BANGOR, Maine (WABI) - Times of transition, such as the start of a new school year, bring excitement and anticipation. However, the start of a new school year can also be associated with difficult emotions or stress. A little bit of anxiety about school is normal. Using active strategies for dealing with the anxiety is the most effective way to keep worry in its place.
Signs of Anxiety
Particularly with younger children, knowing the signs of anxiety can help parents assist their children in dealing with school related anxiety. Typical signs of anxiety include:
• Physical Symptoms and Complaints: Our anxiety response affects our body. Children who are anxious may report headaches, stomach aches, not feeling well, or feeling tired.
• Excessive Worry: Children who are anxious often demonstrate frequent and repetitive worry about things that might happen or go wrong.
• Avoidance: One common, but unhelpful response to anxiety, is to try to avoid the anxiety producing situation. In the long run, this makes the anxiety response get worse.
Mental Health Diagnoses Associated with School Anxiety and Avoidance
Some anxiety about school, particularly a new school, is normal. In some cases, children and adolescents who avoid school may have an underlying mental health problem. Common problems associated with school avoidance and anxiety include:
• Separation Anxiety Disorder: For children with separation anxiety disorder, the primary fear is being separated from parents or family members. While normal in very young children (1-3 years), this is less common with older children and teenagers.
• School Phobia: A phobia is an intense fear – or aversion - of a particular place, situation, or object. With school phobia, the fear is not separation, but rather being in school itself.
• Depression: Social isolation and withdrawal is one symptom of major depression. In some cases, school avoidance reflects the isolation associated with persistently depressed mood.
Feeling Safe At School
As our country struggles to deal with instances of mass violence and shooting, concerns about being safe at school have naturally increased. To address these concerns, it is helpful for people to talk about their fears without judgment. For parents, listening rather than talking is probably a good first step. It might help to review steps schools have taken to ensure safety, such as limiting entry to the school, the presence of safety officers or law enforcement, and drills to practice what to do in emergency situations.
Tips for Coping With School Anxiety
• Practice: Particularly for younger children, practicing the steps in going to school can help reduce anxiety. For example, a few days before school, you can drive to school, find the classroom, and get familiar with where things are.
• Listening: Anxiety is a normal human emotion. Often simply listening, and perhaps asking "What do you think would be a good thing to do?" can help keep anxiety in check.
• Make a Plan: Having a plan reduces stress and the tendency to avoid anxiety producing situations. For helping get out the door, organizing backpacks, outfits, and saving time for breakfast is helpful. Once at school, talk about which school staff (teachers, counselors, nurses) can help when a student needs support.
• Knowledge: Not knowing often makes anxiety worse. Ask your child what things they are wondering or worrying about. See if you can help them find a way to answer the questions that are on their mind.
For More Information:
American Psychological Association Help Center: https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/index
American School Counselor Association: https://www.schoolcounselor.org/parents-public/back-to-school-tips
CDC Back to School: https://www.cdc.gov/features/back-to-school/index.htm