Helping Children with School-Related Anxiety
By Rebekah, Evans, Ph.D.
For many families, the beginning of the school year is a difficult time due to children’s anxiety about new classrooms, new teachers, new peers, and new challenges.
I recently asked Dr. Asad Khan, a child psychiatrist practicing in Arkansas, to share some practical tips for parents of children who are worried about the return to school.
Q: What should a parent do if he/she is worried about a child’s back-to-school anxiety?
Beyond the basics of looking at a child’s sleep, nutrition, activity, and relationships, parents can examine their own worries and anxiety. Many anxious children have anxious parents, and parents’ own anxieties can increase stress in children. From the time the child wakes up in the morning for school, parents can look at the interactions between parent and child. For example, a father may notice a child not getting out of bed and start to threaten consequences or raise his voice. A mother may become frustrated with a child’s poor eating habits at breakfast and start to lecture. In these situations, parents can observe themselves and their own inner stress. Taking calming breaths, being “present”, and being aware of their own stress can help parents and children both return to equilibrium.
Q: What can a parent do to help smooth the family’s morning routine?
By observing the areas in which children tend to struggle the most, parents can plan in advance for potentially difficult moments in the morning routine. Small changes in these fraught moments can add up to big reductions in stress for everyone. Does getting dressed inevitably turn into a fight with parents? Choosing clothes the night before may be helpful. Does the child get nervous on the car ride to school? Music or a special toy in the car may provide a simple but welcome distraction.
Q: How should a parent respond to a child who is distressed when leaving the parent in the morning?
Goodbyes are important. When the child leaves for school, the parent should be clear, loving and matter-of-fact. For example, say, “Goodbye. I’ll see you this afternoon.” Do not provide extra reassurance or prolong the goodbye, as this can actually increase anxiety. A consistent routine for the goodbye is also important to establish.
Overall, the best gift you can give an anxious child is a calm, loving, and present parent. For many children, making small changes can relieve many of the more typical worries of childhood. If your child’s anxiety starts to interfere with school attendance, grades, sleep, or social interactions, seek help from a professional. There are many excellent, evidence-based treatments for different types of childhood anxiety that can relieve suffering.