In Part 1 of our Anxiety Series, you read about the many ways that anxiety presents itself in children, exploring the more obvious visible signs and the more subtle ways that anxiety can show up in kids. In Part 2, I provided 20 simple anxiety-reducing strategies that work like magic to integrate a child’s left and right brain hemispheres, thereby helping to regulate anxious children’s intense emotions.
Now in Part 3, we will explore two very common forms of anxiety that are found in many children and teens today: school anxiety and separation anxiety.
What is School Anxiety?
School anxiety, also sometimes called school phobia or anxiety-based school refusal, occurs when a child’s anxiety makes him reluctant to attend school or even flat out refuse to go to school.
School anxiety may be the result of a broad range of anxiety-related concerns, like social anxiety, worry, panic, separation anxiety, and/or depression. However, in your kids especially, school anxiety is almost always related, in some part, to separation anxiety, though the anxieties around school can be myriad. School anxiety is not simply a child wanting to skip school!
Other Reasons for Anxiety-Based School Refusal
Starting a new school, moving, and a number of other stressful events can trigger the onset of school refusal. Some kids fear that they won’t do well in school, have fear of another student, fear getting sick in front of peers, or might be hypersensitive to teachers’ criticisms, regardless of how well-intentioned and constructive their criticisms might be. Other kids might start exhibiting school anxiety after they’ve been out sick or during or after a parent’s illness.
Anxiety-based school refusal is seen more commonly between the ages of 5 and 6 and between the ages of 10 and 11, and also at times of transition, such as entering middle or high school, but school anxiety can really occur at any age.
Signs of Anxiety
In Part 1 of our series, I reviewed various visible signs and less obvious signs you might see in children that are indicative that they are struggling with anxiety. Let’s review those briefly.
Visible Signs of Anxiety
- physical distress (shaking, crying, hyperventilating, screaming)
- fleeing, escaping
- outright statements of anxiety or worry
- outright questions expressing fears
- refusal to engage in activities that cause distress
- extreme distress upon contact with feared object, person, or place
- refusal to be alone or without a parent
- repeated rituals
- panic attacks
Less Obvious Signs of Anxiety
- clingy behavior
- avoidance behavior
- complaints of physical illness or physical ailments (i.e., headache, stomachache)
- reassurance-seeking behavior
- argumentative behavior
- reluctance to try new things
- extreme shyness, sensitivity
- being easily distracted
- slowness, procrastination
- overly cautious behavior, indecision
- exacting standards
- sleep difficulties
- physical aggression
- threats of suicide to avoid anxiety-provoking situations
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is displayed as anxiety and excessive worry around leaving one’s attachment figures and/or the home, and it is the number one reason why kids are chronically truant and/or tardy from school. In fact, as many as 75 percent of kids with separation anxiety experience some form of school refusal behavior.
The symptoms a child experiences when separated from their attachment figure(s) and/or home are so distressing, they will do uncharacteristic things to avoid feeling this distress, such as:
- throwing a fit
- refusing to move
- saying/yelling mean things
- become ill or pretend to be ill
- getting in trouble so they can get suspended or expelled so that they can stay at home
- drawing out their morning routine to the point that they will be late for school
Following are common signs of Separation Anxiety Disorder:
- Distress when anticipating or experiencing separation from the home and/or attachment figure(s)
- Worry about losing attachment figure
- Worry about attachment figure being harmed
- Worry about being kidnapped, lost, or otherwise separated from attachment figure
- Reluctance or refusal to sleep away from home
- Reluctance or refusal to leave the house
- Nightmares about being separated from attachment figure or home
- Complaints of somatic symptoms when separated from attachment figure or home
How to Help
There are numerous strategies parents can use to try to help alleviate their child’s anxiety-based school refusal as well as help reduce the worries about separation. A few parent-specific tips include:
- Manage your own state, as the parent/caregiver. Kids are highly intuitive and can very often pick up on their parent’s mood and emotions. If you are displaying anxiety, your child can pick up on it and it will most likely make them anxious too. Try to be strong when you and your child are in the process of parting, at least until after you’re out of sight and outside of hearing distance.
- Be consistent. If you say you’re going to pick your child up at 3:30 pm, please do all you can to fill that promise to her. Of course sometimes things happen that are unavoidable, but this should be the exception, not the norm. Do what you say you’re going to do.
- Validate their feelings. Acknowledge their worry or fear and let them know that you understand this may be hard, but encourage and assure them that they can handle this and that you will always return.
- Create a (quick) goodbye ritual with your child, and use it every time you part. Creativity and even silliness can be a bonus here, to help your child know that separating doesn’t have to be such a bad thing and that you love them no matter how far apart you are. Remind her that you will see her again later (if you are able, tell her when that will be).
- Whatever you do, do not sneak away when separating from your child in effort to prevent a tear fest or tantrum. This only increases the child’s worry about being apart from you.
Stay tuned for Part 4 of my Anxiety Series, where I will offer a much larger variety of tips and strategies you can use to help your child with anxiety!