Analysis: here are 6 ways for parents to cope with the anxiety and uncertainty that comes up at the start of the new school year

"Somebody once said that you're as happy as your unhappiest child. I love that phrase, even though it’s a little scary," says Dr Jolanta Burke, Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Positive Psychology and Health at RCSI. "When your child is upset, you are upset too. You think about how to help them."

Back to school can be a difficult or anxious time for parents and children alike. It brings back the routines, homework, packed lunches and schoolbags, and means new friends, classmates and teachers. With the rising cost of living and the ever-increasing cost of sending your child to school, many parents are also struggling financially.

Change is always stressful, says Burke. "There’s this uncertainty associated with the future and the start of the new school year, regardless of the age of your child, but especially children that are going into a new school . Parents are anxious for them because they don’t know what to expect. They feel a little bit out of control. You can control to a certain extent what happens at home, but you can’t control what happens in school. You want to do your best as a parent but sometimes your hands are tied."

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, how back to school costs are leaving many under financial pressure

Reducing the unknown

Reducing the level of uncertainty where you can will make you feel a little bit better and will help you feel like you're more in control of what’s happening, says Burke. If you’re anxious about the return to school get as much information as you can and give the teacher as much information as possible about your child to make you feel that you’ve done what you can.

Ask questions to help prepare your child for the experience of going to school. If you’re concerned about how your child is doing in school, that might mean communicating with their teacher about any difficulties they’re experiencing so it can be addressed.

Brainstorming without judgment

"Often, with anybody who isn't used to this process, they start brainstorming and they straight away judge the idea. The next sentence is, 'I can’t do it because’. Very often when we judge ideas while brainstorming it never works well," Burke explains. That's why it's important to consciously remove judgment.

"I always say to people, what is the whackiest thing you could do? On a scale from one to ten, go for the ten. They often come up with such a whacky idea that they start to laugh. But it’s removing the pressure. There are so many options, they’re on a scale, and we need to decide which option we feel comfortable with," says Burke. Brainstorming without judgement is a way for you to come up with an action plan and planning gives you control, whether it’s about financial issues or related to your child starting school.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ 2fm, Dr Malie Coyne on back to school separation for parents and children

Reflect on the good things in a day

Research done in Australia has shown the power of reflecting on what has gone well in a day, even if it's been a bad day, says Burke. "Write it down or reflect on it on the way home from work, or while bringing your child home from school, or even at the kitchen table. Reflect on, OK today wasn't the best day, but what went well?

"Researchers found that when people did it for a month it created a balance. Even on the worst days, suddenly they saw that it wasn’t all bad, there was also some good things in it. They wouldn't have known them if they were just trying to forget about the day. Reflect on the day to figure out, in the midst of the bad things, what are the little sparkles?"

Similarly, it can help to think about the way we frame the stories we tell ourselves. "We tell ourselves so many negative stories throughout the day. 'Everything is going to be bad' and so on," says Burke. "Whether it’s our own anxieties or the anxieties that our children have, it’s the awareness of what type of stories we are telling around the kitchen table -- to our children, to ourselves -- and consciously turning on that switch for hopeful stories, especially where children are involved, because we have an opportunity to parent out of anxiety, in a way."

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ News, a new survey finds anxiety is a long-term affect of Covid on children

Hope

"The most important thing is to know that there is a way out of the situation in the near future, have that hope in your mind," says Burke. "The big difference between optimism and hope is that optimism is thinking everything is going to work out well. But in this situation we need hope and hope consists of two things: It consists of, firstly, knowing that everything is going to work out, but the second very important thing is creating a pathway. That pathway is what helps us keep going and this is what helps us get in control."

"Imagine yourself a year, two years, five years into the future -- What changes could you make? Often we are so stuck in a rut that we can’t think of a way out and that’s where you need someone to help you through it." Giving yourself a support system, whether it family, friends, a coach or professional help, is important. "Talk to someone and get their perspective on it. Consider, what advice would people give you? Because thats what talking to a friend is about, it's about a different perspective and helping to get out of the rut."

Awareness

"For a period of time in their lives, children look at their parents as their heroes, 'they can cope with anything!' Often a child feels inferior because they think that they don’t have what their parents have," Burke explains. "So it is about the parents telling the stories about how they have struggled and how they have overcome this and being open with the child about feeling fearful because sometimes when we feel anxiety we either really express this or we completely hide it and all the child can see is just the symptoms of it."

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, anxious families wait to hear whether they have a school bus place

"Even siting at the kitchen table and saying, 'I'm struggling today, I'm so anxious, but here’s what I'm going to do' and the child will learn from observing. We all are anxious and frustrated at times, it’s such a normal feeling."

Choice gives children control

That awareness combined with open communication is key to dealing with your own anxieties or the anxiety that your child might be feeling around school or their friends, for example. "We all want to feel that we have choices. asking these open-ended questions allow us to have choices. Sometimes open ended questions are great, but they could also confuse children. Giving children choices when they are experiencing anxiety is brilliant," Burke explains. "Because it puts them much more in control of the situation that they feel they are not in control of."

"The lack of control is associated with, you have to go to school whether you like it or not, but then the choices they have — what pens do you want, what clothes would you like to wear, what would you like in your lunchbox today? — giving them these kinds of choices and opening it up to them to decide also helps them with this anxiety."


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ