Anxiety about going to school often looks nothing like a parent would expect. Kids and teenagers might report frequent headaches and stomach aches at home, or regularly ask to go to the nurse’s office at school. Other physical symptoms can include insomnia, nausea, diarrhea or constipation, heart palpitations, chest pain, dizziness, sweating and panic attacks.
Then there’s the behavioral side: tantrums, clinginess, crying, aggression or lack of eye contact. In the classroom, students might be defiant, disengaged or absent altogether.
“When you get to the root of a problem, so many times anxiety is what’s really involved,” says Terri Tchorzynski, last year’s National School Counselor of the Year for the American School Counselor Association, who works in a Michigan high school. While all students have nervous days, those jitters can grow overwhelming for some. True phobias tend to be most common in elementary school – especially early in the year – but anxiety can surface any time, either generally or in response to specific situations such as tests, bullying or shifting peer relationships. High school counselors have recently noticed increased anxiety in seniors, likely due to more stringent academic demands and competitive college admission criteria.
Certain personality types are at higher risk, too, including perfectionists and overachievers, people-pleasers, worriers, introverts and students with developmental delays. Kids might fret about everything from a parent getting hurt while they’re away to not passing a state-mandated exam. Transitions to a new school or stressful life events such as divorce or family illness also can trigger nerves.
Parents who notice warning signs should talk to a child as calmly as possible and validate his or her concerns – without judgment –to encourage continued sharing, says Nicole Wiggins, Child and Adolescent Acute Therapist at the Riverside Behavioral Health Center in Hampton. “Validation doesn’t mean agree,” Wiggins says. “Instead, it communicates an understanding of their emotions and feelings.”
A problem that a parent might consider minor might seem allimportant to a child, Tchorzynski adds. So comments such as “that’s life” or “no big deal” can make kids shut down. What students do need to hear is that some failure and struggle is not only OK, but a valuable learning opportunity.
“You want to develop grit and a growth mindset,” Tchorzynski says. “Rather than always trying to protect them or immediately jumping in to solve problems for them, it’s better to support them: listen, brainstorm possible solutions and make sure they know you’re with them.”
Other tips from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America: emphasize school positives such as seeing friends, learning favorite subjects, playing at recess and participating in fun extracurricular activities; encourage hobbies and interests to build self-confidence; visit classrooms before a school year begins; and create an extended support system of family, friends, teachers, coaches and other trusted adults where kids can turn. Students can also practice mindfulness focusing attention on the present and relaxation techniques such as deep breathing.
Parents should be aware that school anxiety is common and tends to be temporary, says Dr. Dan Via, with Sentara Pediatric Physicians in James City County. At the same time, persistent or escalating issues can put a child at risk for depression or even suicidal thoughts. In those situations, a child may need to see a physician or mental health professional for therapy or medication, Via says.
And the source of fear, the school, can be the perfect place to find solutions. “Without question, talking to teachers, the school psychologist and/or guidance counselors is critical when the problem reaches a certain point,” Via says. “They have seen it all before and can be very helpful in trying to formulate a solution.”