1. Get organised

Your child may have grown out of clothes and shoes since they last attended school, or they may need new uniform if they're starting a new school. At home, look for uniform, PE kit, bags, books, stationery etc. so you can see what they already have and what else they may need. If the list is long (and expensive) see what can be sourced second-hand or from supermarkets. Encourage your child to get involved with this practical task by finding and sorting things and making lists. This’ll get them into ‘getting ready for school’ mode and will give them some sense of choice and control over the process.

2. Get into a routine

It’s likely that your child will be out of routine for their bed times, waking up times and meal times. About a week before school starts, encourage them to get to bed at a decent time, wake a little earlier and eat regularly at more ‘usual’ times. Teenagers have a different circadian (sleep/wake) rhythm than adults so it’s entirely normal for them to want to go to bed later and get up later than you, especially if they are out of the routine of getting up for school. However, teenagers need about nine hours of sleep per night to function well, so do encourage them to get this, on as many nights as possible.

3. Make time to listen carefully to any worries

Your child may be worried about returning to school, starting a new school, or separation from you after having spent time at home. They may be worried about starting new subjects, or more difficult schoolwork. They may also have concerns about friendships that may have changed. Your child may also be anxious about the practical arrangements and restrictions imposed by school around COVID-19, such as wearing masks - some teenagers may feel their freedom is being inhibited by these necessary measures, while others may be worried that other students aren’t wearing them.

Although we often want to reassure children that they’ll be okay, sometimes we dismiss or invalidate their feelings by doing so. For example, we might say “Don’t be silly” when they tell us something that worries them. Instead, try to validate their feelings – let them know that their feelings are real, and that you’ve heard them. So instead of using phrases such as “Don’t worry”, try “Of course you feel...”, or “It’s entirely natural that you feel…”.

4. Help your child to problem-solve

Problem-solving can be really useful if your child is starting to get overwhelmed by their worries. Here are different ways you can help your child do so…

Help your child to write all the things that are worrying them on separate bits of paper or sticky notes. Put the worries into piles titled 'Things I can do something about' and 'Things I can’t do anything about'. Focus on the things your child can do something about and help them to solve these problems. So, for example, if they’re worried that they are out of the loop with friends, then a solution might be to call or message a friend who’s most likely to respond positively and to organise a meet-up before going back to school.

It may well be that your child’s worries are mostly about things they can do little about. In which case it could be useful to look at some of those things and see if there’s something you can do about them. If so, take that worry away from them and see if you can sort it out. There may also be some worries that are for others, such as their teachers, to sort out. Again, you could take this away and say that you’re going to contact their teacher and see if they can help.

This exercise will help your child to think more rationally, to problem-solve and enlist help from others when worries get too big.

5. Remind your child how they have coped with difficulties in the past

When children and young people get overwhelmed, they forget just how much they’ve already survived in their lives. At the very least your child has already coped with transitioning from home to primary and maybe on to secondary school. They may have also survived other big changes, such as house moves, or changes to family life through divorce or bereavement.

Tell them stories about how proud you were when they coped with these moments. This will remind them of their resilience – their ability to adapt to difficult situations. Ask your child how they managed in the past and encourage them to use these strategies again. Remind them to ask for help from you and other trusted adults when they need it, as drawing on supportive relationships is another important aspect of being resilient when things get tough.

6. Be a good role model

Be aware of your own anxious responses and make sure you have strategies for getting to a calm space before trying to support your child. Children learn from observing their parents and anxiety is very easily ‘caught’, so if you’re anxious your child will pick up on this. It’s good to name what you’re feeling, for example “Oh, I’m really on edge today” and to do something to regulate your feeling: “I think walking the dog might help”. Encourage your child to find ways to help regulate their anxiety – through music, art, physical activity, or whatever they enjoy which calms them.

7. Anxiety may hide behind challenging behaviour

If your child’s behaviour changes or becomes difficult leading up to their return to school, it could be really useful to stop and think what emotions might be driving this behaviour. The likelihood is that they’re fearful, worried, anxious, or unsure. Rather than just tackling the behaviour, make sure you talk to your child about underlying feelings.

8. Seek professional support

If you're concerned about your child then contact their school and/or get an appointment to see a GP.

By Julia Clements, Principal Educational Psychologist at children’s mental health charity Place2Be.

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