The words ‘back to school’ strike fear or anxiety in many learners, but they don’t have to. Starting a new year is often a challenge, but with a little effort you can help to ease your children’s fears.
Hein Hofmeyr, a clinical psychologist at Akeso Nelspruit, offers some key tips for mentally preparing your child for a new year:
- Motivate your child for the year by reading books or watching movies that are related to their phase at school, whether it is first year at primary school, high school, university or going to residence.
- Include your child in the preparation process. Involve your child in shopping with you and encourage them to choose their own stationery, clothes and items for their room at the residence or their homework desk or space at home. If your budget allows, include a special item of their liking to further enhance their motivation for the year that lies ahead.
- Help your child in identifying their goals for the year. These should focus on academic, sport, social and family/home goals.
- Give your child the physical and emotional support that is required and communicate to them that you will listen, understand and assist them whenever they come to you with a difficulty, problem or concern.
- Create a safe and secure space for your child to talk to you. Ask about their fears, concerns and worries for the year and help contain their feelings regarding these aspects.
- Be part of your child’s on-going journey by attending meetings, functions and any cultural or sport activities in which they participate.
- Focus on the year that lies ahead and do not compare or relate back to the previous year. Bringing up the past might create a fear within your child that they were not good enough, which could impact their self-esteem.
- Increase your child’s feelings of safety and security by bringing in another control element. Assist them in creating a tentative time table which includes all the different activities that should take up time in their day. Examples include school, homework, meals, play, socialising, screen time (cellphones/tablets/TV), family time, hygiene and sleep. This helps create boundaries and responsible behaviour.
Set goals together
“One of the best techniques for preparing for the school year and also maintaining good performance is goal setting,” says Hofmeyr. “Goals allow children to know what is expected of them and enable them to align their thoughts, feelings and behaviours with these expectations. This can inspire and motivate them to take action with respect to their schoolwork, homework and performance in all other spheres.”
Your children should be involved fully in this process. That helps to create a comfortable space where your child feels important and worthy, which encourages them to take greater responsibility for achieving their goals.
“To ensure that goals are sustainable, it is helpful to align them with the child’s own objectives, as well as those of the family as a whole,” he adds. “This allows the child to discover that if they are to achieve their dreams and fantasies they have to have smaller, step-by-step, short term goals in place that push them to become the best they can be.”
Parents can help in building their child’s emotional well-being by remembering that emotions such as anxiety, stress, anger and sadness are normal responses to certain situations. “It’s only when the behaviours that accompany these emotions become problematic or start to affect their functioning that parents should intervene therapeutically,” Hofmeyr adds.
He stresses that fostering a supportive relationship with your child which enhances trust,is imperative when dealing with their emotions. “You want to create a space where your child can share their thoughts and feelings without the fear of being judged or punished. This will allow them to vent about the feelings, thoughts and fears which could lead to problems at school, such as academic difficulties, social challenges, peer pressure and bullying.”
Should you observe that your child is struggling to deal with certain triggers, situations, fears or emotions in a way that this starts to impact their functioning at school, academic performance, sports participation or relationships with friends and at home, it might be a good time to seek therapeutic help from a school counsellor or psychologist. This is especially true if the symptoms last for two weeks or longer.
Hofmeyr says warning signs and symptoms include:
- Intense feelings and mood changes – Feelings and emotions that are overwhelming and uncontrollable, as well as severe mood swings.
- Behavioural changes – Drastic changes in behaviour that almost seem to be a change in personality. It further includes impulsive or dangerous behaviours with impacting consequences.
- Difficulties with concentration – Difficulty sustaining attention or concentration or becoming impulsive and fidgety in a child that previously did not struggle with self-containment.
- Weight changes –Unexplained weight loss or weight gain or a sudden change in appetite.
- Physical symptoms – Those associated with anxiety and depression include muscle pain, headaches, stomach aches and pains without any medical or physical cause.
- Physical harm – Participating in self-harming activities such as cutting or burning themselves deliberately or expressing thoughts of suicide.
- Substance use – Consuming alcohol, cannabis, medication or illicit drugs that affect their functioning.
“If your child displays any of these signs or other behaviours that are concerning to you or impact their functioning, parents should take immediate action,” Hofmeyr says. “Start by displaying interest and a willingness to help by listening to your child and trying to understand the problem from their point of view. Even if your child shows resistance to receiving help, the subconscious message the child receives is ‘my parents are there for me and have not rejected or abandoned me’.”
Should you struggle to find a solution together, or lack the ability to offer advice to your child on the problem experienced, or if you feel that the situation is beyond your capabilities, consider talking to a teacher, principal or school counsellor, doctor or psychologist.
If the problem is more personal or family orientated, contact your doctor or psychologist for professional assistance. Akeso can be contacted at 0861 435 787 for an appointment with a psychologist.
About the Akeso Group
Akeso is a group of private in-patient psychiatric hospitals, and is part of the Netcare Group. Akeso provides individual, integrated and family-oriented treatment in specialised in-patient treatment facilities, for a range of psychiatric, psychological and addictive conditions.
Please visit www.akeso.co.za, email [email protected], or contact us on 011 301 0369 for further information. In the event of a psychological crisis, please call 0861 435 787 for assistance.