Back to School Fears and Anxieties

Back to School Fears and Anxieties

The thought of going back to school can bring on a variety of emotions. Some children may be excited and actually look forward to seeing friends, having structure, a routine and starting sports or other activities. Others may be less enthusiastic about returning to school and having the stress of a schedule and homework. While many kids are not looking forward to school starting, some kids are actually experiencing anxiety and fear about returning to school. As a parent how can you know if the anxieties are normal or if they represent a more serious problem? Some children will talk about their anxiety or fears while others may keep it bottled up inside. A child’s anxiety may stem from concerns about being able to “measure up” to the other kids academically or about making new friends, fitting in, or facing bullies. These fears and concerns can create anxiety even for well-adjusted confident children. It is important to listen and take seriously the concerns of your child and help them to overcome their fears. Most fears and anxieties can be overcome by having your child talk about their feelings and helping them to put things into perspective. If their anxiety persists for several weeks or they refuse to go to school they may benefit from seeing a professional to help them cope with their anxiety.

A child who is experiencing anxiety about school may not directly tell you. We recommend that you talk with your child about how they feel about school starting and ask them open ended questions that will require more than just a yes or no response. They may experience physical symptoms such as stomach aches, headaches, sleep problems or nightmares. Talking to your child about their feelings about school starting can help ease their anxiety and can be an opportunity to build their inner strength and confidence. If a parent also has anxiety about their child going off to school the child will pick up on this and take their cues from the parent and exhibit anxiety too. Children are like emotional sponges and absorb parental emotions and cope with situations or emotions much like they see their parents cope. To help ease both yours and your child’s fears, there are several things you can do. You can visit the child’s school before school starts and meet their teacher and get familiar with their classroom, lunch room, library and other places in the school that your child will be. You can shop for their school supplies together and use that time to talk to them about their expectations for school. If you know other children who will be in their class you can try to connect with them prior to school starting so that they can see a familiar face when school starts. You can also ask your child if they have heard stories about what school is like from older children. This is important because older kids will often tell horror stories about certain teachers or experiences they had or may even take pleasure in frightening them by making up things.

There are typically different fears at different age levels. For really young children starting school they may worry about what they will be expected to know or how fast they will need to learn things. Some kids may even worry about being able to go to the bathroom when they need to. They are adjusting to being away from home and primary caregivers, nap time and new teachers. Asking them questions about these issues may give them an opportunity to voice these concerns and not let the anxiety get out of control.

As kids go on to middle school their fears take on a different nature. They tend to be more concerned about changing classrooms, lockers, having the right clothes, clicks and weight issues. The biggest fear for this age group is often about fitting in and how to deal with peer pressure. A serious and unfortunate issue that affects many children in schools today is being bullied by another child. If you suspect that your child is being bullied or could possibly be bullying other children you need to address the issue with the school as soon as possible. Some of these situations can quickly escalate and it is critical to stop it before it goes too far. Again, talking to them about what their fears are will help you find ways to alleviate the anxiety. For example, if they are concerned about opening a combination lock or remembering the combination, you could get a combination lock in advance and let them practice opening it. Or you could even help them practice how they might respond to someone bullying them or making fun of them.

High school brings additional pressures for many children. They are often more concerned about dating issues, fitting in and developing their identity. They may also feel additional pressure to perform academically as they prepare for college and life after high school. Teens are more likely to talk to their friends than to their parents so this is a time when parents need to work extra hard to try to get their teens to talk. Open ended questions are the best way to get them to respond however they may still be reluctant to share their inner fears and anxieties. We suggest that you watch for signs that their anxiety may be beyond “typical concerns”. If you suspect that they are suffering from more intense anxiety than what most other children are experiencing, you may want to consider seeking some professional help. If you find yourself saying that your child is acting in an uncharacteristic way, trust your instinct. Signs that your teen may be experiencing significant anxiety or depression are: change in academic performance, loss of interest in activities they previously enjoyed, change of friends, change in behavior or attitude, increased irritability or aggressive behavior, or withdrawal from family or friends.

In sum, while some feelings of apprehension can be normal for children starting school or going to a new school, extreme anxiety should not be ignored. Trust your parental instinct and talk to your child about their concerns. If anxiety persists or intensifies you may want to explore counseling options. There is a quick reference following that may help you identify more significant signs of anxiety.

An anxious child or teen may:

o be exceptionally well behaved i.e. never in trouble at school or when in the company of others, but not necessarily at home.
o often ask many unnecessary questions and require constant reassurance.
o get upset when a mistake is made or if there is a change of routine such as sports day, substitute teacher, unexpected visitors or trip to unfamiliar place.
o be a loner or restrict themselves to a small group of safe people (who may be younger or older).
o often hesitate to answer questions and rarely volunteer comments or information.
o become sick when performances are necessary (may even be absent from school).
o have poor social skills or refuse to participate in social activities, including other children’s birthday parties.
o have difficulty separating from parents.
o be clingy with a parent or loved one in situations outside home.
o express worries about ‘bad things’ happening.
o have worries about school at the beginning of each term or perhaps each Monday.
o avoid unfamiliar situations, become sick, not turn up or endure situations with significant distress.
o become distressed if a particular friend is not at school.
o often ask questions which begin with “what if….?”.
o be perfectionist, taking excessive time to complete homework because they try to get it absolutely correct.
o have difficulty sleeping, taking a long time to get to sleep or waking during the night and needing comfort from parents (it is not uncommon for them to sleep in their parents’ bedroom).
o experience regular headaches or stomach aches that have no medical cause.
o be argumentative (but rarely aggressive), especially if trying to avoid a feared situation.
o be pessimistic and easily able to identify what may go wrong in any given situation.

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