By Olivia Wilson
If your children went to school with mine, you would quite often see me standing in the middle of the playground once everyone has left and the bell has gone, holding my daughter tightly as she cries… no sobs. Or, you may see me trying to wrench my daughter off the school gates and get her into the building. You may see me desperately looking around for someone to help me, for someone to take her hand and make this separation easier for us both. Some days you may see me walking back to my car in tears, or possibly hunched over my steering wheel in a nearby road, trying to make sense of what has just happened.
Most, not all, but most mornings, we have issues; and most mornings, like lots of other parents, I am dealing with this ALONE. I am dealing with the “I’m not going” and the refusal to get dressed. I am dealing with the two hours of tears and the exhaustion as it took almost three hours to fall asleep last night. I am dealing with the loss of control at a seemingly fun event at the weekend, or the aftermath of seeing something scary on the news… Parents of anxious children deal with so much behind closed doors, and especially on bad days, after hours of battling, we can often be seen muttering under our breath, “oh god I just wish they’d do more!”
That’s why I’ve come up with a list of what I think schools could do to help us parents of anxious kids a little more.
- KNOW THEIR STORY – Every child has a different story. Every child is different, and each child’s anxiety is intensified by different triggers. *If you take the time to know their story (really know their story) you can better help each child as an individual. That means reading their paperwork.
Example: My daughter suffers with severe separation anxiety and PTSD after the death of a person she felt very close to. She is terrified I am going to be killed. She CANNOT watch upsetting things on TV, horror films, pantomimes (yes…), or the news. She can’t read stories that involve ghosts or death, and if she does it’s not pretty! At school they have been learning about Malala! Now whilst I think this is an incredibly powerful and much needed lesson for children today, she really struggled. We had sleepless nights (and I mean SLEEPLESS), we had panic attacks, crying, hyperventilating, school refusal, & choking… Maybe if she or I had been ‘pre warned’ of this topic, I could have broken her in gently beforehand. That is why I beg you to KNOW THEIR STORY.
- Before term even begins, send an email saying “hi”, telling our children about what you did over the holidays, what’s happening in the first week back, where their classroom will be, who they will be sitting next to, and how their days will pan out would be a godsend! This would ease their anxiety about coming back to school and give us a good conversation starter, and some answers to constant “pre term” worries.
- Organise an end of holiday breakfast for our children. This can allow them to remind themselves of their surroundings without 400 other kids in the space. They can chat to a friendly staff member about how they’re feeling and become more relaxed about the prospect of another term. This is also a great way for all the children in the same boat to be introduced and encouraged to look out for each other.
- Once term officially starts, have a well-liked, familiar staff member in the playground when our children arrive at school. Make this a regular morning meet up, preferably the same person every time, and encourage that staff member to help when they see our children struggling to separate.
- Give our children a safe place to go and calm themselves in stressful periods. This could be a special corner of the library or even a space in the office. Let every child know where this is before they really need to use it!
- Explain to parents and children who they can go to during anxious times. It’s so important that we all have someone we can turn to, who doesn’t judge or show signs of annoyance. This adult should be empathetic, reassuring and understanding of our children’s feelings and ours. It’s not easy seeing our children so distressed, and to be listened to and reassured in a caring manner goes a long way to easing everyone’s stress levels.
- Educate all children in your school about anxiety. Talk about what it feels like so everyone knows how to recognise it. Give children tips on how to deal with anxiety and how to help a friend in need.
- Provide our children with activities to distract them from the physical symptoms that anxiety causes. Reassure them that they aren’t causing a problem and assure them they do not need to be embarrassed. Give our children small tasks to complete. If the stress is before class give them a job to do in the office. If it’s during class time, ask them to get a drink of water or have a walk in the fresh air. Distraction is a powerful tool.
- Give our children positive feedback when they make an effort to use the strategies they have been taught. Walking into work may not be a big deal for you but walking into school after hours of severe anxiety is HUGE!
- If there is a big change coming up or an important school event (NAPLAN for example), make time to take our children to one side, chat with them, ask them how they are feeling. Show them you care about how they feel, and you are there to make this as smooth for them as possible. Being ‘present’ and showing our kids you care is so powerful.
- Give our children a timetable to take home and stick on the fridge. Knowing how their day is laid out gives them plenty of time to prepare themselves and their minds, and not be too anxious about what lies ahead.
- Maintain regular meetings with parents. Ask us about what’s happening at home, get a real insight into the struggles our children are having. Learn about these children, they need you to! Find out about their sleeping habits, why our children are refusing to come to school, or are getting upset whilst reading certain materials. The more YOU know, the more YOU can help.
**As always, if you are concerned about your child’s mental health, your first point of call must be your GP.
Olivia Wilson is a Melbourne based freelance writer who has created a campaign to raise awareness of and educate people about the severity of Childhood Anxiety after experiencing a lack of compassion for her own anxious daughter. Hanging Out With Mermaids offers support to parents of anxious children, and resources for anyone living or working with an anxious child.
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