Back to school anxiety – a polyvagal approach for parents and children

School is back again any second after the longest break from routine that our children have ever had.

I don’t know about you, but I have mixed feelings about this: We have enjoyed home educating, and have had a lovely, unstructured summer holiday, full of play and camping trips. I’ve had a few days back in clinic, and, as I always do over summer holidays, I have noticed a huge change in some of my school-age clients as well as my own children. This time it’s even more apparent.

On the other hand, six months is a LONG time without school, and I’ve been with my children day in, day out, so I’d quite like to return to normality now, please.

In fact, the summer holidays are always the time of year when I see the most change in my own children. They seem to have a massive growth and development spurt. Last summer, for example, having made no effort to force my youngest to ride a pedal bike by himself, he rode off on it all by himself – we didn’t have to run along holding the bike or watch him fall off multiple times – he was just ready to do it by himself.

So suddenly, from six months of “feeling safe” and personal growth, children are forced back into an institutionalised atmosphere with a whole host of bizarre social distancing changes in place, in their rather pointless year-group bubbles. Pointless because each class of 30 has a few teachers, nurses, careworkers, ambulance staff, pilots, etc, as well as siblings in other yeargroups with similar dynamics. A bubble of 30 quickly becomes a bubble of several hundred – and a 200-strong yeargroup becomes a bubble of several thousand. Even the thought of going back to school normally is sometimes enough to cause sleep or digestive disturbances, low immunity, meltdowns or even aggressive behaviour. And that’s not just children!

In the case of my children, they’ve been asking when school starts ALL holiday – but I know that once they go back to their new teachers, new place to sit, new view, new environment, they will go through some of the above. Why? Because they don’t feel “safe” straight away – that takes a while, and in the meantime, it’s a great idea to have a few tricks up your sleeve to help a child feel safe in their VERY-different-from-last-term world.

Feeling “safe” is key to combating anxiety. That is why people with a severe case of anxiety sometimes do not want to leave the house, or why some people feel the need to stay in bed for hours to rest in the morning. It’s also why children – ALL children – thrive on routine of some kind. This concept needs to be better understood by some of those who work with children – including some teachers and paediatricians. Just because a child shuts down in unfamiliar circumstances, it doesn’t mean they are “autistic”, for example.

However, extreme anxiety LOOKS LIKE autism.

In fact, the excellent book Reframe your Thinking Around Autism explains that autism is anxiety that a person cannot regulate themselves, and is due to developmental trauma.

When someone doesn’t feel safe, their senses are bombarded and they get quickly overwhelmed. They may, for example, suddenly develop awkward eye contact and tunnel vision, and not be able to process sound as normal.

The Polyvagal Theory

Some practical ways to help a child to self regulate when suffering from short-term anxiety

During a short period of adjustment for a few days or a couple of weeks, there are few things you can do to help a child feel safe in the world by toning the vagus nerve.

  • Practice deep breathing: in to a slow count to four through the nose, out to a slow count to eight through the mouth
  • Encourage humming
  • Encourage singing
  • Baroque music – in particular a Vivaldi lute concerto and Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos K448
  • Brain Gym Hook-ups

Cat arches are a wonderful yoga movement for calming an anxious child (or adult!) and helping them focus, especially accompanied by some lovely breathing – not to be confused with RMTi cat arches, however!

Stanley Rosenberg’s Basic Exercise is also fantastic:

Additional activities you can try for dealing with meltdowns, sleep and digestive disturbances are:

  • snow angels
  • star jumps
  • get your child to lie like a star and slowly fold right up into a ball, like an anenome, then back to a star – repeat several times
  • roll a ball up and down a wall with the back
  • doing silly walks – have a competition
  • play row, row, row your boat with another child or you
  • do push ups against a wall

We’ll soon all be back into a term-time routine!

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