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“We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat”

Damian Barr, April 2020

I love this quote. It’s a small extract from a much longer poem, but it describes so well the challenges of recent months spent in lockdown, and our different struggles as we begin to return to some semblance of normality. Going back to school or college can be a daunting experience in any normal year, but – as we are all now so acutely aware – 2020 is no normal year. The pandemic and subsequent lockdown is an unprecedented situation in our time and this year above all others we’re facing record levels of anxiety around going back to the school or college environment. Children and parents will likely be feeling a whole host of emotions, and given that we’ve all had hugely differing experiences during lockdown, it’s fair to expect that there will be widely varying emotions and attitudes towards going back into the classroom.

For many children, lockdown will have been a largely enjoyable time, safe at home with family away from the challenges of the school environment; but for others, it will have been a stressful and potentially traumatic time. Some children will be eagerly looking forward to going back to school, keen to see their friends and teachers; some will be somewhat apprehensive about entering a new socially-distanced classroom environment; and some will experience soaring anxiety levels at the mere thought of returning to a busy and demanding school setting, nervous about communicating with teachers and peers once again and letting go of the security of their home-based learning environment.

And that’s just the kids! This particular back to school period provides even more challenges than usual for parents sending their children back into the learning environment. Shattered from juggling home schooling and work, excited to be getting some routine back into their lives but anxious that their children will now be more exposed to the virus, and potential guilt that they may now be putting their child and other vulnerable family members at risk. It’s an absolute rollercoaster! Mental health problems were on the rise prior to the pandemic, but the risk to mental health is now widely predicted to be off the scale.

So, what can we do to ease the transition at this crucial time?

✔ Start by talking 

One of the first places to start is by engaging in conversation with your child. If they’re open about their worries and anxieties, then you can help them to think of ways to manage them. But if they’re a little more reserved, start by talking through the daily routine that they were once so familiar with, and you may find their concerns arise naturally as you talk. Similarly they may wish to “debrief” after school, and you may find this comes easier if you create space for talking in different ways, such as going for a walk or baking together.

✔ Encourage a consistent sleep/wake time

Sleep is crucial for every single aspect of our health and particularly for mental wellbeing. Many children will have had their body clocks upended throughout lockdown, getting up later and later in the day, and sleep is often hampered by excessive exposure to smart devices or gaming before bedtime. Good sleep habits include winding down before bedtime, having a dark, quiet bedroom free from distractions and maintaining a consistent sleep/wake time. One simple way to encourage better sleep in children is to agree together a regular time for going to bed and getting up, and to start easing into these new times before term time begins so it doesn’t come as a shock to the system.

✔ Daily omega-3

Omega-3 fats found in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel are crucial for all aspects of brain health including mood, and yet the latest National Diet & Nutrition Survey shows that most people across all age groups fail to eat even one portion of oily fish per week. A daily supplement of a thoroughly purified, stable omega-3 fish oil is generally agreed to be a safe and reliable way to up your intake.

✔ Spend time outdoors

The benefits of spending time outdoors to support mental wellbeing are well documented and these can stack up even higher when you combine it with some kind of movement or exercise, for example walking, cycling or scootering. Finding ways to encourage your child to engage in regular exercise is a great habit to support mental wellbeing and if it’s something you can do together, then even better.

✔ Daily dose of calming nutrients

The typical Western diet is often lacking in key nutrients that support mental health and wellbeing so supplementing with essential nutrients such as magnesium, zinc and vitamin C may be beneficial. Magnesium is often referred to as nature’s tranquiliser for its calming, relaxing qualities; vitamin C helps the body to deal with stress; and B vitamins play a crucial role in overall balance and wellbeing. Sadly, processed, convenience foods are often stripped of these essential nutrients. L-theanine, an amino acid found naturally in tea has also been shown to have a soothing and calming effect; and milk protein hydrolysate, a unique milk protein fraction has demonstrated anti-anxiety activity in clinical studies. Optimum nutrition starts with a great diet first and foremost; but supplementation with these nutrients may help to bridge the gap.

✔ Vitamin D for mood and immunity

More than ever it’s important to ensure your child has not just adequate but optimal levels of vitamin D in order to support balanced mood and healthy immune function. A liquid vitamin D is useful option for providing the dosage flexibility for all the family.

✔ Reconnect with friends

Model the coping strategies you use as an adult when feeling stressed and suggest your child reconnects and spends time with friends before returning to school. Whether it be virtually or in real life, simply by being in touch with familiar people or friends will help re-establish some of the positive connections they have with school.

These are just a few of the things you can do to support your young person during this stressful transition, as well as yourself, and the list is by no means exhaustive. If, however, you have significant concerns about your child’s mental health and wellbeing relating to their return to school, do talk to a professional, whether that’s a health professional such as your GP, or a professional at their school or college. In addition to all of the resources available to you online, there will always be someone who can help.

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