The back to school period has come and gone, and the excitement and novelty of this time of year has likely dwindled as children have settled back into the school term routine again. Now that the hustle and bustle of this period has died down, perhaps you are noticing that your child seems worried or stressed about attending school, or is reluctant to attend. Though going to school can bring excitement for some children, it causes worry for others. While these emotions are completely normal for children to feel, excessive feelings of stress and worry towards school over a longer period may indicate that your child is experiencing school anxiety. If this is the case, it’s important to be able to recognise the warning signs and causes of your child’s anxiety so that suitable strategies can be put in place to help manage these worries.
Causes of school anxiety
School presents with unique challenges and experiences that may provoke stress that causes anxiety in students. These causes could include:
- Social pressure of wanting to fit in
- Performance pressure to get good results
- Environmental changes of a new school
- Pressures outside of school – bereavement, divorce, parental illness, or anxiety about separating from their family
The cause of your child’s concerns may help to determine the type of anxiety your child is experiencing. There are different types of anxiety that may be affecting your child and it is important to be able to differentiate them. For example, your child may become upset and distressed when separated from you, which naturally occurs when attending school. This could indicate that your child is experiencing separation anxiety rather than school related anxiety. However, if your child indicates that they’re worried about specific school related tasks or experiences, it could mean that your child has a school phobia. Additionally, post-traumatic stress may have occurred due to an experience of bullying or harassment in school.
Recognising your child’s anxiety
It is important to be able to recognise the symptoms of your child’s anxiety. This can help to identify the type of anxiety your child is experiencing which will ultimately lead to better intervention later. There are often signs that show if your child may be feeling anxious about school, which may include:
- Reluctant to go to school/school refusal
- Having stomach aches or headaches (especially before school)
- Being quiet and reserved
- Loss of appetite
- Skipping school
- Excessively worrying about school related activities
Coping techniques for your child to use
Using coping techniques can be a great way to help children manage and minimise the effects of school anxiety. There are two common forms of coping techniques – distraction techniques and tool techniques. Both can be useful when used in the correct way.
Distraction techniques redirects the child’s mind from the current anxious emotions they may be experiencing to the task at-hand. Distraction techniques could include:
- Reading a book
- Breathing exercises – Controlling the breath will slow heart rate and activate a calmer response. Four-by-four breathing, hand breathing and star breathing are common useful techniques.
- Going for a walk or exercising
- Using sensory boxes
- Drawing or painting
Tool/processing techniques involve allowing the child to explore their thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, enabling them to manage these emotions more effectively. Tool techniques include:
- Keeping a diary – Journaling can also help your child to slow down and process what they are feeling which may help to control anxious impulses.
- Writing a nice card to a teacher or classmate – This positive exercise will release feel good hormones and improve connections with the school community, helping to reduce school related anxiety.
- Emotion charts – Reflecting on the emotions your child may have experienced during their school day may help your child to recognise why they are feeling anxious at school.
Advice for parents of children dealing with school anxiety
- Show encouragement & be supportive: It’s important to validate your child’s emotions surrounding school anxiety. Identifying that you sense their anxiousness and stating that this is an okay feeling to have will help your child to recognise and accept how they feel without judgment.
- Establish a routine: This is especially important for school anxiety following the summer break. Consistency with bedtime, mealtime and playtime will give your child a sense of predictability and stability, reducing anxious provoking situations.
- Help your child feel prepared: Giving your child information on what you already know about the next school year allows your child to mentally prepare for what to expect. Additionally, allowing your child to visit the school and meet their new teacher prior to school starting m may also help to reduce the anxious anticipation about the year ahead.
- Coach your child through coping techniques: Supporting your child through the distraction and processing coping techniques will ensure that the techniques are carried out correctly, improving their effectiveness. Your child will also feel comforted by your support during this heightened anxious state.
When to seek help for school anxiety
As previously mentioned, healthy coping mechanisms can help children to manage their school related anxiety. However, children can also be vulnerable to relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms. These unhealthy mechanisms may be helpful in the short term but ultimately result in damaging physical and mental health.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms may present itself in many forms such as self-harm (biting, hitting their head, cutting). If a child is using these forms of coping, you should seek out professional help immediately. Additionally, unhealthy coping mechanisms may also include over/under-eating, drug use, alcohol use, social withdrawal, and aggression. If your child has engaged in these types of behaviours professional help should also be sought out.
To recap, recognising the symptoms and causes of your child’s anxiety will help you to determine which strategies can be used to help your child manage their emotions effectively. However, you and your child are not alone. Therapists, school counsellors, and administrators can be all be great resources to help you and your child find ways to manage this anxiety. We have multiple clinicians who are specialised in treating children, who you can find linked below:
If you would like to consider counselling to treat your child’s school anxiety, or to talk about the anxiety your child is experiencing, you can contact us by emailing [email protected], or calling 01 611 1719.