From the NYU CHILD STUDY CENTER: ASK THE EXPERT
What Can I Do If My Child Has Anxiety at the Start of the School Year?
As I get older it feels like the summers get busier and shorter each year. And so it is time to talk about getting the kids ready to go back to school.
For most children the return to school is greeted with eager anticipation combined with a mild dose of anxiety. Greeting old friends, sharing their summer experiences, and wondering who the new teacher(s) will be are all part of the mix of thoughts leading up to the first day of class. The new school year presents new possibilities and opportunities, a chance to start fresh, and make new friends.
A minority of children, however, approach school with trepidation and fear, and some will be so paralyzed by their anxiety that they will refuse to go to school.
Preschoolers’ fears are often due to separating from their parent. They will often cry and plead for their mother or father to stay with them when being dropped off at daycare or preschool. For most children this anxiety is transient, but for some this may be part of a pattern that includes anxiety and fearfulness going to sleep at night, going to a peer’s house for a play date, or being left with an unfamiliar person.
By the time children get to elementary school we no longer expect them to experience sustained separation issues. However, some will continue to have the same anxiety they had in the preschool years, and others will develop severe anxiety for the first time. Anxiety can be triggered simply by the start of the school year, a move, or change in school. Children who are reluctant to attend school often express some upset in the evening before school, especially after a weekend, and many children with separation anxiety complain of stomach upset or headaches on schooldays. When asked, these children may tell you that they are worried about something bad happening to their parents or that they fear being kidnapped or their home being burglarized. Often they will call home several times a day to ‘check-in’.
If your child does express some anxiety at the start of the school year, the following suggestions are offered by the clinical faculty of our Institute for Anxiety and Mood Disorders:
If your child expresses concern about starting school, accompany your child on a visit to the school and meet the teacher before school starts.
Do not deny the child’s anxiety or worries, but acknowledge them and reassure him/her. For example: “I know you’re worried I won’t be there to pick you up, but there’s no reason to worry. I’ll be there.”
A child with separation anxiety breaks the heart of any compassionate person. Yet, the best remedy is to help the child to not give in to anxieties. As much as possible, you should prevent accommodating the child by allowing him/her to avoid separations.
But, you may ask, how can I do that if my child is so unhappy? Try to find ways to enable the child to go to school. For example, a child is likely to feel reassured if times are set for him or her to call the parent from school. In extreme cases, a parent may stay with the child in school, but only for a specified length of time, which is then gradually reduced. It is most important to tell the child exactly what s/he is to expect. There should be no “tricks” or surprises.
Do not quiz the child about why s/he feels scared. The child often does not know why. Reiterate that the fears make no sense and that the child has to fight them.
If your child is not flourishing, is visibly unhappy, has physical symptoms before leaving for school, or develops sleep problems it is time to seek professional help.
I hope the end of the summer and beginning of the school year are enjoyable and successful.
This monthly column provides educators, parents and families with important information about child and adolescent mental health issues. Please submit questions for ASK THE EXPERT to Glenn S. Hirsch, M.D., Medical Director at the NYU Child Study Center at firstname.lastname@example.org. To subscribe to the ASK THE EXPERT Newsletter or for more information about the NYU Child Study Center, visit www.AboutOurKids.org or call 212-263-6622.#