Back To School - A Purple Heart

I saw her standing there. Serious. Sullen. Sad. So I scooped her up and took her to my OT room. She sighed a big sigh as she entered my room and her tight fists gave way a little. I let her get into the helicopter swing. Her favourite. She swung high and hard. And then soon the corners of her mouth turned upwards and a few stars were dancing around in her eyes. She started babbling and told me all about her fun holiday. She was back!

Next, we played a fun game. No pressure. Living in the moment. I cautiously asked her what colour her heart was. “Yellow” she replied. I knew it was always yellow when she could do OT. “And this morning?” I asked. “Purple” She diverted her eyes and then elaborated. “I felt worried about school and Grade 2 and if my teacher would be kind…”

Let us call her Martha. Martha who suffers from anxiety, the robber of joy. The worry monster who makes her tummy cramp and traps her self-confidence. Her mother had it too as a child. In fact, although she hides it well, she still has it as an adult. Those horrible bubbles in the core of one’s gut and heart even though outwardly there is really nothing to be so worried about.

Unless you have an extremely extroverted child, some anxiety or nervousness is normal and to be expected when children start school or a new school year. In fact, it could be positively viewed as a sign of good attachment. You are your child’s safe haven. But we want to soon see joy and excitement when we drop them off at school. Joy to see their friends or teacher. And excitement of what the day will hold. So, what is normal and what is not?

You know your child inside out. You know their temperament. Symptoms of anxiety that continue for longer than two to three weeks must be closely monitored. And excessive anxiety should really be relieved sooner rather than later.

Your child may complain of tummy aches or headaches or nausea. Ask them how their body is feeling. They may suddenly battle to fall asleep as their heart is racing and their thoughts are jumping. Or they may wake up frequently at night. And have nightmares, especially in our older children. In the morning they may be very slow to wake up, pretending to be fast asleep or ill, to try and avoid facing the day. Friendships and academics may suffer. Your child may feel too afraid to join the afternoon sports program, even though he/she really enjoys being active at home or has much potential to excel in sport.

It will be tough to crack a joke and smile when your child has a worry monster on their shoulder. Your usual fun-loving child may turn into an irritable, serious child. They may test your boundaries more than ever before.

How can you help your child settle in at a new school or new class?

  • Before the school year begins, show your child photos of the school and if possible, their new teacher. If I tell you you’ll be going to the “Gogabulabo”, you’ll think “what?!”. So, the same goes for our children. They cannot easily conjure up an image in their head of “school” or their new class due to their limited repertoire of memories amongst others. So, seeing photos every day will create a sense of familiarity. And with familiarity comes safety.

  • Once school starts and you’ve found your feet, create a weekly schedule with images of what your child will be doing on a specific day. For instance, on Monday – a picture of a child on a swing for OT, and a boy or girl playing tennis, for tennis in the afternoon. You can even laminate it and clip it to his/her school bag.

  • Visit the school before it begins. Show your child where you’ll park, and how you’ll walk up to their class. Explain to them that you will say goodbye and they will go to their teacher or friends. You can also draw pictures with them in the car and how they will walk up to their classroom and exactly what will happen. As well as the collection schedule.

  • Show them how many sleepies on a calender, before school starts. Let the countdown begin!

  • If they have been going to bed later during the holiday, ensure they go to bed at their school night bedtime, about a week before school reopens. Gradually shift their bedtime back with 15 minutes each night, until they can easily fall asleep. If they are still fast asleep by the time it’s school wakeup time in the morning, start waking them up at school wakeup time during the holidays already.

  • When school starts, make sure they have slept enough. So much so that they woke up on their own. If your child battles to eat breakfast, something is better than nothing. How about nice warm tea with a health rusk? Or a paediatric shake? Even yogurt will do! The only thing to avoid is a rush of sugar. So no chocolate cake for breakfast I’m afraid. Save that for the weekend 😊. In South-Africa we have a very tasty tea called Rooibos (Red Bush) with lots of health benefits and no caffeine.

  • Make them excited for school by showing them their new backpack, lunchbox or pencil case. Talk in an excited voice.

  • Place a special teddy or soft toy which you have sprayed with perfume, inside their schoolbag. When they miss you, they can go and give the teddy a cuddle and smell you. You can also draw a heart on a serviette and spray it with your perfume. Else, simply draw a heart on their wrist and one on yours. When they miss you, they can touch the “love button” and you will press back.

  • You can also ask them to look after something special of your during their school day, such as a bracelet. (Obviously not so valuable that if they lose it, it causes much stress.) In this way, they will feel that you won’t forget them as they have your very important item. They can also simply keep it safe inside their schoolbag.

  • On the way to school, play soothing music in the car. And if your child likes chewing gum and fiddling with toys, provide some in the car. Deep pressure through the jaw and hands is a calming sensory input. You can also try a weighted soft toy, lap pad or their special blanket can travel along.

  • Practise deep breathing when they are calm and relaxed. And do this as you park your car and before you climb out.

  • Mom and Dad, put on your poker faces and do not lead on that your heart is bleeding for your child. Stay kind, stay positive and stay confident.

  • Let your child’s teacher know that he/she struggles to separate from you and feels very worried. They are experts and will give the best advice. If your child’s teacher is already at the class, hand your child over to her. Create your own ritual and give them one hug and three kisses or a high five, or whatever works for you. Say “I love you” and “I will come and pick you up after school” and… LEAVE! No matter how hard it is, don’t linger around. Surely if my dad looks concerned and doesn’t want to leave me when he tried to say goodbye to me, there must be danger lurking?

  • However, in saying the above, it all depends on logistics. If your child’s teacher is not yet at class and there is not yet a friend at school, it is completely OK to wait with your child. In fact, it may be considered rude to leave your child on their own.

  • Don’t feel guilty for rewarding your child if they manage to separate from you. The more they do it, the easier it will become, and you can gradually drop the incentives.

  • Try and think of one fun thing that they can look forward to later in the day. Such as “After school we will play ball at home.” Or “Mom will take you for an ice cream.”

  • If your child managed to separate, praise them at the end of the day. Explain that they were brave and what bravery means (they felt scared, and it is scary to do something new, but yet they still did it). With your praise they may very well be keen to try it again.

  • Most importantly, let your child grow through this turmoil and learn new strategies and tools for life. Label emotions from a young age. I like to use colours for the different emotions, very much like the movie “Inside Out”. If your heart is yellow, you feel happy. If your heart is red, you feel angry or irritated. If your heart is blue, you feel sad or are crying. If your heart is purple, you feel anxious, nervous, worried. So next time your child cries. Label his/her emotions for them. “Mommy sees that your heart is blue because you feel sad and you are crying.”

  • Validate your child’s worry. And even if you can’t think of anything to say that can make it better, just hearing that you hear them, that you understand and are sympathising, can bring a great sense of relief.

  • “What plan can we make?” – you’ll be surprised with what amazing plans your child can come up with to solve a worry. You can help them by asking “If the worry happens, what could you do?” and then brainstorm a few ideas.

  • You can let your child draw or write down their worry and feed it to the worry monster. In my OT Room I have a bin with a face on and I introduce him as Horrid Henry. He loves eating horrible worries!

  • Gauge when the best time of addressing worries would be. Perhaps not in the morning when there is a frantic rush to get to school. Perhaps not right before bedtime. Perhaps rather when the sun is still shining, and your child can still play.

  • Oh, and that brings me to another point. Play! Play! Play! Through play your child can work through their day and change the script. Let them have all sorts of Barbies or figurines. Force them to play if you must!

If you are worried about your child being worried, you can consult your doctor or paediatrician. There are many interventions that can help your child, including therapies and medication. Your doctor will help to point to the right starting point for your child.

Play therapy is often the first indicated therapy. Your play therapist (usually a psychologist or social worker) will refer your child to occupational therapy if they suspect sensory processing difficulties may be leading to anxiety. Developmental difficulties or speech delays may cause performance anxiety and then a speech therapist may relieve anxiety. So, it all depends.

Serotonin is mostly made in the gut, and a deficiency can contribute or cause anxiety in some children. Even if your child eats well, they may struggle with digestion or absorption of trace minerals and vitamins. Do consult a nutritionist or dietician to make sure this box is ticked.

Conquering anxiety or rather, learning to live with it in harmony (picture a cute cuddly sleeping monster on your child’s shoulder) can be a complex journey. Your best bet to put the worry monster to sleep, is to address it in a holistic manner, meaning not a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather a combination of therapies and if recommended by your doctor, a combination of medicine and therapy.

Now let’s put those worry monsters to sleep!

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