THE ANXIOUS CHILD AND THE NOT-SO-WELCOME WORRY MONSTER
Adjusting to a new school or class – welcome to the new year!
By Liani Austin
I noticed her standing there. Serious. Sullen. Sad. So I scooped her up and took her to my occupational therapy (OT) room. As she entered, a heavy sigh escaped her, and her clenched fists relaxed a bit. I led her to the helicopter swing, her favourite. She soared high and fast, and soon, the corners of her mouth turned upward, with a twinkle of stars dancing in her eyes. The babbling began, and she eagerly shared tales of her joyful holiday. Martha was back!
Next, we played a light-hearted game, free from pressure, living in the moment. I cautiously inquired about the colour of her heart. “Yellow”, she replied. I knew it was always yellow, which means “happy” when she could do OT. “And this morning?” I asked. “Purple.” She diverted her gaze and then elaborated. “I felt worried about school, Grade 2, and if my teacher would be kind…”
Meet Martha—anxiety’s captive, robbed of joy by the worry monster. The worry monster who makes her tummy cramp and traps her self-confidence. Those unsettling bubbles in the gut and heart, an invisible struggle despite the absence of tangible threats.
Of course, every parent wishes for their children to feel excited during school drop-off — the joy of seeing friends or teachers and the anticipation of what the day holds. But how can one distinguish between what is considered normal and what is not? Some degree of anxiety or nervousness is expected as children navigate new school experiences. It may even be seen as a positive sign of strong attachment to caregivers who are their safe havens. However, when anxiety persists for more than two to three weeks, and especially if it intensifies, it requires careful attention.
Recognising anxiety symptoms in your child is crucial. Complaints of stomach aches, headaches, or nausea may signal distress. Sleep disturbances, such as difficulty falling asleep, frequent waking, or nightmares, may emerge. Morning rituals may change, with reluctance to wake up or feigning illness to evade the day. Academics and friendships might suffer, manifesting in reluctance to participate in activities they once enjoyed. Your usual fun-loving child may turn into an irritable, serious child. They may test your boundaries more than ever before as they desperately try to signal their distress.
To ease your child into a new school or class, consider the following strategies:
- Visual Familiarity: Show your child photos of the school and, if possible, their new teacher before the school year begins. Familiarity breeds a sense of safety. If I were to mention ‘Gogabulabo’ to you, you might think, ‘What?!’ The same goes for our children. They can’t easily conjure up an image of ‘school’ or their new class due to their limited repertoire of memories, among other factors. Showing them photos every day will help create a sense of familiarity, and with familiarity comes a sense of safety.
- Weekly Schedule: Create a weekly schedule with visual cues for your child’s daily school or extracurricular activities. This establishes a predictable routine and provides reassurance. For example, on Monday, use a picture of a child on a swing to represent occupational therapy (OT), and another image of a boy or girl playing tennis for the afternoon tennis session. You can even laminate the schedule and clip it to their school bags.
- Pre-Visit: Familiarise your child with the school environment before it begins. Show them where you will park, how to walk to class, and explain the separation process.
- Morning Preparation: Ensure your child gets enough sleep and has a calm morning routine. Make sure they go to bed at an age-appropriate time at least one week before school restarts. Children require at least ten hours of sleep each night for optimal wellbeing and focus. Avoid sugary breakfasts and opt for healthier alternatives.
- Sensory Support: Play soothing or cheerful music in the car and provide safe fidget toys for calming sensory input. Deep pressure is a calming sensory input, and you may also consider using a weighted soft toy or lap pad. Encourage practising deep breathing before leaving the car.
- Positive Separation Ritual: Create a consistent goodbye ritual. Avoid lingering, as it may intensify anxiety. Put on your poker face, stay upbeat and confident.
- Post-School Plan: Discuss a fun activity for your child to look forward to after school. Positive anticipation can help to counteract anxiety.
- Praise Success: If your child successfully manages to separate, offer praise at the end of the day. Explain that their actions were brave and discuss the concept of bravery, emphasising that even though they felt scared, facing something new can be intimidating. Your praise may encourage them to be eager to try it again.
Teaching your child emotional intelligence and coping strategies is vital:
- Labelling Emotions: Use colours to identify emotions, similar to the concept in the movie “Inside Out.” For instance, use yellow to represent happiness, red for anger, blue for sadness, and purple for anxiety. Allow children to colour their hearts according to their emotions (draw a heart for them and they can colour it), or they can simply point to a chart featuring a variety of emoji emotions to express how they feel.
- Validation: Acknowledge and validate your child’s worries. Sometimes, knowing they are heard and understood brings relief.
- Problem-Solving: Encourage your child to come up with solutions to their worries. What can they do if the worry happens? Use a paper and draw pictures as you “brainstorm”. You’ll be surprised at what amazing plans your child can come up with to solve a worry.
- Creative Outlets: Let your child draw or write down their worries and “feed” them to a symbolic worry monster.
- Play! Play! Play!: Through play, your child can process their day and change the script. Provide them with a variety of Barbies or figurines to encourage creative and imaginative play.
If concerns persist, seek professional guidance:
- Medical Consultation: If you are concerned about your child being worried, consider consulting with your doctor or paediatrician for a comprehensive medical checkup. Various interventions, such as therapies and, in some cases, medication, can be beneficial. Your doctor will guide you to the appropriate starting point for addressing your child’s individual needs.
- Therapy: Psychological intervention, play therapy, occupational therapy, or speech therapy may be recommended based on the root cause of anxiety. A psychologist or play therapist may refer your child to occupational therapy if sensory integration difficulties are suspected as a cause of anxiety. Developmental challenges or speech delays could lead to performance anxiety, in which case a speech therapist may help alleviate anxiety. The appropriate course of action depends on the specific needs of the child.
- Nutritional Considerations: Ensure proper nutrition, as deficiencies may contribute to anxiety. Consult with your doctor to check for any mineral or other imbalances. Additionally, a paediatric dietitian can assist in creating an eating plan tailored to your child’s specific needs.
Conquering anxiety is a multifaceted journey. Addressing it holistically, with a tailored combination of therapies (if indicated), medical care from a doctor (often a psychiatrist), coping skills and family support, is often the most effective approach.
Let’s guide our children through this complex terrain and put those worry monsters to bed!