Supporting young people going back to school or college | Jigsaw

Supporting young people going back to school or college

Supporting young people going back to school or college

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

As schools and colleges start to go back, we all may be feeling anxious after a lengthy lockdown.

Some young people may be feeling nervous or unsettled following an extended period of confinement. The whole country is watching what unfolds as schools and colleges go back for the autumn term.

close up of a hand holding a hand writing in a notebook next to a textbook
Some young people have reported enjoying the time to catch up on sleep, relax and engage in hobbies.

Why might young people be feeling anxious right now?

Classes, exams and work from home came with a silver lining for some of us. It may have felt safe and secure to be confined at home with people we love and within controlled and predictable patterns. Social isolation may have been experienced as a kind of comfort zone.

Some young people have reported enjoying the time to catch up on sleep, relax and engage in hobbies.

For others it has meant a breather from anxiety-provoking experiences. Challenging peer relationships, the academic and social pressures of school or college, socialising and meeting new people can all take their toll. In these cases lockdown was a welcome break.

Social readjustment after lockdown

Resting and healing are essential for all of us. However, if we remain in our comfort zones for too long, we start to feel unable to deal with uncertainties again. Not engaging in activities and social experiences can have a negative impact on confidence and self-esteem.

Along with social readjustment, some young people have increased anxiety specific to COVID-19. Fears of infection or spreading the virus, and worries about vulnerable family members are not uncommon right now.

School leavers and movers

The transition from primary to secondary or finishing school has traditionally been a time when anxiety levels can increase. This year the additional uncertainty has meant that young people haven’t been able to undertake school visits and teacher meetings that can often settle the nerves.

In many cases it has been difficult to honour the endings in the usual ways. Young people may be moving into new and uncertain chapters without fully achieving closure on the previous one.

Leaving Cert fallout

Another concern faced by young people is the impact of Covid-19 on third level education. This year’s Leaving Cert students are the first generation that won’t sit the state exams. In an exam system that most feel was already unfair the option to chose a predicted grade system or to sit the exam is a tough choice to make.

This change can have a knock-on effect to a number of decisions in this already stressful time.

Listen, acknowledge and normalise the worries that your young person is speaking to you about.

What can I do to support a young person’s re-adjustment?

Here are some things which may be helpful for you to support your young person going back to school or college this year.

Empathy and compassion

Feeling stress and anxiety at this time is very understandable. Your young people’s concerns need to be heard and validated. Avoid diminishing the worries that a young person might come to talk to you about. Watch for inadvertently criticising the behaviours which may manifest as a result. There is a context here. Listen, acknowledge and normalise the concerns your young person has.

Gently challenge the worries

A common response to the discomfort of anxiety is avoidance. While understandable, try to not let this become an established habit. Anxiety is temporary, and it can be useful to remind our young people of this. It may feel uncomfortable, but it will pass.

Set small goals to help your young person begin to challenge the anxiety. Go out for short periods and build this up. Highlight strengths and provide encouragement. Read more about supporting young people with anxiety.

Role modelling

Young people often look to parents’ behaviours and coping styles to develop their own ways of managing stress and anxiety. Be mindful of the language being used and how you yourself respond to anxiety.

If young people can observe the adults around them to be calm and rational, it can have a really positive effect. Model healthy self-care and coping strategies. Perhaps even invite your young person to join you where possible, like going for walks.

Help to contain the worries

Encourage openly communicating worries with you. But in some cases there is a danger that constant reassurance-seeking can have a negative impact with regard to self-management of anxiety. If you are continually reassuring, it can inadvertently justify the fears and worries. It is therefore important to try to minimise the amount of time spent doing so.

Depending on the age of the young person, it might be helpful to set aside some specific ‘worry time’ when they can share worries with you. Outside of that, they are practising self-management and developing their own capacity to cope.

Externalise the anxiety as something separate from the young person and perhaps even give it a name. This can be very effective in boosting a young person’s self-efficacy.

Scope out the school/college response

Schools and colleges are doing their best to start the new academic year in earnest and create the best study environment they can. Make sure you and your young person have familiarised yourself with their new safety measures and what extra is needed to bring in each day.

These things may sound obvious but being as prepared as possible can help limit anxious feelings.

Discuss boundaries

Young people coming to Jigsaw have been experiencing a lot of stress in cases where their friends aren’t social distancing. The sense that people are moving a different speeds now can be unsettling.

Talk with your young person about what they’re comfortable with. Being able to think through particular scenarios in a rational way along with how to respond can help provide a sense of control and security, in these uncertain times.

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