Haven and Hope
The world of today provides many reasons to be anxious. This can be especially true for children who are working to make sense of a world replete with episodes of school violence on the heels of a global pandemic. These experiences are in evidence in all communities across the country and contribute to the underlying mental health crisis among children. For some children attending school, leaving the house and participating in activities can be altogether too much.
We all recognize the need to be honest with children and give them a space to express their fears and anxieties, but beyond that, what can parents do to help their children face each day?
Here are a few guidelines to use in creating plans for children as they work to overcome anxiety, attend school, and feel safe in the world.
Routines and Flexibility
A primary source of comfort is predictability. Routines offer comfort to children and can include a combination of soft, quiet routines and those that are more structured and require a former schedule. Thinking about the many steps involved in being ready for school, some children can be overwhelmed before they ever get started. By preparing as much as possible the night before and building in something to look forward to, a morning routine can be so much smoother. Having the backpack ready to go by the door and the perfect outfit pre-selected, the morning can be less stressful. Oftentimes, to manage anxiety, children may try to put tasks off (how often have you heard, I’ll do it tomorrow) with the unhappy result of feeling overwhelmed and pressured when the deadline rolls around. Having clear guidelines in place for the night before will help children think through what they will need for the next day as well as reduce the morning stress that comes when the bus pulls up. Don’t be afraid to try new approaches as you move forward. For example, if taking a shower in the morning becomes the hold up, then try taking one at night. Or even a bath. It is important to keep in mind that routines can be simple and unfussy.
Although great routines can help, there are times when someone oversleeps or misses a bus. For an anxious child this can sometimes be enough to call it quits for the whole day. These mishaps are actually powerful opportunities to both utilize routines to help children move forward and demonstrate flexibility. When struggling with anxiety, a natural response is to eliminate tasks and activities, thereby effectively eliminating the anxiety. Right? Not always. Some children may benefit from a mental health break and a day to decompress. But for those with severe anxiety, decreasing school attendance or participation in activities can change a child’s life experience to a highly negative degree. When anxiety is making all the decisions you can run the risk of shrinking a child’s sphere of existence. No one wants a situation where a life has become so small that children do not leave the house, participate in beloved activities or get out of bed. When a barrier occurs, such as a missed bus or an oversleep, the anxiety might lead the child to respond by believing that all is lost, the day is over, can’t get to school now. All or nothing thinking can be paralyzing. Try to break this cycle by creating a plan that helps a child enter back into the routine as soon as possible. “Yes, you missed the bus and that’s too bad. But, I can drive you in a few minutes. You might miss the first class, but you should be there by the second one.” As often as possible, strategize together to find a solution to overcome the barrier- not to let the barrier dictate the terms for the rest of the day.
You are the most important people in your children’s lives. Assume that your children can read you like a book and at ten paces. They can tell when you are apprehensive, unhappy, or angry. This also applies to how YOU feel about THEIR school. If children recognize your apprehension, this can serve to amplify their own. If you are like me and you cannot keep expressions off your face or easily mask your feelings, then it is critical that you identify what it will take for you to feel confident in your child’s school. And then, do it. Do you need to get to know the teacher better? Do you have concerns about school safety of your own, but you haven’t had a forum to ask? Then, reach out. Take every opportunity the school offers to meet the members of the school faculty and staff. There is no need to overly inundate the school - but be honest about what it will take for you to have confidence and then work in collaboration with the school faculty to get it. Educators want parents as partners. When all the adults in a child’s life have confidence in each other, that child’s anxiety can be held, and, in turn, the child can feel safe. It is well worth it. Don’t underestimate the power you have in this regard.
Setting goals and then celebrating achievement is important. When your child attends school each day, for example, for a whole month, celebrate that. It can be tempting to celebrate with gifts or unsupervised electronics, but whenever possible, try to celebrate with something that you actually do together. Maybe at the end of a successful school week, you go to the bookstore together, go bowling, or watch a special movie together. These strong and healthy relationships are pivotal when dealing with stress and managing anxiety. These celebrations can go a very long way to strengthening that bond.
It is also important to keep in mind that, it is not unusual for children to experience a sense of hopelessness. There are no easy answers when that comes to surface, but a very strong antidote is actually to do something that is fun. Joy reinforces a sense of both connection and purpose. Finding ways to celebrate good things- big and little- wherever and whenever they exist is especially meaningful. Celebrations do not have to be big deals- celebrations can occur in the form of a shared treat, or a shout-out to extended family and friends. Sometimes having a celebration journal or story that documents today’s celebration can do the trick. Having a meal with favorite dishes is always a winner! Role modeling celebrations may sound silly, but helping children identify and honor positive moments can serve them extremely well as they grow into healthy adults who are equipped to manage the pressures that lie will present.
Author Dr. Diana Kon serves as Executive Director of the O-School. To learn more about the O-School’s day programs, please visit our website. If you have a child or loved one who you believe may benefit from the O-School’s services, please visit our inquiry page or call our Director of Admissions, Kristin Friesen, at 773-420-2891.
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Haven and Hope is a destination for professionals, educators, and parents to learn from O-School experts about the issues facing children and adolescents with a variety of social-emotional challenges and/or autism, and how various aspects of the School’s 21st century therapeutic milieu provides a safe haven and a path to hope for those in need.