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COVID-19: Back-to-school anxieties for children with a visible difference

A guide to managing your child’s worries about being back at school during the COVID-19 pandemic and periods of time off school due to restrictions.

Many young people may have missed friends, teachers and daily routine during the lockdown periods and school closures due to coronavirus (COVID-19) cases. Others may have found it less stressful than going to school. In particular, this may apply to those with a visible difference.

For these students, going back to school may be a cause of stress and anxiety.

On this page, we share some suggestions on how to manage a child’s worries and concerns now the final COVID-19 restrictions have been dropped.

It may be helpful to you if you are:

  • A parent or guardian of a child with mark, scar or condition affecting their appearance (visible difference).
  • An education professional or youth worker.

What are the challenges of going back to school?

During the unusual period of enforced lockdowns, many children missed school friends, teachers and the daily routine that school offers.

However, some children may have found the lockdown periods less stressful than attending school. In particular, this may be the case if they have a visible difference. They may have felt safe and cocooned in the family home, away from public scrutiny, comments, questions, stares, even teasing and bullying.

Since going back to school, some children may be concerned for a number of reasons. They may experience:

  • Worry that they are behind with their studies.
  • Anxiety that their social skills have dipped.
  • A decline in confidence.

This may feel even harder if your child felt anxious about their appearance before or felt vulnerable, isolated or unhappy previously at school. These feelings can persist for a long time after the disruption ended.

What can I do to help my child?

Here are some ideas on how to support your child if they are struggling with being back at school.

#1. Communicate with the school

Talk to the relevant head, teachers and pastoral support staff to explain any anxieties that your child has. This will give school staff a chance to consider and prepare for the worries your child is facing. They may be able to speak with your child to offer reassurance. It might be helpful to keep these lines of communication open on a regular basis.

#2. Name that emotion

This can be a confusing and overwhelming time, especially for younger children. Your child may have trouble understanding their feelings. With your child, you could make some emoji cards or painted pebbles together, showing different emotions, such as happy, sad, confused, worried, curious, tired and so on. “Labelling” feelings may make it easier for you and your child to talk about any worries and help you support them.

#3. Talk about it

Set aside time during the day to discuss feelings and worries. Let your child know it is OK to feel this way and that there are no “bad” or “good” feelings. It is natural to want to reassure your child, by saying things like, “Don’t worry” or, “It’ll be OK”. However, it may be more helpful to gently explore. Try asking, “What makes you think that might happen?” and, “How can we prepare you if it does?”

#4. Ensure a calm bedtime

Your child’s sleep pattern may have been affected by anxiety. Try making the run-up to bedtime peaceful and relaxing with calm activities like colouring, a jigsaw or Lego in place of electronic gadgets or television. Choosing a calm and happy bedtime story to read with your child is a good idea. Night-time anxiety can be reduced by making space during the day for conversations about school worries. Remove all phones and electronic devices from the bedroom. The Sleep Charity has good resources for parents and children of all ages.

#5. Encourage self-soothing techniques

These can help your child feel calm and more in control of difficult situations or feelings. These may be:

  • Relaxation via breathing exercises, meditation or guided imagery, where your child can visualise somewhere calm. You might consider relaxation apps, such as Headspace (12+ years) or Calm (3+ years). We also have our own series of relaxation audio sessions.
  • A positive playlist of inspiring music can be uplifting and calming.
  • Grounding techniques – for example, the 5-4-3-2-1 method. Ask your child to tell you five things they can see, four things they can hear, three they can feel, two they can smell and one big deep breath in and out. This can be repeated several times with the child until they feel calmer.
  • Hand massages are easy to do and relaxing. Use a plain, non-sticky hand lotion and gently massage your child’s hands. They can try this on you too.
  • Creative activities such as colouring, crafts, puzzles, jigsaws, Lego or building blocks all help relaxation.
  • Positivity journaling can also be valuable. Ask your child to write down or draw three positive things each night in a journal. These can be very simple things, like a walk in the sunshine, a family meal together or a good book.

We’ve created a relaxation session you can listen to with your child. It’s all about butterflies! It’s about the easing of lockdown but you might find it helpful for whatever anxieties your child is dealing with.

Remember, it is fine to take it gently. Going back to school, in the current circumstances, may feel strange for some children – and parents too.

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