Triangle Mom2Mom: How to conquer school anxiety

Posted by Erin Towle-Silva and Michelle Topal on February 25, 2014 

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A: What isn’t fun about snow days? Your kids get a day off from the usual routine of school and get to play and relax at home. But then there is the dreaded morning trying to get back into the routine of school after a snow day (or three or four, as has been the case this winter). The scene of rushing around, asking the kids a million times to get their sneakers on, the nonstop whining and protests about going to school, and shoveling breakfast in their mouths as you rush them out the door. This can be the typical morning scene in many households, but for a child who experiences anxiety about school, it can be more chaotic, emotionally intense, and exhausting for all.

Anxiety is a feeling we all experience. It is part of life, but it can become a problem when it prevents us from doing things we need to do or want to do like going to a party, going to work, or going to school. Anxious children can really struggle with returning to school after a snow day, school vacation, or even a weekend. Children can be anxious about school for a number of different reasons, such as peer issues, separation anxiety from parents, or school challenges. It is important to figure out the reason why your child is anxious about school. But this can be challenging as your child may not even know what the problem is or how to put it into words to tell you. It is also important to make sure your child’s anxiety isn’t a response to a real threat, such as bullying or some type of abuse. Learning to manage anxiety and not let it damage a child’s functioning, opportunities, or self-esteem cannot happen if a child is unsafe.

If not addressed, these fears and anxiety can become intense and powerful, leading to school refusal or avoidance. School refusal happens when your child’s fear and anxiety makes them want to avoid attending school. They may scream for hours in the morning or even the night before school, trying to not leave home. Often, children will complain of stomach aches, headaches, or other physical illnesses, making it challenging to know whether anxiety or physical illness is the cause. These children may be absent from school for weeks or even months.

There are some things parents can do to help support a child who may be anxious or having some difficulty getting back into the routine of attending school:

• It is important that the anxious child go to school (unless there is a legitimate reason to keep him or her home, like a fever). Keeping the child home can reinforce the anxiety, making it more intense and powerful the next school morning.

• Help the child understand and label what he is feeling, reassuring and validating him that it is a horrible feeling but that it will not last forever. Often, anxious children are so overwhelmed by their fear and anxiety that they think it will never go away.

• It can be very hard for parents to see their children this distressed and upset. It can often leave the parents feeling anxious and fearful themselves. If your child sees your fear or anxiety, it sends a message and confirms that school is something to be anxious about. As hard as it is in these situations, it is important for parents to remain calm and confident.

• Teaching your child about how the brain and the body work in relationship to anxiety can help demystify and make sense of the connection between the thinking, feeling and bodily experiences they are having when anxious. It can also help them feel more “normal”, since anxiety and anxious bodily changes are universal experiences. Helping kids understand, rather than giving too much weight to the uncomfortable physical feelings they are having, can help prevent these experiences from turning into panic or eventually an anxiety or panic disorder.

• When your child is beginning to feel anxious, teaching breathing and relaxation techniques can help her manage her anxiety. Some exercises that can be helpful are taking slow deep breaths (filling her belly with air and then blowing it out), counting to three as she breathes in and out, and tensing and relaxing her muscles.

• Another strategy that can be useful when a child is feeling anxious is distraction or engaging in an activity they enjoy, such as drawing, running outside or playing with a family pet. You can also come up with a plan for after school that the child can look forward to, like doing a special activity together or getting to choose what the family eats for dinner. Having something positive at the end of the day can help an anxious child tolerate his anxiety and manage it so he can attend school.

• Lastly, it is important that anxious children be empowered and encouraged that they are brave and strong enough to overcome (or be the boss of) their anxious feelings not have their anxious feelings be the boss of them! Using visualization can be helpful here, such as having your child name the anxious feeling (like “the worry monster”) and plan how she will conquer the monster.

These basic strategies can be helpful, but there are many other strategies for helping anxious kids. Anxiety in children can be complicated, exhausting and crippling for kids and families. If you, your child, or your family are feeling overwhelmed, seeking support and professional help can offer useful insights, especially if you are concerned your child is developing an anxiety disorder. It can also send the message to your child that it’s okay not to have all the answers and that asking for help is a positive thing to do.

Erin Towle-Silva is a licensed psychologist at Change for Living Counseling, serving the Wake County and surrounding communities. She offers individual and family therapy for adults, children, adolescents and families. Erin specializes in helping people with issues of anxiety, depression, school avoidance/refusal, and parenting issues, especially for children, teens and families. She also has considerable experience with trauma, substance abuse and grief/loss for adults and kids. Erin is committed to helping people recognize and build on their strengths, leading to contentment and wellness in their lives. Contact Change for Living at changeforlivingcounseling.org or 919-807-1454.

Michelle Topal, MSW, LCSW, is the owner and a therapist Change for Living Counseling. Michelle has been helping people in the community for over 25 years. She has committed herself to helping kids, parents and families as well as the LGBT community. It is important to her that Change for Living Counseling is a safe, open and caring environment so people feel comfortable and understood when talking about their concerns. Contact Change for Living at changeforlivingcounseling.org or 919-807-1454.

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