x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Classroom angst: how to help your children cope with back-to-school anxiety

Dreading the start of term is a common complaint. But there are ways that parents can make it easier.

It's 2am and a small boy in pyjamas appears by Sarah's bedside. "I don't feel well, Mummy," he says, snuggling in next to her. Sarah knows exactly what's wrong. It's nearly the end of the school holidays and her six-year-old son, Johnny, has got the back-to-school blues. It's been the same for several nights since they got home after spending the summer holidays in the UK. "It's a heady combination of jet lag, the kids getting their heads around leaving a blissful six weeks of sunshine in the UK, and facing a new school year," Sarah says.

Back in the UK, Emily Rymer's middle son, 10-year-old William, is suffering from a similar uneasiness about the beginning of term. "He hates change of all kinds and gets particularly anxious about going into the next class at the end of the summer holidays," she says. "He's growing out of it now, but some years we've had bedtime tears for weeks leading up to the return to school and sleepless nights immediately beforehand."

Sarah and Emily's boys aren't alone in dreading the start of term; it's a common complaint. As the academic year approaches, many children will be starting to show signs of distress. It manifests itself in a variety of forms: whingeing, grumpiness, tummy aches, night-time waking, tearfulness or anxiety. It can be hard to associate the carefree child at the beginning of the holidays with the wretched one as the vacation comes to an end.

Sarah maintains that it's all the harder for expatriate children, who have often spent the summer with grandparents, cousins and old friends in their countries of origin, and may have started to regard it as home once again. "I think being expat kids, it's a bit of a double whammy," she says. "They are having to leave their extended family and their UK friends once more as well as starting school."

Add to that the fact that many expat children enjoy longer holidays than most, and it's hardly surprising if the start of term looms large in their young minds. Liat Joshi, the author of Raising Children: The Primary Years, recommends spending some time trying to isolate whether there's anything in particular about school that is troubling your child. For many youngsters, a new school year is daunting because it involves so many new elements, and it can be hard to predict what it is they'll be worried about.

"It could be anything from whether their teacher will be stricter than last year's or as much fun," says Liat, "to where the toilets are in junior school if they're moving up from the infants." She suggests talking about your own school days; your experiences of overcoming your fears could lay your children's doubts to rest. Hearing that the dragon lady who taught you in Year 3 turned out to be the nicest teacher of all might be reassuring, especially if you can lighten the mood by producing some amusing photos of yourself in knee socks and pigtails.

Liat acknowledges that unearthing what is troubling your child isn't always easy. "Children won't necessarily say why they're worried or be able to articulate what it is they feel, so you might have to do some digging. Try and chat to them when they're likely to be at their most relaxed and aren't tired." If you turn it into too much of an interrogation you could do more harm than good, though. "Keep your questions light," says Liat. "Too much questioning and children often clam up."

Many parents find that a bit of retail therapy can do wonders in cheering up a reluctant child. Even if the official list only specifies a boring old ruler and protractor, it's worth splashing out on a bit of fun stuff as well. A shiny new pencil case or sparkly gel pens can do wonders for morale, and even boys seem to go mad for stationery. Others find that making the last days of the holiday less exciting encourages their kids to yearn for the fun of the playground. Cutting back on playdates can make home seem dull and lonely; with no one but their siblings to fall back on, they'll soon be missing their friends.

Some parents go further, laying on a series of boring tasks for their children to do, to make lessons seem more attractive. "Next year I'm going to launch a hardcore regime of household chores two days before kick-off so starting school again will be strangely appealing," laughs Sarah. The good news is that most parents agree the problem vanishes like magic as soon as the children start back at school again. Within moments of walking through the gates, they are laughing and chattering with their friends as though they haven't a care in the world, and all of their fears are forgotten.

"The minute they see their friends and find their way to their new classroom, a whole weight seems to lift from their shoulders," says Sarah. As with most parental issues, it's not a perfect solution, but it's something to hold on to at two in the morning.