Faith and Family: Dealing with school anxiety

Faith and Family: Dealing with school anxiety

I am concerned about my 8-year-old daughter. Beginning over the summer when I would mention school starting in the fall she would get visibly upset but would deny that anything was wrong. She completed second grade in May. She had a great year and the school year seemed to end well. Recently we went to summer registration and were able to meet her upcoming third-grade teacher. The teacher seemed very nice. But my daughter has begun to complain regularly of stomachaches and states she is not going to school when the fall semester begins. I took her to see her pediatrician who said there was nothing medical going on. The doctor mentioned that it could be school anxiety. What does this mean and what do I do now? Please help.

As summer transitions into fall and a new school year begins it is often an exciting time for children: shopping for new school supplies, backpacks and clothes; getting ready to begin a new grade; meeting the new teacher; and finding out who will be in your class. 

However it can be a stressful time for the same reasons. A new grade means a lot of changes: a new teacher with new and different rules, new routines and new classmates. Many children have a fear of school and may resist going to school especially in the beginning of the year. For many this goes away as the fear of the unknown subsides, but for some children this fear grows.  

In itself, stress is not a bad thing. Stress is a normal part of life for adults and children alike. But when our stress levels increase and our normal daily functioning and development are affected, there is a problem.

Stress can then turn into general anxiety or anxiety related to something specific, such as school.

“Anxiety is a condition of persistent and uncontrollable nervousness, stress and worry that is triggered by anticipation of future events, memories of past events or ruminations over day-to-day events, both trivial and major, with disproportionate fears of catastrophic consequences,” according to the “Encyclopedia of Children’s Health.”

On average, 1 in 10 young people suffer from anxiety, making it the most common emotional problem in children. Children and adolescents dealing with anxiety may display physical symptoms that look similar to a medical illness. With complaints of physical symptoms it is recommended that a medical doctor examine your child to determine if there is a medical reason other than anxiety for those symptoms.

Symptoms of anxiety most often displayed by children and youth include stomachaches, disturbances of eating or sleeping patterns, nervous habits, stuttering and phobic reactions to certain things.

Children may be hesitant to tell a parent what they are feeling or experiencing, or they may not know what they are feeling or why their bodies are reacting this way. 

Parents and other adult figures who are able to connect emotionally and be involved will be an asset to a child experiencing these symptoms.  

One thing that is helpful to an anxious child is an adult who can share a story about stress in his or her life and talk about how he or she handled it. In addition, parents should set the tone by following Philippians 4:6, which says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving present your requests to God.”

In modeling this correct response to anxiety, children will learn a powerful and healthy coping technique. So sit with your children, give them a hug and talk with them in a way that communicates your care and concern for their heart and emotional well-being.  

Anxieties and fears often come and go with time, but if your child’s anxiety begins to affect his or her ability to perform the responsibilities of childhood such as learning, making friends and having fun, it is time to seek guidance from a qualified mental health practitioner.  

EDITOR’S NOTE — Kristin Lowrey (LCSW, PIP, RPT-S) and Anne Lawton (MA, LPC, RPT) are counselors for Pathways Professional Counseling in Birmingham.


Practical & helpful tips

  • Before the fall semester begins, visit the school and meet the teacher.
  • If your child is attending a new school, then plan to walk around the school and point out the lunchroom, classrooms, restrooms, gym, etc., when you visit prior to school starting.
  • 4Include your child in back-to-school shopping, allowing them to help make choices when appropriate.
  • Talk about school routines including things that have changed since the last school year.
  • Arrange playdates with old classmates.
  • Talk with your child about returning to school to help lessen back-to-school stress.
  • If you have a young child, draw a picture together of the school and the car/bus that will get them to and from school.
  • Make sure your child is getting enough sleep and is eating a healthy diet.
  • Teach your child basic coping skills to utilize during school such as taking a deep breath or talking to a friend.
  • Meet with your child’s teacher to discuss if something at school is contributing to the anxiety.