“There’s nothing better than having an activity like baking or cooking together because it allows you to do something while also allowing you to talk one-on-one.” Dr Sarah Watson, Senior Child & Adolescent Clinical Psychologist
The pandemic has changed so many aspects of our daily lives, including an extended period at home for most families. As children start to return to their schools many parents are wondering how to best support them through this transition. For many children, the return to school will be a straightforward one. They’re excited about seeing friends, getting back into the classroom and taking part in their regular activities. For others the change will be harder. COVID-19 and measures to contain its spread have disrupted nearly every aspect of children’s lives, potentially fuelling anxiety.
As a parent or caregiver, you can help support your child’s healthy development and relieve their stress, as they return to school. In this blog, senior clinical child and adolescent psychologist Sarah Watson explains how spending time with your children and doing simple activities can make a difference.
One of the most important things parents can do is talk to their children about returning to school and find out how they’re feeling. Some children will be excited, while others may be concerned, uncertain and anxious.
If the latter is the case it’s important to give them as much information as they ask for, says Dr Watson. “What breeds anxiety is often the unknown. So the more information you can get from the right source, the better.”
Regardless of age, children need to know you’re available to listen so ensure you make time for them, which will promote a sense of security and protect their mental wellbeing. “Foster an environment where asking questions is encouraged and non judgemental answers are provided. Children won’t ask parents questions if they patronise or criticise.”
Look out for any extreme changes in your child’s mood and behaviour over an extended period, particularly withdrawal or anger, as this can be a concern, says Dr Watson. The causes of this change can range from bullying to friendship issues, hormonal changes, or the impacts of COVID-19.
Particularly for younger children, proximity seeking is another indication of anxiety. This is when a usually independent child suddenly becomes clingy with a primary caregiver, to gain a sense of security. If your child shows these signs, it’s time to try and find out the origin of their feelings and potentially seek support from a professional.
Have a plan
If your child is feeling nervous about returning to school, think of ways you can help ease their fears. If you can’t answer a question they have, it can also be useful to get in touch with their teachers for extra information.
Find out what is worrying them in particular and come up with a plan together. For example, if they’re worrying about the social aspect of school, you could organise a place where they can meet a friend before school starts so they can go in together. “Often once they get past that first day, sometimes it’s even just the first 10 minutes, they feel a lot better,” says Dr Watson.
One of the best things parents can do to support their children, particularly through this time of transition, is to build a trusted relationship. A great way to do this is to do activities with your child because it creates a safe environment, says Dr Watson. “There’s nothing better than having an activity like baking or cooking together because it allows you to do something while also allowing you to talk one-on-one.”
Children thrive when they feel safe and protected and when their family connections are stable. So spending quality time with your children and regularly checking in on their wellbeing will make them feel loved, accepted and secure.
About Dr Sarah Watson
Dr. Sarah Watson, BA, MA(Hons), DClinPsych, MNZCCP
CLINIC DIRECTOR & SENIOR CHILD & ADOLESCENT CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST (REGISTERED – CLINICAL SCOPE)
Dr. Sarah Watson is the Clinic Director and a registered Child & Adolescent Clinical Psychologist at Totally Psyched. Sarah has over ten years experience as both a Psychologist and leader across a variety of settings, all specialising in working with children, adolescents and their families.
Sarah worked for many years in one of Auckland’s Child & Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) as a Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Lead of teams and led many specific multi-agency ministerial projects. Prior to her doctoral clinical training and having a family of her own, Sarah worked in South London & Maudsley for several years as a Residential Social Worker and Assistant Psychologist; working with children with severe mental health needs who were in residential government care (‘children’s homes’).
Sarah has successfully been in private practice based in the hub of Auckland’s North Shore for over eight years. She is regularly asked for her expert opinion and has appeared on various radio and television shows including The Project, Breakfast, Seven Sharp, The Paul Henry Show and is regularly contributing to the NZ Herald and other media. She is also a speaker at professional development conferences for GP’s, Teachers, Professionals, Social Workers, RTLB’s and Counsellors nationwide.
Sarah maintains a small clinical caseload, working with children, adolescents and families across a variety of areas. She is particularly interested in working with families affected by neurodevelopmental delays (ADHD & ASD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Doctorate of Clinical Psychology, University of Auckland
Master of Arts (Psychology), awarded with Honours, Massey University
Bachelor of Arts (Education and Psychology), The University of Auckland
Memberships to Professional Colleges/Boards
New Zealand Psychologists Registration Board (Clinical Scope)
New Zealand College of Clinical Psychologists (NZCCP)
ADHD NZ, Clinical Advisor & Board Member