Mental health in schools is a topic that cannot be ignored. We are used to looking out for signs of physical illness, but we must also pay attention to what is going on internally. Here, three Dubai-based behavioural specialists offer their advice on how the whole family can best handle some of the common emotional issues associated with going back to school.
First Day Nerves
There are a few things that parents and other family members can do to prepare a child for the first day of school. Muna Shakour, personal development coach and founder of Inside Out with Muna, says: “Throughout the summer, keep bringing up the name of your child’s new school. Maybe drive by it a few times. You could also familiarise them with the name of their teacher and show them her or his picture.” Shakour continues: “Repetition helps children become more comfortable with the idea of entering a new school. Parents can also read stories about starting school.”
Meanwhile, Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director at The LightHouse Arabia, suggests that parents establish ‘school day’ rules a week or so before term starts. This includes tech-time, bedtime and daytime routines. Afridi suggests: “Get uniforms and school supplies together – this will set the ‘back to school’ mood. On the first day of school, get up and get to school early so you won’t be stressed out about traffic and parking.”
It may also be beneficial to walk young children to their classroom, and to pick them up at the end of the day.
According to Jyotika Aggarwal, child specialist and clinical psychologist at LifeWorks Foundation, parents should help children to challenge their anxiety-creating thoughts (also called negative self-talk) by asking them about what is making them feel uneasy. “Help your child find their strengths and apply them to situations where they can be used fruitfully. This will help your child build confidence,” she adds.
If your child is starting at a new school, enrol them in activities where they will meet new people. Aggarwal explains: “This will help prepare them for the bigger transition. Also, teaching them self-soothing techniques like deep breathing can help children keep their emotions under control in stressful situations.”
Saliha Afridi from The LightHouse Arabia (lighthousearabia.com) has the following advice to help children to process and understand their negative emotions:
Notice the emotion – Feelings about the first day of school can surface weeks in advance. Start open-ended conversations about their thoughts and feelings.
Reflect and validate – We say “name it to tame it”. If you see that your child is worried or anxious, name the feeling. This helps to defuse the emotions quickly and creates an opportunity for children to develop their emotional vocabulary.
Externalise the emotion – As you talk about their school jitters, ask your kids to draw the emotion. What would it look like, what colour would it be, and how big would it be? This allows them to relate to the emotion rather than be consumed by it.
Quieten the emotion – Teach your kids calming tactics such as breathing exercises, yoga movements, drawing, writing or visualisation. Each child will have something that works for them.
Wait it out – Rather than aiming to eliminate stressful or anxiety-inducing situations, we should be teaching kids how to quieten their emotions and live with them.
Stay supportive – Offering support and equipping kids to cope with their emotions are two of the best gifts we can give them.
When it comes to a child’s ability to make new friends, concerned parents can sometimes do more harm than good. Shakour says: “When we see our child playing alone and not interacting with other children, we must let them be. I remember taking my child to playdates where she happily played alone, away from the other kids, but then asked me on the way home to go and play with those kids again. To her, that was playing ‘with’ them.”
It is important to remember that each child plays differently, and they will make friends when they are ready. “I think the most we can do as parents is to create opportunities for our children to meet new people who share similar interests,” says Afridi.
She adds that in the age of social media, where friends are made and deleted with the click of a button, it is critical for parents to talk to children about what a good friend is, and how they can be a good friend to their peers.
“The best way to talk about bullying is to speak to your child openly about it. This lets them know you are there to help them,” says Aggarwal. “Tell them that bullying is unacceptable and that no matter what the bully threatens, your child must never keep it a secret from you or the teacher.”
It is also advisable to educate children about different kinds of bullying, including cyberbullying, and to formulate strategies for them to protect themselves. Afridi agrees: “I think we are moving away from traditional, physical bullying to cyberbullying and relational bullying – which can be far more detrimental to the wellbeing of the child.”
Most schools now have iPads and laptops as part of their curriculum, and many children also have their own mobile devices. Afridi says: “It is critical for parents to spend time discussing ‘netiquette’, digital citizenship and cyberbullying with their children.”
Afridi also recommends that parents install monitoring apps on household smart devices.
But what if your child happens to be the bully? “As parents, we often worry about our children being bullied, but we are sometimes unaware that our children could be unintentionally displaying hurtful behaviour towards others,” Shakour says. “Share stories of kids playing nicely together, introduce a character that acts aggressively and discuss how the other children might deal with a person like this by telling a teacher or moving away from the situation.”
Jyotika Aggarwal from the LifeWorks Foundation (lifeworksfoundation.com) identifies some warning signs of bullying for parents to look out for:
1 Unexplained bruises or other physical injuries.
2 Your child’s books are being torn or their things are going missing.
3 Your child’s mood suddenly changes and they become more irritable.
4 Your child suddenly starts to have nightmares or wet the bed.
5 They don’t want to go to school or to talk about school anymore.
The experts agree that parents should take an active role where mental health is concerned. “I encourage parents to seek counselling first, in order to get a professional opinion on their parenting style and how it could be influencing their children,” says Shakour. “We should look at ourselves and address our own issues before we do that for our children. Most of the time, we will find that when we change certain things in ourselves for the better, our children start changing their behaviour as well.”
Afridi goes a step further, saying: “Parents should take a preventative approach to mental health, as we do with physical health. The
world is becoming increasingly overwhelming and our children are obviously ill-equipped to deal with it, as evidenced by the sharp increase of mental illnesses in children and adolescents in the last decade.”
Early intervention is key according to Afridi: “I would advise parents not to wait for problems to surface before they start working with a professional. Instead, invest time and energy to allow kids to learn about emotional intelligence, emotional regulation, their self-identities and skills for stress management.”
Muna Shakour from Inside Out with Muna (insideoutwithmuna.com) says that it’s important to create a safe space in your home. Your children need to know they can come to you with any problem, without fear of judgement.