Back to school anxiety

Help your child manage their fears

Back to school anxiety

When a new term starts, it’s only natural that tensions run high, and kids can start displaying symptoms of anxiety. But it’s important not to immediately write off your child’s worries and back-to-school jitters.

With the new school year in swing, we sought the advice of three UAE-based experts in the field to help understand the point at which it’s time to escalate from a reassuring cuddle and a chat at the kitchen table.

When we talk about anxiety we need to understand the natural “fight or flight” responses we are born with, says clinical psychologist Daniela Salazer.

“These responses helped our ancestors to escape from danger such as wild animals and other threats. When we’re stressed, a part of our brain continues to activate this response, causing us to feel nervous or fearful.”

Every person experiences anxiety to some degree and it’s not until these feelings start to interfere with our day-to-day functioning that it becomes a problem. It’s important that when we talk about signs of anxiety we don’t just examine one particular behaviour, Salazer says, but pay attention to its intensity, frequency and duration. A child might cry once a week when Dad leaves on a business trip for example, which is a normal response. If the child continues to cry and refuses to go to school however, and the intensity and duration of these incidences is high, then it may be classed as an anxiety disorder.

It’s natural for parents to want their child to stop feeling anxious and often they will anticipate their children’s fears in order to protect them. However, if parents stop their child coming into contact with these stressors, this can become a negative cycle that can actually exacerbate anxiety. It’s important to not totally remove triggers, Salazer says. The goal is to help children learn how to tolerate their anxiety and function well in spite of it. This approach will help anxiety to decrease slowly over time. Children learn from modeling so observing how their own parents handle anxious situations is extremely important.

What symptoms should parents look out for? Older children and teenagers can usually talk about their experiences competently and so they can talk to their parents about experiencing fear, anxiety and worry, says clinical psychologist Dr. Harry Horgan. When it comes to younger children however, it may not be so obvious; parents should look out for a disruption to their regular life and to routines. The child may want to avoid people or places that they were comfortable with before. Younger children present anxiety in a “somatic” way or through complaints about physical symptoms, says Dr. Horgan, such as an upset stomach, headaches or talking about feeling ‘funny’ or ‘strange’. Other physical symptoms include an elevated heart rate, shallow breathing, crying and ‘butterflies’ in the stomach.

Whatever your concerns, it’s never too early to seek professional advice to help your kids manage.

Nadia Brooker, counselling psychologist at The Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai
Dr. Harry Horgan, clinical psychologist at the German Neuroscience Center, Dubai ( and specialist contributor at Re:Set.
Daniela Salazar (bottom right), clinical psychologist at mental health and wellbeing centre LightHouse Arabia, Dubai,

All three psychologists recommend professional help once the parent has noticed that the quality of life of their child is being negatively affected by ongoing anxiety. Untreated anxiety tends to increase in severity over time because the child learns that avoidance is the only way to reduce their symptoms, which may cause his/her quality of life to decrease.

Where to start at home

Counselling psychologist Nadia Brooker says anxiety is one of the most common mental health concerns for children, affecting upwards of 20 percent of children and adolescents. She recommends parents take the following steps to help an anxious child:

• Avoid avoidance (very important!)
• Allow your child to worry but encourage them to tolerate it
• Express and build positive (yet realistic) expectations
• Keep the anticipatory period short where possible
• Think and talk things through with your child
• Model healthy ways of managing anxiety
• Help build a coping kit (e.g. stress ball, writing, breathing, muscle relaxation, who to ask for help, going to a safe space)
• Get back to basics (i.e. sleep, healthy meals, downtime, exercise)

What should parents NOT do?
Brooker says:
• Remember that the goal isn’t to totally eliminate your child’s anxiety, rather it is about helping them to manage it – empower
your child
• Don’t avoid situations because they are anxious about it – this will perpetuate the anxiety
• Try not to ask leading questions. For example, do not ask them if they are feeling anxious about their first day of school, rather ask them how they are feeling about it
• Do not reinforce your child’s fears

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