The Ultimate Parents Guide to Back to School After Lockdown (GCSE level)

The Importance of Mental Health

Your child's mental health is always crucial. You don't need us to tell you that. But the pandemic is likely to have an impact on your child's wellbeing, much as it has with adults.

Anxiety, self-esteem issues, a lack of confidence - all of these may worsen as a result of COVID-19, and the lifestyle changes it's brought. Given that mental health and behaviour in schools is closely linked, it’s important to address these issues.

This is especially true for children heading into their GCSE years. Along with the virus, children are having to contend with important exams, the effects of puberty, and the sense that soon they'll have to enter the wider world as adults.

Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to help ease your child's concerns, improve their wellbeing, and get them back on track.

From simply being there to listen to their concerns, through to grounding techniques, you'll be able to help your child with their mental health as you approach schools returning in September.


Talk to them

Sometimes the simplest things can be the most powerful, and this is especially true when it comes to your child's mental health.

You'd be amazed how open your child is to talking to you about any problems or issues they're facing.

Start the conversation by asking them how they feel about returning to school. Do they have any concerns? Is something worrying them? You should go about this carefully. Jennifer Kolari, therapist and author, suggests maintaining a neutral response when your child tells you how they’re feeling. If you start to panic, then they’ll pick up on that and maybe less eager to open up in future.

Of course, you know your child better than anyone. Think about how they prefer to communicate. Do they like to avoid eye contact? Then maybe chat during a car journey. Do they like to have something distracting in the background? Then maybe talk whilst watching a film together.

Dr Elena Lister, a child psychiatrist, believes the most important thing you can do as a parent is understand the nature of your child’s concerns. You can’t help unless you know what’s worrying them.

A lot of parents are unsure about how to talk to children about mental health. That’s okay. Just remember that you aren't there to offer up solutions straight away. You're there to listen and better understand what your child is thinking. In fact, simply listening can sometimes be a solution in itself.

Once your child is comfortable sharing their feelings with you, they'll start to open up more and you can get to the root of the issue.

At that point, you can work together as a team to try and overcome any challenges they're facing.

You can find some amazing conversation openers in one of our other guides.


Set a routine

Much like we mentioned in the "Academic" section, setting a routine ahead of school returning is crucial. But whilst it helps massively in an educational sense, it's also extremely beneficial for your child's mental health and wellbeing.

One thing that will take its toll on your child is that sense of not knowing what to do. You'll probably recognise this in your own child when they moan that they're bored. The real issue they have is a lack of routine.

When your child goes back to school, they’ll have to get used to early starts, early nights, and working throughout the day. For teenagers, this can be tough.

Instead, work up towards a typical school-day routine in the weeks leading up to September. Set a wake-up time, a bedtime (or lights out time), schedule in certain working hours. Give them things to do, whether it's schoolwork or housework.

This will mean less of a shock to your child's system after the outbreak when schools return.


Encourage exercise

When we think of exercise, we usually think of the benefits to our physical health. But it turns out exercising regularly is great for our minds too.

Despite how counterintuitive it sounds, exercising can often make you feel more energetic. It can relieve stress, improve memory (which is also useful for your child's learning), and help you sleep better at night.

In short, it's a fantastic way to improve your child's mental health and wellbeing, as well as keeping them physically fit.

As for the type of exercise, that's really for your child to decide. Though options maybe a little more limited than usual, there are plenty of sports and exercises for your child to try out.

They could go running, play tennis, go for a kick-around in the park. Even something as basic as taking a brisk walk is better than sitting around and doing nothing at all.

If they need some extra encouragement, then why not take up some form of exercise with them? That way, you both benefit.



Show them space

As a parent, it's only natural that you want to protect your child and make sure they're okay. If you discover that they're struggling with something, your first reaction might be to pay them extra attention.

But this 'smothering' behaviour can have the opposite effect, and can actually be detrimental to your child's wellbeing.

Most children, teenagers in particular, often want some time and space to themselves. If you try to intrude on that alone time, then you might end up making any mental health issues worse.

A good idea is to mentally decide on a couple of hours a day where you simply leave your child be. Let them mope around, doing what they want, and keep out of their way.

This might sound like strange advice, but your child is on the cusp of adulthood, and so they need to start being a little more independent. This is a good first step to take.


Give them responsibilities

A lot of teenagers want to be treated like grown-ups. At GCSE age, they're only a few years away from being adults, and so now is the perfect time to give them more responsibility.

Having ownership of something can provide a big boost to your child's confidence and self-esteem. It's also an opportunity to teach them vital life skills.

Why not assign them to cooking duty one night a week? They decide what they'll be cooking, they go and buy the ingredients, and then they cook it. You might need to be around to lend a helping hand, but they're calling the shots. This helps them feel more grown-up, improves their mental health, and teaches them how to cook.

Alternative ways of giving your child more responsibility is letting them set their own school-work schedule, giving them chores to do, or encouraging them to find a small part-time job.

Ultimately, start treating your child more like an adult, and they'll rise to the occasion and feel more confident as a result.


Breathe deeply

The techniques and ideas so far have been more proactive and preventative. But there may be times where your child really starts to struggle with their mental health, and stronger action is required.

When your child is feeling particularly anxious, breathing exercises are an effective way of calming them.

Briana Hollis, a social worker and self-care coach at Learning to be Free, recommends the "Square Breathing" technique below.

Simply breathe in for a count of 4 seconds. Then breathe out for 4 seconds. Then in. Then out. Continue breathing in this regular pattern until the anxiety subsides.

It might sound basic, but these breathing techniques help your child to focus on the present moment, and to let their worries fade into the background.


Keep them grounded

Another useful technique that you can teach your child is "Grounding". (Not to be confused with the punishment!)

Grounding is a good way to focus on the present, meaning your child won't be worrying about returning to school in the future.

Briana Hollis, who explained the Square Breathing technique above, says that her favourite approach is to engage each of the senses, one at a time.

You start by looking around and then naming 5 different things you can see. Next, name 4 things you can touch. Then 3 things you can hear. After that, you name 2 things you can smell (or 2 smells you like if there aren't many smells around). Then, you name something you can taste (or a favourite taste if you can't currently taste anything).

The final part of the technique involves naming something you like about yourself. This is a nice way to finish the grounding and boost your self-esteem.

This grounding technique can be used whenever and wherever, helping your child to de-stress and ease their anxiety.


Seek professional help

Of course, there may be cases in which you aren't able to provide your child with the help they need. If they're struggling with their mental health, then you might want to contact a professional to support your child's wellbeing.

You should also read resources offered by charities and organisations such as Anxiety UK or Mind.

The type of help varies depending on who you approach. It's often good to have a small support network you can rely on.

People in your child's support network can include their teachers, a counsellor, a GP, and even other parents and family members.

It can be difficult to support your own child when they're struggling, as you're more involved with them. A professional not only knows what they're doing, but they have an outside perspective which can often help your child.

Seeking external help is nothing to be ashamed of, but you do need to make sure your child agrees to it. Forcing professional help on them is only going to make things worse.

If you and your child are wanting to find professionals to help you, then the "Resources" section at the end of this guide will point you in the right direction.


Recommended Resources and Further Reading

Learning To Be Free

Anxiety UK

Calm

MeeTwo

Mind

Young Minds

The Expert Parent’s Guide to Childhood Anxiety

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