What happens when your child refuses to go to school? Or when they constantly experience stomach problems or headaches that keep them from going to school? Or when they spend more time at night crying or angry than doing homework? These are some of the most difficult scenarios a parent can deal with because there is little they can do to change the situation. Most families do not have the ability to home school and school is in fact mandatory, so children must attend. But how do you send your child to a place that causes them so much distress and how do you win the daily battles if they refuse? This is what school anxiety looks like. It is often misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and mislabeled. These kids are often accused of faking illnesses, labeled as the bad kids because of their acting out behaviors triggered by the anxiety, or isolated. People often tell these children to just “suck it up,” because everyone has had to go to school and nobody likes it. But this goes well beyond just not liking school.
While school anxiety is not a diagnosis on its own, it can be caused by a number of different forms of anxiety or phobias. Social phobia, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, or many more can all contribute to school being a terrifying place. Many times these children are terrified at the thought of speaking in front of a class, asking a teacher a question, making a mistake, something bad happening, or generally just don’t feel safe at school. This anxiety can lead to emotional outbursts at home, physical complaints, school refusal, or even acting out behaviors. There are differing levels of severity, but in most cases it can impact a child’s academic performance, behavior, and ability to make friends.
School anxiety can look very different depending on the child. There are the obvious symptoms, which involve tearfulness, worry, frequent talking about anxiety, fears something bad will happen, etc. And then there are the ones that are often missed. One of the most common and usually first symptom that brings attention to a possible problem is physical complaints. A child may have frequent upset stomachs, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, dizziness, or even possibly fake illnesses. After ruling out physical or medical causes of these complaints, it is then important to examine the possibility of anxiety. Another commonly misunderstood symptoms of school anxiety is frequent outbursts of anger or acting out behaviors. Children who have anxiety are generally very tense during the day due to the anxiety they feel leading up to school and at school. This tension causes emotions to be right at the surface and children to be more reactive. Often times this then comes out as anger, defiance, or goofiness. All of which are used to cover for the true emotions of anxiety. Unfortunately, because of these symptoms, kids are misunderstood and mislabeled, which then only serves to further the anxiety.
So how can you help a child cope with school anxiety, go to school, and perform at their best with the minimal amount of discomfort? Here are some tips and steps you can take to help ease your child’s mind and make the best out of a difficult situation.
- Talk to your child. Be there as a support. Try your best to understand where they are coming from. Reassure them that things will be okay. Listen with empathy when they share their fears and validate their feelings. Don’t try to tell them that their feelings are wrong, but accept and validate the feelings while reassuring them that while the fears feel very serious and real, they will be okay and safe.
- Don’t punish the symptoms. While sometimes acting out behaviors that are caused by anxiety do need to be punished, don’t punish the symptoms and consider carefully which ones to address with support and which ones with consequences. For example, a child may speak to or yell at a parent with disrespect while doing homework because they are overwhelmed by the anxiety. This incident would most likely be one that is best served by talking about what is leading to the anger rather than punishing the disrespect.
- Don’t lecture them. Putting more pressure on a child who already suffers from anxiety about school will only further serve to increase the anxiety. They at times feel like they are failing expectations and lecturing them will build on that. Accept that they are doing the best that they can in the moment and go from there.
- Involve the school. Sometimes it is a parent’s nature to protect their child and therefore not want to tell outsiders what is going on; however, involving the teacher and support staff in the school can help your child get the assistance they need. The school deals with this fairly frequently and has a good understanding of what can help. They can support your child when you are not there and will also have a better understanding of what is going on when your child exhibits some behaviors that may have gotten them in trouble in the past.
- Don’t blame the school. Blaming the school and assuming that the school has done something wrong only further builds the child’s fear and assumptions that their fears are justified. Instead, keep an open mind. There are occasions when it is a possibility that the school has done something. So it’s important to listen to what your child says and approach the school with an open mind so that you can approach the problem together.
- Don’t allow your child to stay home too frequently and when they are home, don’t make it fun. Sometimes a sickness will be real and sometimes it will be caused by the anxiety. Either way, keep a strict policy in place for what requires missing school and what the rules will be when they are home. Don’t make being at home too appealing. Limit television and play time. If they are sick, being home is a time for rest. Also, be sure that they make up the school work to hold them accountable.
- Get help if you need it. Therapy services are available to help your child overcome their anxiety. School is a mandatory and long process, getting your child help early can reduce the discomfort they may have and allow them to be as successful and possible.