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Back-to-School Anxiety

Do I Have to Go to School?

Handling your child’s school anxiety

Stomachaches, headaches, trouble sleeping or statements like “school is just sooo stupid”—all can be protests from your child about going to school. Parents often find these complaints and resistance to school frustrating, as it is difficult to see one’s child so upset. WVU Extension emotional wellness specialists provide some guidelines for parents in dealing with this common problem.

Q: Lots of children resist going to school. How can parents recognize true anxiety?

A: It is normal for younger children, especially preschoolers, to be anxious about school and separating from their parents. Separation anxiety is your child’s way of showing that they don’t want to say goodbye to mom or dad! For most, these fears resolve quickly as the child adjusts to school. However, when anxiety about school causes a child significant distress, intervention is often needed. This is particularly true for adolescents, who should have resolved normal fears about school.

Signs of children being worried about school can be physical, emotional or behavioral. Often they’ll complain about upset stomach or headaches or become unusually clingy. Young kids, especially preschoolers, frequently talk about their fear of school and may ask for repeated reassurance from parents: “Can you stay at school with me?” Many children suddenly have difficulty sleeping and may begin asking to sleep with their parents. Older kids and teens may show their anxiety with sudden outbursts of tears or anger or become withdrawn. For teens, red flags are sudden changes.

Q. What causes school anxiety?
A: For young children:
  • Separation from parents and familiar routines
  • Fear of new children and experiences
For kids who have been to school:
  • Being bullied or teased
  • Negative experiences in the classroom
  • Feeling inadequate for not knowing the answers
  • Not having fashionable, up-to-date clothes
  • Losing papers and books, or having incomplete homework
  • Parental pressures about school achievement
  • Embarrassment about being uncoordinated in sports
  • Significant family problems or changes
Q: What can parents do to help prevent school anxiety?
A: Prevention is the best solution. Parents’ attitudes and messages about school can help young children feel more comfortable.
  • Prepare your child for school with positive messages like “School can be fun and interesting.”
  • Send the message that you expect him to go to school no matter how much he cries, fusses or stamps his feet.
  • Develop a goodbye routine. For example: kiss, hug, rub noses or special hand signals that mean “I love you, am thinking about you, and will see you soon.”
  • Read school-themed picture books to your child, particularly ones that introduce the idea of classroom rules and routines. One recommendation: The Art Lesson by Tomie dePaola, in which young Tommy must learn to balance his creativity with his art teacher’s by-the-book lessons.
  • Encourage your child to be more independent. Help young children take pride in dressing themselves (figuring out outfits the night before can help!). Middle school children and teens should be in charge of setting their alarm clocks to get up on time. Help them figure out how much time they will need.
  • Reward positive steps toward independence. For example, put a sticker on your son’s chart every day he attends school without tears or clinging, and when he earns a certain number of stickers, take him on a special outing.
For more pointers on preparing for school, see the article Back to School.
Q: Do parents ever trigger school anxiety?

A: Yes, sometimes parents are overprotective of a child who has had medical problems or has been shy as a baby. If parents have emotionally relied on their child to comfort them, kids can worry about mom being okay when they are at school. It is important to understand that parents’ worries are contagious. Denise Cordivano, a New York City early childhood director, says, “If the parent is so-so about school, the child is going to pick up on those emotions and it will be more difficult for the child to adjust.”

To avoid “infecting” your child with your own worries:

  • Don’t hover around when you drop off your child. Your child will sense your anxiety and may worry too.
  • Talk with your spouse, co-parent or friend about your worries to get perspective—don’t unload your worries on your child.
  • Get to know your child’s teacher in advance to get more comfortable and to raise any concerns you might have. Volunteer to help in the classroom to ease your mind, but know when it is time to leave!
  • For the sake of your child, find a way to keep an upbeat and positive attitude about your child’s school, teacher and new friends. This will help your child feel safe and enjoy his time at school.
Q: What can parents do to help kids feel more comfortable?
A: Try these ideas:
  • “My love will go with you to school.” Put an encouraging note in your child’s lunchbox or backpack. Some children feel more comfortable when they take a favorite small toy or object with them to school. Tuck a favorite picture of you into her pencil box to look at during the day.
  • Take time to listen every day. Learn to listen to what your child says as well as the unspoken feelings. This builds a strong relationship and helps your child feel secure. Taking 20 minutes for yourself before you re-unite with your children at the end of the day puts you in a better space to listen.
  • Don’t overreact. If the first few days, or even weeks, are a little rough, try not to over-react. Young children in particular may experience separation anxiety or shyness at first, but teachers are trained to help them adjust. When you drop them off at the bus or at school, try not to linger. Reassure them that you love them, will think of them during the day and will be back when school ends.
  • Arrange playdates with new classmates. To help the transition, step into the other room for a few minutes while the kids are playing. This helps your child learn to tolerate a little anxiety and gradually learn to handle the discomfort of separation.
  • Role play for practice. Use puppets, dolls, stuffed animals or family members to play out potentially stressful social situations that worry your child, such as meeting the teacher for the first time or finding the bathroom.

Want more ideas? 15 Ways to Ease Your Child’s Fears

Q: How should parents handle it when their child says he’s sick and wants to stay home?

A: Always check out recurrent physical symptoms with a pediatrician to rule out medical problems. Assuming kids are physically healthy, parents need to be firm about not allowing them to miss school. Just as it’s our job to work and raise our family, it’s part of a child’s job to go to school.

Here’s a script:

You know, ______ (child’s name), it’s normal and okay to feel a little scared in new situations. Feeling nervous means you are excited about this new situation and that you feel unsure about it. You have done many new things in your life, like remember when you slept at Grandma’s house for the first time without me. That was hard at first, but remember how happy you were to do that? Wouldn’t it be sad to miss out on those fun things in school and new friends?

If school refusal appears suddenly, ask your child and his teacher if something upsetting happened, such as bullying or teasing—both are very common causes of school anxiety.

Is your child worried about changes at home—a move, a divorce or even the death of a family pet?

Helpful websites on bullying for kids and parents:

Q: Is it normal for children to backslide into old behaviors?

A: Of course! After all, adults, too, sometimes wish they could take a day off. Even though you love your job, aren’t there some days you just want to stay in bed? Expect children to go back to old behaviors, like crying when being dropped off, when they don’t feel well or are experiencing stress. Soothe your child. Once the upset is calmed down, talk with her about her feelings. Remember your basic message, “I will help you figure out what’s wrong. I do expect you to be in school and will work to make sure it is a safe place.”

Q: When should parents seek professional help?

A: If for a month you’ve tried everything discussed above and the anxiety interferes with your child’s enjoyment of other areas of her life—she’s having difficulty sleeping regularly, is isolating herself, or is always worried or sad, for instance—then it’s time to have her evaluated by a mental health professional. For example, some kids develop school refusal or phobia—a fear so intense that the children can’t be coaxed onto the school bus or into the building. If they manage to get to school, they cry, complain of aches and pains and can’t be calmed down by the teacher.

One guideline: Usually, kids who have serious school anxiety will show a range of stress—or anxiety-related symptoms, like insomnia or headaches, trouble concentrating and irritability or depression. Children with true school anxiety struggle with it every day. It’s not something they have one day but not the next. These kids aren’t just being oppositional; they’re trying to avoid a situation that makes them scared.

Severe school anxiety may be a symptom of an anxiety disorder. Recent studies show that anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health conditions among kids, with as many as 10 percent suffering from undiagnosed anxiety disorders (OCD, social phobia or panic disorder) which require medical treatment. Whether you consult a social worker, a psychologist or a psychiatrist, choose someone who specializes in working with kids your child’s age. Be sure that this expert, your child’s teacher and you work together as a team. Finally, remember that kids see their friends attending school; they want to be able to do that too. Some just need extra help to overcome their fears.

Q: What is the treatment for school anxiety?

A: Treatment usually begins with cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches relaxation and coping skills to reduce anxiety and can result in improved behavior over several months. If symptoms are severe, doctors may prescribe medication, which can produce some results within two months. The good news is that anxiety disorders are the most treatable mental health condition, and treatment has been repeatedly shown to be effective. It is much better that you find appropriate treatment for your child than watch him or her suffer in silence.

Remember, school anxiety is most often a sign of close connections between the child and parents. This means you have done your job well! This strong loving bond will help you and child work through the fears.

Q: Can you recommend helpful books?
A: Consider these as a place to start.

Reviewed by Eric Murphy, former WVU Extension Service Families & Health Extension Agent, Monongalia County