School Anxiety

Spring brings more school time off with spring break and parent/teacher’s conferences. Having just come off the holiday school break, the longest one kids get until summer vacation, it may seem hard to maintain the momentum of daily school attendance for your child. As the holidays geared down and your child returned to school, you may have noticed that your child was avoiding school. It may be that this resistance to attending school showed up subtly such as your child complaining of not feeling well, having a stomachache or headache on a consistent basis, yet the ailments were not related to a serious physical illness. You may have fallen for it the first day and allowed your child to stay home that day and realized your child wasn’t that ill but the next morning it started all over again. Getting the child back to school may have begun to seem like a difficult task.

Worry and anxiety about starting back to school after a break, or anxiety when starting a new school, is normal for most children. However, if your child is dealing with persistent and excessive anxiety that is interfering with his/her emotional, physical and social development, your child may be dealing with an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety may show up as school refusal. Children refuse to go to school regularly or have problems staying in school. This may be seen in the child who complains about feeling sick on school days, asks to stay home from school with minor physical complaints, complains of physical symptoms shortly before it is time to leave for school, or frequently asks to visit the school nurse. If the child is allowed to stay home, the symptoms quickly disappear, only to show up again the next morning. Sometimes the child may refuse to leave the house or get into the car to be taken to school.

Some of the most common physical symptoms include headaches, stomachaches, nausea, or diarrhea. Or you may see tantrums, inflexibility, separation anxiety, avoidance, defiance and/or clinginess.

Studies have shown that anxiety disorders are some of the most common psychiatric conditions among children, with as many as 10% suffering from them and requiring medical treatment. Some studies indicate that this disorder is on the rise and starting as young as preschool age. (Kruger, 2003)

There are usually underlying reasons for school anxiety. The anxiety may be triggered with school starting, changing schools, or other stressful life events happening. The child may fear that something will happen to the parent after he is in school, or may feel as if he/she has to stay home to take care of a parent who is having a difficult time. (This is rarely obvious and often a surprise to the parent when revealed.) The fear could be a school-based fear that he/she will not do well in school or may be having peer difficulties or someone may be bullying your child. Often the school anxiety is about a deeper problem and needs to be explored and treated. School refusal affects two to five percent of school-age children. It often takes place between the ages of five and six, ten and eleven, and at times of transition such as entering middle and high school.

Parents need to pay attention and take action to help the child. Initial anxiety symptoms may be warded off with some guidance and intervention from the parents and the school. Some steps that you, as the parent, can implement include most importantly, keeping your child in school. If your child is allowed to stay home, this actually reinforces anxiety rather than helping it. Help your child develop coping skills for his/her school anxiety or stressful situations.

Have your child go to school even if he is complaining of being sick. (Of course, always make sure there is not a medical issue.) And assuming there is not a medical issue, set him/her up with support systems at school such as the guidance counselor or the school nurse. These people can give the extra support and direction needed for your child. This takes you out of the picture and gets your child in school and managing his/her feelings in a positive way. As the child is able to master the school days, he/she will build more confidence and be empowered and begin to believe that he/she can handle school.

Talk to your child about his/her feelings and fears, which will help decrease them and help the child feel understood. It may also bring out any underlying fears that aren’t obvious.

Remind your child of the positive aspects of going to school such as playing at recess, being with friends, or being part of learning a favorite subject. Talk to your child’s teacher away from the classroom, explaining the situation and setting up more communication between you and your child’s teacher. This becomes another support system for your child.

Teach your child some relaxation techniques so that he/she can calm himself/herself when he/she is feeling anxiety. Learning how to do some deep breathing techniques can help decrease anxiety. Or implementing some physical activity will help calm the over-aroused brain. It will give the brain more oxygen and put natural endorphins into the system, creating more calm for the child. Again, teaching your child these skills will give the child some tools in handling the difficult moments he is encountering. This helps develop lifetime skills for life’s up and down times.

Persistent anxiety that goes on for more than two or three weeks needs to be treated. Untreated anxiety disorder can lead to depression as well so this isn’t something you want to let go on indefinitely. Nor do you want your child to suffer from anxiety if it is treatable and anxiety disorder is treatable. If you decide you need to have your child treated, contact a Mental Health Professional to set up treatment. If you would like someone at our practice to evaluate the situation, call us at 308-382-5297 and talk to Karla at extension 10. We also have screenings available on our web site – Click on Mental Health Screens.

Kruger, P. (2003, September). Parents. Retrieved November 18, 2009, from

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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.


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