As we approach the holidays, children and young people may have mixed feelings about the holidays. We spoke to Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist Rachel Melville Thomas about why it can be tricky, and how parents can support children and young people:
Why is the end of the school year emotionally difficult?
We often think that children are excited and happy about the summer holidays, but Meville Thomas explains many children feel “held together” by the school routine and the regular social life, and losing it means an underlying loss or discomfort. This is perhaps particularly the case this year, when children, young people and their families have already missed out on a long period of school during lockdown.
Now there is the long summer break, in which children and young people have to anticipate what comes next in their lives. For children who have already had difficult experiences of loss, and saying goodbye, the end of the school year can be particularly troubling. They may be leaving behind a well loved teacher, or other member of staff that has taken time and interest to support them.
The adults too may feel ambivalent about the “happy summer holidays” and the changes and development in their children that the end of the academic year marks. Parents are suddenly confronted with their primary school child becoming an independent secondary school student, and the changing role they have as a parent. Children too can have mixed feelings about getting older and growing up. This year again, as there has been such widespread disruption across the school year, there is perhaps also a feeling that children have ‘missed out’ on aspects of the school year that they may have been looking forward to – particularly the rituals of summer sports days, school fairs, prom nights and picnics. For some children these are events that can be revisited in future years, but for many children there will not be the same opportunities. This can make it more difficult to say goodbye and prepare to move forward.
How can I support my child with the transition?
Melville-Thomas suggests that parents ‘Tune in to how your child is feeling right now. The first thing might be just watching and listening and hearing what they're chatting about to their siblings or online to their friends. What's the mood?’ She adds ‘When children are a bundle of mixed feelings – they will often cut to the easy answer of “I’m fine” but might display other behaviours which suggest that they are not fine, so it’s important to notice this, as well as what the child says.’ Melville-Thomas talks about trusting your ‘gut instinct’ as a parent; if your child doesn’t appear fine, check again and keep a watchful eye on them.
Melville Thomas suggests talking to your child about their experiences around the transition to help them emotionally process this. For example - ask your child what was the best thing about the class they are leaving? What was the worst? Who will you miss most as you say goodbye to Year 6? This helps children to think through their experiences.
Melville Thomas says that parents can also use their own experiences e.g. - “I used to love the summer holidays, but I was SO sad leaving primary school and even a bit nervous about what secondary might be like.” Children can then explore these ideas through parents’ experiences, and may feel reassured that these experiences are ordinary.
Melville-Thomas comments that it is also important to accept what your child says. For example, they might say, I don’t want to go back to school,” and even “next year will be rubbish” it is important that parents and teachers don't contradict them and just reassure them. So don’t say ‘No, it'll be great. You'll see your friends, or Mrs. Johnson will be there, or you're moving up into year nine – how exciting”. Instead, she suggests that parents acknowledge the feeling by saying something simple like ‘I'm glad you told me that, tell me a bit more about how you feel.’ She emphasises staying with the difficult feeling rather than trying to ‘fix’ the difficulty straight away. Once the difficult things have been explored, children can then be reminded of some of the things that they may have to look forward to or feel hopeful about.
How can you prepare children for transitions?
Most schools have good systems in place for letting children know what class they will be moving into in September, if you are uncertain ask the teachers. This way you will be able to help think with your child about the new classroom/teacher/class that is coming up.
Some schools have a policy of mixing up the class each year, other schools do it less frequently, but either way you may need to help your child understand this and allow them to share any worries about who they will be with in September.
You may want to visualise or draw or play out the new classroom with your child. With older children it may be important to plan journeys and prepare them in practical ways to increase their confidence.
Think with your child about how they might want to say goodbye to their teacher or their class. There would usually be lots of end of term opportunities to say goodbye, but this year that has not been possible. However, your child may want to make something or draw or write something for the teacher.
If there are opportunities to keep in touch with friends over the summer break, this is likely to be helpful for children, as it keeps them connected with school relationships.
What to look out for if my child is struggling?
Melville-Thomas points out that younger children often show that they are struggling by changes in their behaviour. She says ‘if you have a child who's having difficulty sleeping, or bedwetting again, or saying they have a lot of physical symptoms such as headaches and tummy aches, or bad dreams, seem more irritable, tearful or clingy, you want to figure out what's this all about?’ These symptoms may recede as the child settles in September, but they may warrant further discussions with your child’s teacher or GP.
With older children and teenagers, signs that they are struggling emotionally, present in a different way. Melville-Thomas says – ‘you see things like low mood and irritability. Teenagers can often be irritable, so it isn’t always obvious that they are depressed.’ Another key alarm signal is losing interest in things that they used to do. If this is caused by a change of mood, it tends to be ongoing. Again, it is important to be curious about your child’s feelings and allow them to explore any worries they may have.
If you are worried about how your child is managing the transition, it is helpful to raise your concerns with the teachers earlier rather than later in the academic year. Many schools have access to further emotional support for students in school or will know where this can be accessed.
If you are worried about your child’s mental health, you can discuss this with your GP. The ACP also have a list of child psychotherapists working privately – see our Find a Therapist page.