Tips to Help Children with School Anxiety
As the summer comes to an end and the beginning of the school year approaches many children experience some level of anxiety. While all of us experience anxiety sometimes and it is perfectly natural, when it reaches a level where it interferes with our child’s functioning, their ability to participate in age-appropriate activities or makes them isolated and fearful, it is time to do something about it.
It is helpful to realize that different children may show their anxiety in very different ways. Some children may refuse to get on the school bus and throw temper tantrums in the morning. Others may experience stomachaches and headaches and tell their parents they want to stay home because they are not feeling well. Yet others will just refuse to get dressed or come out of their room and they hide under the covers. All these reactions (and many others) are just different ways children will try to deal with their own fears.
The good news is that there are many effective strategies for parents to help their children develop healthy coping skills to managing anxiety.
The first thing to remember is that the goal should not be to get rid of anxiety altogether.
As mentioned above, anxiety is a natural human emotion that has clear evolutionary purpose. We all have it. Instead of wanting to eliminate it completely, the goal for our children should be to learn to manage it better. That means to learn to function as well as possible and be able to participate in activities, go to school, establish friendships, etc. despite feeling anxious.
Do not avoid things that make your child anxious.
When we respond to our fears by avoiding what is causing it, we experience some relief in the short-run but the anxiety will get worse in the long-run. Instead of avoiding anxiety-inducing situations, help your child get through them even if they are afraid. One way to do this is to create a plan of gradually exposing the child to the feared situation. Let’s use the example of a child refusing to go to school.
On the first day, the child could go to school and just spend 1 hour in the guidance counselor’s office. The second day he should do the same for 3 hours. The following day the child should go into one class and spend the rest of the day in the guidance office. Then he should go into 2 classes, then 3, then 4 and so on until they are able to attend all of their classes and school activities.
It is important to note that utilizing teachers’ and the guidance counselor’s help is absolutely necessary for this process to work. Also, giving in to school refusal is never a good idea and the gradual exposure should be started right away to ensure the child is not going to miss a lot of school.
Do not reinforce your child’s fears.
Sometimes parents anticipate their children’s fears and anxiety and unconsciously express fear or concern with their voice or body language. Try to be aware of your own thoughts and emotions in these situations and make sure that you are exhibiting confidence and a calm, relaxed attitude.
Set positive and realistic expectations.
Your child’s fears are not always unrealistic. There is a small chance that they will not do well on a test or that nobody will talk to them at a birthday party. However, instead of letting these fears stand in the way, express to your child that they will be ok, they will be able to manage the feared situation and eventually their fears will subside.
Model healthy ways of tolerating and managing anxiety.
Kids learn by observing their environment and their parents’ behaviors. Make sure you model healthy ways of dealing with anxiety, especially when your child is watching. When you notice you are anxious, take deep breaths, do a quick mindfulness exercise and use positive self-talk. Remember, your child is probably listening and learning from you modeling adaptive behaviors.
Teach your child how to talk about their fears.
Realize that your child may not have the vocabulary and ability to articulate exactly what is bothering him/her. You can use a doll or a picture of a person and ask your child to point out where in their body they experience the fear. Then you can teach them the right words for emotions and connect those new words to their physical sensations.
You can also teach your child to engage in positive self-talk. For example, if your child is nervous when taking tests, ask them what they could say to themselves that would help them feel calmer. You can give them some examples first and then let them come up with their own coping statements.
Try to keep the anticipatory period short.
Often the anxiety is worst before the feared situation actually happens. Parents can often prevent their child’s anxiety by keeping the anticipatory period short. For example, if your child is afraid of getting shots, do not talk to them about it way ahead of time. It will only create fear and negative behaviors (avoidance or acting out).
Reward your child when they do something that is hard for them.
Children build self-esteem by doing things that are challenging. Even if they do not succeed at a new task, them making the attempt is progress in itself. Make sure that you let your child know what they did right and what they are being rewarded for. Also remember not to always reward with things, but use praise, activities together or playing games as forms of rewards.
Teach your child relaxation skills.
Many children with school-related anxiety have a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep. Help your child develop a bedtime ritual that involves taking deep breaths and using progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). PMR simply means flexing and relaxing our different body parts one by one while taking deep breaths. Relaxing muscles releases tension in the body and it will also help relax the mind. Another exercise that can be very relaxing is visualization. Have your child think back to their favorite vacation (maybe the beach or the woods) and imagine they are back there. Have them use their senses to remember the sights, sounds, smells, etc. and take deep breaths while doing so.