The mental health guide to going back to school: ‘Don’t promise all will be okay’

Adolescent psychotherapist Colman Noctor recommends providing as many ‘knowns’ as possible

While the return to school after the long summer holidays is just par for the course for many children, it’s a source of stress and anxiety for others — and even more so after the damaging disruption of school closures in recent years.

It’s something child and adolescent psychotherapist Colman Noctor is very conscious of. “There has definitely been an increase in attendance issues since the last few years of lockdowns,” he says. “Social distancing, pods and mask-wearing impacted on the relationship that children and teens formed with the school-going experience. The developmental delays are also evident as we see many children struggling with the expectations that the school environment is placing on them.”

You can promise your children that, no matter what happens, you as the parent will do what you can to resolve it

For some children, school closures provided a belief that school attendance was not “imperative”, Noctor says. “Avoidance became a viable option or coping strategy, but this is a poor coping strategy and is also an unsustainable one. Many teens on the periphery of the education system have especially struggled to reintegrate and re-engage.”

Anxiety is a fear of the unknown, Noctor explains, and for that reason he recommends providing as many “knowns” as possible before the return.


“Ask them what they’re worried about,” he advises. “Transitioning to secondary school can be particularly anxiety-provoking. This is anticipation anxiety and often subsides after commencing in the new environment.”

Noctor suggests taking “a measured approach in terms of the August run-in. Don’t over-ham it, or go on about it, that just agitates anxiety. But don’t have it as an ambush for them in September either.

“Try not to promise that all will be okay, because you can’t guarantee that. But you can promise that no matter what happens, you as the parent will do what you can to resolve it.”

For students with additional needs, Noctor suggests a similar approach but to include reassurances that any additional requirements, such as learning aids, will be sourced for them. Some may need reassurance that these won’t make them “stand out”, that its purpose is to support them.