Overcoming School Anxiety

Contributed By Kristen Wynns, PhD, a licensed psychologist with Wynns Family Psychology in Cary

It’s 7 a.m. on Monday. All around town sleepy children are being ushered to the breakfast table to begin the morning ritual of getting ready for school. For most children, they will head out the door, backpacks on, with a smile on their faces. For some families, however, the morning routine of going to school is filled with tantrums, crying and headaches (and the kids are falling apart too!).

For many preschool-age children, school anxiety is a real problem that leads to stress, somatic symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches, and behavior problems. In fact, school anxiety is often part and parcel of school refusal, which can be one of the most stressful issues parents face. Parents often feel helpless, guilty and overwhelmed.

Typically, kids with school anxiety will show a range of stress- or anxiety-related symptoms. 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?” “Do I have to go?” Because preschoolers don’t have the words to accurately express how they feel, and don’t have the experience to understand what they are feeling, anxiety often manifests itself physically (stomachaches or headaches are the most common).

Kids may demonstrate regressive behaviors such as having bathroom accidents or becoming excessively clingy. You might also see some changes in appetite and sleep. Some also 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 are often hysterical, clinging to mom or dad’s leg, and refusing to be calmed down by the teacher.

So what can you do if your preschooler or kindergartener is experiencing school anxiety?

1. Use positive self-talk! Remind yourself that separating from your child is not a bad thing. Comfort yourself by knowing that school is a safe place, where your child will learn invaluable academic and social skills.

2. Get support from other parents that you trust. It’s reassuring to know that you’re not the only one feeling this way.

3. Don’t put your own fears onto your child and don’t give too much attention to their worries. You’ll send them the message that they are correct in feeling afraid. Young kids can pick up on their parents’ nonverbal cues. If you feel guilty or worried about leaving your child at school, he or she will probably sense that. The more calm and assured you are about your choice to send your child to preschool, the more confident your child will be.

4. Reassure your child that everyone feels afraid and that’s normal. Encourage her to give it a few days (or weeks) and see how each day gets a bit better.

5. Talk about school and prepare kids ahead of time, especially if you have a worrier. Listen to their fears and try to address them specifically. If your child worries about making friends or getting lost, talk about that and help him problem-solve. Playing “school” can tackle worries in a fun way.

6. Develop a drop off and farewell routine. Children thrive on the predictability of rituals and routines. Select a series of steps that you will take every day when you and your child arrive at preschool. The predictability may help your child remain calm as the “goodbye” approaches.

7. Your routine can be as simple as helping your child hang up his book bag, giving a hug and special high five and then waving goodbye at the door. Or you could decide to watch your child color a picture and take it with you when you depart. The routine can change over time, and eventually you might not even need one.

8. Transitional objects — a family picture, a special doll or a favorite blanket — can also help comfort your child.

9. As tempting as it may be, leaving without saying goodbye may make your child feel abandoned, whereas a long farewell scene might only serve to reinforce a child’s sense that preschool is a bad place. Say, “Mommy (or daddy) loves you. Have a great day. See you after rest time!” Then make a quick exit. The quicker you leave, the sooner your child will bounce back if he’s crying and upset. Do not rush back in to rescue him.

10. Remind your child of specific times he was anxious in the past (going on a play date or having a new babysitter) and remind him how he managed it successfully. This boosts their confidence.

There are a few “don’ts” when it comes to school anxiety: Most importantly, don’t let your child skip school one day because she is upset. If you allow your child to avoid her anxiety, it will be even more intense the next day. Don’t tell your child not to feel scared, or that only babies cry. It invalidates their feelings and makes them feel bad about themselves. Instead, say, “I understand that you’re scared, but you’ll do great!”

Anxiety is transient. If your child continues to show signs of anxiety and stress, you may need the help of a child psychologist who can help you and your child overcome this obstacle. The good news is anxiety problems respond very well to therapy and the strategies above. Before you know it, your child will be saying, “OK, Mom, you can go now!” and running into the classroom with a smile on his face.

Wynns Family Psychology is a specialty child and adolescent practice in Cary serving children ages 2 and older. Our focus is to deliver high-quality therapy, testing and consultations from our team of caring, professional and highly competent doctoral-level psychologists. Wynns Family Psychology services include individual, family and group therapy, educational and psychological evaluations, autism and developmental evaluations and custody consultations. For more information, visit www.wynnsfamilypsychology.com or call (919) 805-0182.

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