Understanding the Back to School Blues: A Parent’s Guide with Insights from Noel McDermott

As parents, we know all too well the challenges our children face, especially in school. Last year’s figures from the children’s commissioner showed a worrying spike in school absences. It’s not just numbers; it’s a clear sign of the stress our little ones are grappling with. And now, with another school term peeking around the corner, we must stand by them, helping them navigate these uncertain times. I recently delved into this helpful topic by mental health maestro Noel McDermott, uncovering ways to recognise and ease the back-to-school blues.

Think of it this way: The return to school, especially after a taxing festive season, can feel overwhelming. It’s like we’re all starting afresh, and that can heighten anxiety. Noel points out that seeing signs of distress in our kids isn’t unusual. We must acknowledge and understand these feelings within the broader context of their experiences.

back to school blues

Here are some proactive steps to prepare your child (and yourself!) for the transition:

Feeling down about returning to school is more common than we might think. It’s a part of the ebb and flow of our emotions as we transition from one phase to another. Sharing this with your children helps them understand that they’re not alone in their feelings but also opens a doorway for honest communication. It normalises their emotions, showing them that feeling unsettled about changes and new beginnings is okay. This open dialogue creates a supportive environment where your kids feel comfortable expressing their feelings, knowing they’re heard and understood.

Engaging as a family in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques can be incredibly empowering. It’s about learning together how our thoughts influence our feelings and behaviours. Books like ‘Mind over Mood’ serve as excellent resources, offering practical insights and exercises. By exploring these techniques together, you equip your children with coping skills and foster a family culture of understanding and emotional intelligence. It’s a proactive approach to mental wellness that benefits everyone, providing tools to handle stress and anxiety more effectively.

Maintaining a list of your children’s favourite activities or small rewards can be a game-changer. It’s about recognising and celebrating their efforts and achievements, however small they seem. Whether it’s a special snack, extra playtime, or a surprise outing, these treats can significantly lift their spirits. Remember, it’s not just about the treats themselves, but the message they convey – that you see and appreciate their efforts. And equally important is self-care for you as a parent. Treating yourself to moments of relaxation or indulgence isn’t just deserved; it’s necessary. It models healthy self-appreciation and balance for your children, showing them that taking care of oneself is vital to life.

Addressing the back-to-school blues often begins with fundamental routines like establishing a consistent sleep schedule and ensuring regular family meals. A good night’s sleep is foundational to a child’s mood and ability to handle stress, so prioritising bedtime routines and a peaceful sleep environment is key. Similarly, regular family meals aren’t just about nutrition; they’re a time for connection and sharing, offering stability and comfort. These moments can act as touchstones for your child, providing regular opportunities to check in and offer support, reinforcing a sense of normalcy and security during times of transition.

How you communicate can make a significant difference in conversations with your child, especially when they’re feeling anxious. Maintaining a relaxed tone and calm body language helps create a soothing atmosphere. Children are incredibly perceptive and often mirror the emotional states of their parents. You’re indirectly teaching your child how to manage their emotions by presenting a composed demeanour. This approach doesn’t mean hiding your feelings but rather managing them to show your child it’s possible to stay calm and collected, even in stressful situations. This emotional regulation is a valuable life skill they’ll carry into adulthood.

Teaching your children how stress hormones like cortisol can influence their thoughts and feelings helps demystify their experiences. It’s important to let them know that feeling upset or anxious during transitions is a natural biological response, not something they must be ashamed of. This understanding can be empowering. Using these moments as teaching opportunities, you can guide them in recognising and naming their emotions, a crucial step in emotional intelligence. Encouraging them to talk about their feelings and showing them that it’s okay helps normalise these experiences. This approach fosters resilience, enabling them to handle similar situations better.

Embracing nature’s healing effects can be a simple yet powerful tool in lifting mood and reducing stress. Encourage your children to spend time outdoors, whether on a leisurely walk in the park, a family hike, or just playing in the garden. Nature has a unique way of calming the mind and rejuvenating the spirit. Activities like mindful meditation in a natural setting can also enhance this experience. This provides a physical outlet for their energy and helps them connect with the environment, fostering a sense of peace and grounding. Such activities are not just recreational; they’re vital to mental wellness, promoting physical and emotional health.

If you notice worrying signs persisting for more than a few days, don’t hesitate to reach out to the school, your GP, or a mental health professional. They can work with you to build a resilient family system.

Noel McDermott shares a vital tip:
Anxiety in Children
  • Nervous behaviours like nail biting.
  • Uncontrollable worrying.
  • Difficulty relaxing and constant fidgeting.
  • Irritability and feelings of impending doom.
  • Offer more cuddles and one-on-one time.
  • Encourage open conversations.
  • Normalise their worries.
  • Introduce comforting items like special toys.
  • Organise pre-school meetups with classmates.
  • Visit the school ahead of time to ease the transition.
Back to school

Schools play a crucial role in nurturing children’s emotional and psychological health. They provide a space for social challenges and learning, helping mitigate home environment issues through positive relationships and trust.

Social interactions heavily influence children’s development in school. These interactions promote emotional, cognitive, and psychological growth, particularly for children with difficulties at home.

Noel McDermott is a seasoned psychotherapist and drama therapist with over three decades of experience in health, social care, education, and criminal justice. His company, Mental Health Works, offers bespoke mental health services for individuals and organisations. Find out more at Mental Health Works.

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