Ways to support children struggling with school anxiety
Many children experience anxiety before starting school or trying new activities for the first time. In fact, many adults also feel similar feelings about new situations because we do not know what to expect. It can be difficult to know how to support a child through these feelings. The following are a few tips to support your child when they are feeling anxious about going to school or starting new activities.
1. Label anxiety and body sensations
2. Regulate anxiety and body sensations using coping skills
3. Discuss the fears
4. Minimize Unknowns
5. Explore positive past experiences
6. Foster Curiosity
1. Help child to label what emotion and body sensations they are feeling to reduce anxiety.
Children are not born with the ability to label and communicate what emotions or body sensations they are experiencing. They need help fostering these skills. If you notice that your child is feeling anxious it is important to help them label it.
Every person feels anxiety differently but here are some ways anxiety might be expressed:
Physically: headaches, stomach aches, diarrhea, difficulty sleeping, high energy or very low energy. Behaviorally: talking about school, wanting to stay home, expressing fears or wanting to be close to caregivers.
Labeling emotions and body sensations is important because it helps children understand what they are experiencing. It also helps to reduce anxiety because it helps reduce the fight or flight response by engaging the logical part of the brain (prefrontal cortex).
Labeling emotions and body sensations looks like:
“I noticed that you are fidgeting a lot when you talk about school. I am wondering if you feel anxious about going to school.”
“I heard you say that you do not want to go to school. I am wondering if you are feeling worried or anxious about going back. Sometimes when I start new things I feel anxious or worried. I feel like I have butterflies in my stomach. Does that ever happen to you?”
2. Regulate or use coping skills .
Once the feeling of anxiety and sensations associated with anxiety are labeled it is important to do regulation or coping skills with your child to help them to tolerate the emotion until it has passed. The goal of regulation is not to stop the emotion from happening but make it easier to experience. If we suppress our emotions, they persist.
The feeling of anxiety is caused when the brain perceives a threat or challenge and it seems like the best way to cope with it is go escape from it or prepare to fight the perceived aggressor. That means that our heart rate goes up, we breathe shallowly from the chest and more rapidly, and we have extra adrenaline and cortisol in our body. The “emotional part” of our brain is in control not our thinking part of our brain. Therefore, the most effective ways to help regulate or tolerate the anxiety are:
- Slow Deep Belly Breathing (When we are anxious we are breathing quickly from chest)
- Physical Connection (When we are anxious we feel unsafe, physical connection fosters safety)
- Movement (When we are anxious we have extra adrenaline and cortisol in our body, movement reduces these energizing hormones):
Talking a walk
Throwing a ball
It is important to note the child’s brain is not thinking clearly when they are anxious because the emotional part of their brain is in charge, so it is important for the caregivers to model these strategies or do them together with the child.
“I am wondering if you are feeling anxious about going back to school. Sometimes when I have to do new things, I feel anxious about them too. I notice that I feel anxious because I have a hard time relaxing my body. What really helps me is running. Let’s see who can run to the garage the fastest.”
“I notice that when I feel anxious its hard to breath deeply. Let’s take some deep breaths together.”
3. Discuss the child’s worries
It is important to label anxiety, regulate, and then discuss what is causing the child’s worries. As previously mentioned, when the child is feeling anxious they’re not thinking logically because their emotional brain is in charge. When the child is explaining worries, it is important to listen, validate their feelings, and empathize with their experience. After doing this it can be helpful to ask if you have understood them and if they would like help to come up with a solution. This prevents the child from feeling dismissed and helps them practice asking for help.
4. Minimize Unknowns
Unknowns create a lot of anxiety. It can be helpful to visit the school, create a clear routine for before school, or role play what school will be like. The more information they know and better prepared they feel the less anxiety they will experience.
5. Explore past positive experiences
It can be helpful to create a list of all the times that they have started school or new activities and it went well. Explore what helped it go well and if those things can be done in this situation.
6. Foster Curiosity
Curiosity is the opposite of anxiety because anxiety is causing the child to seek to escape from the challenge or threat and curiosity causes them to move toward. Asking your child questions like:
“What do you think your favourite class will be?” “What are you looking forward to?” “What do you think will be in your classroom?”
It is difficult to support someone who is struggling. During this whole process it is important to allow time and space to take care of yourself and regulate your own feelings. It is cliché but we can not support others if we do not support and care for ourselves as well.
Please contact us at the Airdrie Counselling Centre if you have any questions or would like more information about dealing with your child's school anxiety.
About the author of the article:
Adriana Schmidt, MA, Registered Provisional Psychologist
Adriana is a registered provisional psychologist in Alberta who currently works for the Airdrie Counselling Centre. If you would like to see Adriana’s profile or book an appointment with her, please click on the link below.