Q: How can parents help children who have anxiety about going to school?
It’s very common for children to have anxiety when they return to school. Once the school year starts, those “return to school jitters” tend to settle down. However, if children remain anxious about going to school beyond those first few weeks of the school year, parents need to investigate.
Talk to you child about his or her feelings. Listen seriously and with your heart. If your child walks in with a sad face or does not seem their typical self, try making an empathic statement that reflects their emotional state. For example, “you look sad today,” or, “I see that you might be feeling frustrated.” Many children will begin to open up as you address feelings, instead of asking questions. Having to know what happened, why it happened and where it happened can be perceived as an interrogation rather than the tenderness of a loving parent.
Remain calm with your child. It may be upsetting when you find out that your child does not like a teacher or is being bullied by another child. Remember that children mirror our own anxieties and emotions. Our children look to us for reassurance and encouragement. A caring adult can make a huge difference in diminishing fears and worries common to children and adolescents.
One way to build up your child’s resilience is to support the development of their social network by encouraging play dates and get-togethers with other children from school. This can improve a child’s academic and emotional well-being. Remembering that they’re not alone, and having friends to talk to, will often ease worries and relax anxious kids.
Many families can work through a child's difficulties on their own, but if it affects their academic progress or home life – it’s time to seek more support. You can reach out to school counselors, a nurse, an aide or your child‘s teacher. Pay attention to signs indicating more serious problems than just ordinary worries. When issues such as sleep problems, social isolation, tantrums, or headaches continue for more than two weeks, parents should make an appointment with their child’s pediatrician to discuss these concerns.
Benjamin Thompson, MD