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Preparing for your child’s first school trip by Dr Maryhan Baker

Going on a school residential trip can feel understandably daunting for many children and teens. It’s a combination of fear of the unknown and being without all the familiar home comforts they typically rely on for reassurance and security. For parents it can be hard to know how best to navigate the first trip, particularly if you have a child who is anxious.

Firstly, it is important to note that residential trips are confidence building opportunities and a chance for children to step out of their comfort zone. They learn how to navigate new friendships, take on new responsibilities, experience a slice of independence, and navigate a whole host of novel situations. There may well be tears as you wave them off, but if you follow these tips, you will set them up to have a great time!

  • Take your angst out of the mix. It’s your ‘baby’s’ first overnight trip, you are understandably anxious AND your child will pick up on this. Just like their first day at school, they will cope more admirably if you keep your own emotions in check. Process your feelings with your adult friends and family so that you can be positive and excited about this new adventure when you are with your child. Children pick up and mirror our feelings so help them to feel excited not anxious.
  • Acknowledge your child’s fears. It’s perfectly normal to feel a little nervous about being away for the first time, and still go and have fun. Help your child to name their emotions, as labelling reduces the intensity of the feeling and shifts processing away from their primitive emotional brain to their logical brain.

You could also introduce them to the concept of anxiety reappraisal which is changing what we think to change what we feel.  When we feel anxious about an upcoming event the chances are we are thinking of all the things that might go wrong.  The longer the list we conjure up the more anxious we become, and once in this state of high arousal it can be hard to move into the low arousal state of calm.  Excitement is another high arousal state and research has shown that it is easier to move from one high arousal state to another than to try to go from high to low.  Encourage your child to talk about being excited rather than anxious and let them hear you saying how excited you are for them. HERE is a little video to explain this further.

  • Help your child problem solve solutions to reduce their fears. Will taking their favourite cuddly toy or something else that makes them feel connected to home, help? Sharing their fears with a teacher or a friend? Repeating a mantra ‘everyone is here to help me’? We are acknowledging the challenge and then focusing our attention on finding solutions to reduce the overwhelm – encourage them to come up with the majority of solutions rather than you give them answers as this will be more powerful in impact.
  • Walk throughs and talk throughs are an invaluable way of helping children feel confident. Help them imagine what might happen by taking them through the trip agenda, sleeping arrangements, mealtimes, and make sure they are able to do the practical things like organising their kit or making a bed.  The more information you can give them about what to expect, the more confident they will feel that they can cope.
  • Involve them in the planning for example get them to do their packing so they know they have the right clothes and equipment for the activities they will be doing. If you have been given a packing list do your best to fulfil it.
  • Change the narrative. We all have a voice in our head. When we are most nervous our voice is at its loudest “what if I can’t sleep?” “I will miss home too much” “what if something bad happens?” “what if I feel sick in the night?” Help your child to identify their internal nervous narrative and then shift to alternatives which might be more helpful “everyone is there to help me” “once I get started, I will be fine” “I’m going to be with my friends having fun” “Everyone gets nervous and that’s alright” “no one else has done this before” “ I don’t have to be an expert”.
  • Believe in your child’s ability to overcome. Your child won’t always feel overwhelmed by being away from home. Your unreserved confidence in their ability to overcome sets up the right balance of expectations – optimism coupled with practical tools and strategies to help.
  • Communicate with staff – your school will have carried out comprehensive risk assessments for the trip, and whilst we can never fully guarantee their safety in any setting, with good preparation we can minimise the risk of harm.  Remember that you trust these teachers to look after your child every day – their duty of care does not change when the setting changes.   That said, If your child needs extra support for any reason, you will feel calmer if you check that all staff on the trip are aware of their needs.  If they have an allergy you might find this blog useful, and if they take regular medication, send a little more than they will need just in case travel is disrupted.

In my fifteen plus years working with children these have been the most effective strategies I have found, but they won’t work instantly. As is the case when learning anything new, they require practice.

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