Dealing with School Anxiety: Experiences and Research from a Mom and Teacher
There is nothing more heartbreaking for a parent than to have to leave your child in what they perceive to be a fearful situation. Having to pry apart those little fingers that are tightly gripped around your neck as your child is crying, and in some cases, screaming leaves you with feelings of helplessness and desperation that no parent can repress. These situations are even harder because our leaving them goes against all our natural instincts to protect our children. From the time our children are born we hear a cry and we jump towards it. We look to soothe, shelter, and protect, as all good parents should. However, when it comes to school anxiety and your child these instincts work against us. These urges to pick them up, whisk them away, and never allow them to feel that again can actually make it harder for our kids to deal with separation and stress in the future. School, and being away from parents, is healthy and necessary. We as parents must provide our children with the skills that they need to be successful as independent humans.
Normal Jitters or More Serious Anxiety?
It is important, first, to recognize that all children feel some degree of nervousness before the start of a new school year. They worry about being prepared, being with their friends, they wonder if they are going to fit in, and if their teacher is mean. It is normal for kids to be anxious leading up to the beginning of the new school year; some may even cry or act out. When the first day of school comes some children may hesitate to get on the bus, trying to avoid the inevitable. In fact, depending on your child’s age, it is quite normal for kids to cry while at school. However, if your child’s anxiety continues beyond the first couple of weeks and prevents them from enjoying their day then it might be time to have a discussion with the teacher and maybe even a professional. This article will guide you through the signs, symptoms, and manifestations of childhood anxiety. I will suggest plans to work on with the school and teacher, as well as things to try at home. Finally, I will also describe what you should look for if you decide that you need a mental health professional to help deal with your child’s anxiety.
What Causes Anxiety?
Anxiety is tough to deal with, especially in children. It can appear at anytime and without warning. Anxiety is not rational, often in children even more so, because, depending on their age they might not be developmentally capable of describing what they are feeling. For all that parents, teachers, and mental health professionals do not know about anxiety there are some things that we do know. Anxiety can be inherited. There are some genetic components that make some children predisposed to anxiety. If your child begins to display anxiety symptoms ask your parents about your family history. A child who used to be called a “mama’s boy or girl” we now recognize as a child who perhaps might be dealing with anxiety. When you ask about family history, if you find a connection ask about how it was dealt with and how long it lasted. That can be important information to share if you do seek help. In addition, if you and your child are struggling with their anxiety know that you are not alone. Mental health professionals, teachers, and parents have found solutions that work. In the end, understand that in many cases unless there is abuse, or violence that leads to the anxiety its cause may be inconsequential, especially with those families that have a genetic predisposition.
How Does Anxiety Manifest Itself in Children?
Children are all very different, and anxiety can manifest itself in many different ways. The following are a few of the most frequent symptoms of childhood anxiety.
- Signs of Stress
Anxiety in kids is not always the same as in adults. Adults who are anxious will often talk about it. They might bite their nails, grind their teeth, show a face filled with lines of worry, and of course they might cry. Don’t expect your child to be able to explain what they are feeling, depending on their age some cannot. Although many children who have anxiety do display these typical symptoms of stress sometimes how it manifests itself in children can make it a little harder to spot.
- Physical Symptoms
For many children anxiety begins with mysterious aches and pains, especially belly aches. This one makes some sense, even to adults. We all have had that awful feeling in the pit of our stomach when we are worried about something; kids get that feeling too. However, children cannot intellectualize that it is caused by worry or fear. Many times situations of acute onset anxiety in children can be prolonged, because, again, the parental instincts are to trust the symptoms and fix the problem. If a child has never displayed anxiety before we assume a stomach bug. Watch out though, giving attention for this negative behavior and allowing the child to avoid the situation that they are fearful of can prolong and intensify anxiety and make things worse for them in the long run. So, if you notice that when you remove the child from school, and then they make a miraculous recovery, be suspicious. Make sure to mention school as they are on the mend; see how they react. Remind them that since they are doing better they will return to school the next day, see what their reaction is.
- The Weight of the World
On the opposite side of the spectrum are the kids who can and do over intellectualize. They will be constantly relating worries and fears about things, which are out of their control. They might worry about natural disasters, getting sick, mean or rude people, animals, insects, etc., etc. The list can go on and on. These children are clearly at a superior cognitive level, and when dealing with their anxiety use their intelligence to help get them through.
- Sensory Sensitivity
For Some kids their anxiety is displayed with sensory issues. They feel uncomfortable in certain clothing and will be very picky about what they wear, or what touches their body. Also, this can include being sensitive to noises or any outward stimulus. Combined with sensory issues, and related to their manifestation, are bathroom concerns. Children might be overly worried about having to use the bathroom any place other than home. They might even ritualize these anxieties.
- Repetitive Behaviors
R Repetitive behaviors can make parents very nervous. However, it is important to remember that although Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is an anxiety disorder, if your child has rituals or patterns of behavior that doesn’t mean that they have OCD. For most humans routine is comforting and predictable. With children especially routine can help them to anticipate and be aware of what is coming. Additionally, rituals are comforting for an anxious child because they are things that they can control. These behaviors, depending on what they are, might not be a bad thing. It all depends on what the behaviors are and if they are interfering with their normal life. Sometimes the symptoms of anxiety like crying, or bellyaches can almost become the compulsive behavior, and in which case, it is important to break the pattern and replace it with a behavior that is acceptable.
Parents: Reactions and Interactions to Avoid
Of course all parents want to fix the problem and help their child to be happy. There is nothing worse than suffering alongside your child. However, as was previously stated, sometimes the reactions that seem instinctively correct can actually end up creating more issues for your child in the long run. Although it is hard sometimes, try to avoid the following.
- Avoid the escape.
Of course a parent’s first instinct is to whisk your child away from the fear, to shelter your child and protect. But before you withdraw your child from school, quit your job and decide to homeschool remember the following. Homeschool can be a good option for many families for a variety of reasons. However, do NOT homeschool your child because of anxiety unless the case is so extreme that a therapist, from whom your child is receiving mental health treatment, recommends this. The world will be a scarier place unless you teach your child how to confront it, but make sure that they know that you will do it together.
- Avoid over intellectualizing.
Many kids, as was previously stated, cannot express why they are feeling anxious and fearful. In addition, many feel anxiety for no reason at all. That doesn’t mean you cannot try: discuss the anxiety with your child, see if they can express what they’re feeling, and its cause. But, if they cannot explain or understand do not persist with the attention on the issue. Let them know you’re there when they want to talk. Recognize that by continually questioning them about something that they do not understand you can make anxiety worse. Think back to when you were in school and the teacher asked you a question that you did not know the answer to.
- Avoid punishing them or shaming them.
Children who suffer from anxiety are not choosing to live their lives that way. They want to be as carefree as their classmates. By continually pointing out how different they are they might feel worse about themselves and the anxiety will build. Do not take away privileges, or ground them for behaviors that they do not know how to stop. This will certainly backfire, and it will get worse. Although it is frustrating try to remember that they are not choosing to feel this way.
Parents: What Should you Do?
There are some things that you can do to truly help your child. The most important key factor here is that you might need to change your behavior to help guide the child, but the worse thing that you can do for a child with anxiety is to do everything for them. They need to develop the confidence to be able to tackle life’s challenges: so, give them the tools but let them do the building.
- Do pay attention to your attitude and behavior.
Try not to get too emotional or anxious. Be calm and reassuring. Ask questions and listen to the responses. For example, if you notice that your child is showing signs of anxiety calmly ask them if they are feeling anxious and question if they know why. Then, try to brainstorm together. What has changed or what new routine is beginning.
- Do make your children aware of changes in routine or deviations from the norm.
Some parents might not want the child to worry in advance so they might just surprise them with a new routine or event. This can be very difficult. Instead if, for example, someone new, like a babysitter, will be putting your child on the bus then tell him or her. Then, let the idea sink in. If you notice the anticipation of the new routine is creating anxiety then start by visualizing what this new routine will look like. Then together plan what they can do to cope.
- Expose anxious children to others like them through literature.
There are some great children’s and young adult books written on the topics of anxiety. Many of them are picture books, which can be great for all ages. In addition, there are even books written for teens and adolescence dealing with anxiety. Featured here are some great titles that I am personally familiar with and have used. Read about the titles and find one that has a protagonist with symptoms like your child. It will help them to be able to connect, because like I wrote earlier anxiety can manifest itself in so many ways.
- Do talk to the school.
Let them know what is going on at home. Ask them about your child’s behavior at school. Then, also let them know what you are doing to deal with the issue and see what their thoughts are. When talking to the school be aware of your rights. By law if your child’s anxiety is preventing them from getting the education that they deserve, and if your child’s teacher is not being sensitive or cooperative then you have the legal right to demand an accommodation plan. If a special education team including the teacher, the administration, and yourself puts an education plan together then the school is required by law to follow that plan and they will be held legally culpable if they do not. Most schools will be sensitive and helpful but know your rights, in the rare occurrence that they are not.
School Preparations: You and Your Child Can Work Together to Confront the Worry
There are many little things that you can do to help your child to deal with their anxiety before the school year even begins.
- Make them comfortable in the environment.
As soon as you can, make your child aware of their teacher and their surroundings. Go to the school together before the school year begins. If it is a new school request a tour from the principal or teacher, and certainly request a meet and greet with the teacher in advance of the first day. If your child has already attended the school have them guide you on a tour. Ask them to show you where their new classroom will be. This puts the power back in their hands.
- Know the routine in advance.
Find out from the teacher, or the principal, what the first day routine will be. When they get off the bus exactly what are they going to do? Where are they going to go? As your child is worrying in advance of the first day you can gently remind them that they know exactly where to go and what to do. Even suggest that the other kids won’t know what to do, perhaps your child can help to ease the worry of their classmates by guiding them.
- A fresh face can help, and can give them time to adjust.
Sometimes it might be helpful to have someone else either put your child on the bus or drop them off at school. That way the separation from you is earlier, and before the school day. It will give them time to deal with the separation without compounding it with the new school day. Make sure it is someone who your child knows in advance and is comfortable with.
- Positive gentle reminders and reassurances.
Discuss, and write down, your before school routine. Little reminders by the door to gather their things and “Have a Nice Day!” Can have a big impact on what your child is feeling.
- If your child is highly intellectual use that to help them cope.
For the older child, or the rare child who over thinks and over intellectualizes their worries, give them a journal. Have them write or draw what they are worried or anxious about and then explain that you will take some time to sit down and go over it together. Sometimes when we write things down it can be cathartic.
- Special things and reminders of home can provide extra comfort.
Send them off with some special things. Just a couple little reminders of home can be helpful. Like a picture of the family, or for the child with sensory issues some smooth polished stones to rub when they are feeling worried. A little trinket or reminder of a fun time you had together, when carried in your child’s pocket, can help to ease the burden of worry and fear.
- Surprise them with rewards.
As a parent, and an educator, I know that a reward system can work wonders. However, when dealing with an anxiety prone kid rewards can build more stress. If they cannot control their worry or their behavior then they are even more stressed about not achieving the set reward. So, surprise them. You saw that they got right on the bus without a tear one day, for example, then a trip to get ice cream after dinner will reinforce that behavior, but not make them anxious about achieving the reward.
In the end do remember that every kid is different, and always changing. What works for one kid might not work for another. And try not to get frustrated. A strategy, like special things, might work for a little while and then lose its comforting effects. Try to be patient. Remember, parents, you are not in it alone. If it becomes too much for you to handle look for a trusted Cognitive Behavior Therapist who is experienced in working with childhood anxiety. You want a Cognitive Behavior Therapist because you want to change the anxious behaviors and reward the more positive behaviors. This strategy has proven to be personally and professionally effective.
So, as your kid waits for the bus on that first day of school and their face is filled with worry and concern just be positive and remind them that it is like jumping in a pool: At first it will seem really cold and hard to stand, but you’ll get used to it and you will be glad you did.
A more resilient child.
School Anxiety and You
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