Sensitive kids starting school

As school holidays run out faster than the water out of the bath, parents know what is coming. It’s back to school for many and beginning school for others.

Not only can this be a time of angst and worry for our littlest cherubs, starting high school, university or any other further education is equally a time of anxiety and concern for our kids.

Changes of environment, people, routines, especially outside the home can all cause spikes in the hormone cortisol. This is the hormone that creates the stress symptoms you may see – crying, clinging, tummy aches, refusal to leave your side, poor appetite, restless sleep and even outbursts and tantrums.

Remember this means the ‘downstairs brain’ is registering threat – and is acting accordingly and we need to reassure all our kids their response is valid.

It’s a good idea to talk to older kids and adolescents about the stress reaction they might experience in their bodies and thinking. Make sure they know that exercise, eating well, getting plenty of sleep and finding ways of relaxing (listening to music, using calming apps for example) will help them through this transition.

The key stressor for young children is separation from their most significant grownup, who is their protector.

This response is partly because separation/change trigger our early warning system, which is essential for our survival. Until the change becomes familiar and predictable we can struggle and feel anxious.

Our more sensitive children – the lambs – can struggle for longer and more intensely, and when this occurs it’s called separation distress.

Some children can really struggle with separation distress even up to the age of 8. When I was a counsellor, I recall working with 12-13-year-olds who displayed similar distress at starting high school – irrational and distressing – and it was linked to their initial transition to school or child care when they were ‘forced’ to go without empathic support.

What helps reduce the stress for our little ones?

For our youngest children it’s helpful to have practised parents going and coming back – even playing hide and seek around the house can help build this. Being honest and telling them you are leaving and will be coming back is better than doing the ‘disappear’ trick as they need to be able to trust you.

10 Tips to Ease Separation Distress

As a starting point, it is useful to explain to kids that new things, places and people often make even adults feel those same feelings of being a little unsettled or anxious.

Young children usually have strong imaginations and I have found that some small techniques that strengthen the connection – and thus reduce sense of separation – to Mum or Dad while they are away can help lots:

  1. Help them create an imaginary protector – They imagine having their huge protector with them while they are away from you. I have two free audio downloads that could help here.
  2. Fill an empty, clean, small container with a lid with kisses from everyone they are fond of, and tuck it in the bottom of their backpack.
  3. As they leave home always place a kiss from one parent in the right hand and the other parent in the left … it is also magic and stays there all day.
  4. Practise imagining you are sending them rainbows of love from your heart to theirs at recess and lunch and ask them to send one to you when they miss you.
  5. Put a really small stuffed toy – maybe smelling of your perfume, Dad’s after-shave or with a lipstick kiss – in the bottom of the backpack. Again they don’t feel so separate and alone.
  6. Draw funny pictures on their lunch bags.
  7. Have them wear a lanyard or locket with a photo of mum and day or their key caregivers – they tend to look at it often and even talk to them.
  8. Teach them how to take 3 big breaths and breathe out the butterflies hiding in their tummy or gently rub their tummy telling the butterflies they are safe.
  9. Teach them how to calm themselves by singing ‘Round and Round the Garden’ in their hand while making circles in their hand, just as you would do – music and touch trigger feel-good hormones.
  10. Help build a special connection to one teacher or teacher assistant who can nurture their transition. Have a photo of them up at home and talk about them sometimes. Secondary attachment can work magic!

Becoming braver to manage being away from your safest grown up can take time for around 4% of our children, and experienced early years’ educators will work with you to enable this transition to occur. They have seen it happen every year – and with patience, kindness and compassion – and some serious fun – they have seen children conquer this scary new beginning in time.