Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

How to Empower Your Child to Deal With School Anxiety

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How to Deal With School Anxiety: Powerful Ways to Make Goodbyes Happy Ones

School anxiety is awful for children and heartwrenching for parents. It’s so common, but it doesn’t always look the same. Sometimes it will dress itself up as illness (headaches, tummy aches), sometimes as a tantrum or fierce defiance, and sometimes it looks exactly as you would expect.

School Anxiety. What it’s not.

If I could write this across the sky, I would:

Separation anxiety and school anxiety have absolutely nothing to do with behaviour, defiance or poor parenting. Nothing at all.

Anyone who is tempted to tutt, judge, or suggest a toughening up of parents or children, don’t. Hush and hold it in. The assumptions on which you’ve built your high ground are leading you astray. It’s likely, anyway, that parents dealing with school anxiety have already tried the tough love thing, even if only out of desperation. It’s understandable that they would. They’d try anything – parents are pretty amazing like that. 

They are great parents, with great kids. If only being tougher was all it took they all would have done it yesterday and we’d be talking about something easier, like how to catch a unicorn – or something.

Why getting tough won’t work.

School anxiety isn’t a case of ‘won’t’, it’s a case of ‘can’t’. It’s anxiety. It’s a physiological response from a brain that thinks there’s danger. Sometimes the anxiety is driven by the fear that something will happen to the absent parent. Sometimes it’s not driven by anything in particular. Whether the danger is real or not is irrelevant. Many kids with anxiety would know somewhere inside them that there is nothing to worry about, but they’re being driven by a brain that thinks there’s a threat and acts as though it’s true. 

When this happens, the fight or flight response is triggered and the body is automatically surged with neurochemicals to deal with the threat. That’s why anxiety can look like a tantrum (fight) or resistance (flight). It’s the physiological, neurochemical response of a brain on high alert. It’s hard enough to control your own brain when it’s on high alert, let alone someone else’s, however much that someone else wants to do the ‘right’ thing.

We humans are wired towards keeping ourselves safe above everything else. It’s instinctive, automatic, and powerful. This is why tough love, punishment or negotiation just won’t work. If you were in quicksand, no amount of any of that would keep you there while you got sucked under. You’d fight for your life at any cost. School is less dramatic than quicksand but to a brain and a body in fight or flight, it feels the same.

When you’re dealing with an anxious child, you’re dealing with a brain that will fight with warrior daring to keep him or her safe. It’s not going to back down because of some tough words or tough consequences. 

The good news is that there are powerful ways to turn this around. Let’s talk about those.

But first …

Before we go further, it’s important to make sure that the anxiety isn’t from bullying, friendship problems or problems with schoolwork that might need their own response. Teachers generally know what’s going on so it’s always worth having a chat to get a clearer idea of what you’re dealing with. In many cases, there are no other issues at all. On paper, everything looks absolutely fine. That’s anxiety for you.

Empower them.

Anxiety has a way of making people feel like they have no control. It’s inexplicable and feels as though it comes from nowhere. Explaining to your kids how anxiety works will demystify what they’re going through and take away some of the punch. It’s powerful. Here are some ideas for how to explain it in a way they can understand: 

Why does anxiety happen? The words.

Anxiety has a really good reason for being there. Your brain is great at protecting you. It’s been practicing for millions of years and is brilliant at it. If it thinks there’s something to worry about, it will instantly surge your body with fuel – oxygen, adrenaline, hormones – to make you strong, fast and powerful, kind of like a superhero. This is the fight or flight response and it comes from a part at the back of your brain called the amygdala. This part of your brain is small and shaped like an almond. It’s like a fierce (but very kind) warrior and it’s there to protect you. 

Sometimes your brain gets a little overprotective. That’s kind of understandable. You’re pretty brilliant at a lot of things and the world needs you. Your brain is in charge of keeping you safe and it takes its job very seriously. It’s a relief to know the ‘keep me safe’ switch in your brain is working. (Phew!)

When it thinks there’s a threat, it doesn’t stop to think about whether or not the threat is real – it’s all action and not a lot of thought. In fact, the part of your brain that is able to think clearly, calm things down and make great decisions about what to do next, is sent ‘offline’ if the brain senses a threat. That can actually be really handy and is another clever way to keep you safe. If there’s a real danger, like an out of control bus screaming towards you, you don’t want your brain to keep you in the path while it figures out whether or not to get out of there. 

When it comes to school, your brain can sometimes read it as a threat, even though it isn’t. That’s because school is a bit different to home – there are new people, different things and routines, you’re away from your parents, sometimes it’s noisy, and sometimes you don’t really know what to expect. To a brain whose job it is to protect you, that can feel like a really big deal.

This is why the bad feelings you feel when you think about going to school can be so powerful. It’s your brain telling your body to stay away from school because there could be something dangerous there. It might also be telling you that something could happen to the people you love if you aren’t near them. Brains can be very convincing, but they’re not always accurate.

Even if you know there’s nothing to worry about, your brain won’t always listen to that, and it will get your body ready to run for your life or fight for it. We’re going to talk about how to deal with this, but first let’s talk about what’s happening up in that powerpack in your head.

Your brain and anxiety – what you need to know.

When your brain feels really strongly that it has to protect you (and remember, your brain doesn’t care if the danger is real or not) the fight or flight part of your brain forces the thinking part of your brain to be quiet so that it can get on and deal with the danger. If your brain had a conversation, it would probably sound something like this:

The Thinking Part: Oh, we have school today. Cool. Let’s do it. 

The ‘Fight or Flight’ Part (the Amygdala): Yeah, no. That’s not going to happen. You’re going to be away from home and you don’t really know what’s happening today. It could be dangerous, so ‘Thinking Part’, you need to sit out while I check it out. 

Thinking Part: Dude. It’s school. There’s not going to be anything dangerous. Maybe new or unfamiliar, but not dangerous. You need to calm down, okay? Chill.

Amygdala: Whoa! You seriously don’t get it. If there’s something bad – and I’m pretty sure there’s a chance of that – then we’re going to have to run for it or fight – but fighting can bring its own bag of trouble – so maybe run. Or maybe just stay away. Yep. Let’s stay away. I’m trying to save a life here and you’re kinda getting in my way.

Thinking Part: For a brain, you’re not being very sensible. Think about it. It’s school. It’s teachers and other kid-sized humans and playgrounds and lunch and things. Nothing at all to worry about.

Amygdala:  Gosh, you seriously don’t get it. This could be deadly. You’re getting my way man. I’m sending you offline for a bit while I check it out. Here have this – some oxygen, some adrenalin, some hormones. It’s superhero fuel, but for you it will keep you quiet. Now, go to sleep. I’ve got this. I’m saving your life. You’re welcome.

By now, the amygdala has surged your body with fuel to make you strong, fast and powerful in case you have to fight or flee. Of course, when it comes to school there’s nothing to fight or flee but the thinking, good decision-making part of your brain is offline remember.

Why does anxiety feel the way it does?

When there’s no need to fight or flee, there’s nothing to burn off the superhero fuel that’s racing through you, so it builds up. That fuel is perfectly safe, and in the right circumstances can be really helpful, but it can feel bad when it builds up. The feelings and emotions you have when you’re anxious, or when it’s time to say goodbye are all because of this buildup.

Here are some of the things you’ll probably feel and why you’ll feel them.

You might feel puffed or breathless. You might also feel the blood rush to your face and it might feel warm.

That’s because your brain has told your body to stop using up oxygen on strong deep breaths, and to send it to your muscles so they can use it for energy to fight or run. To make this happen, your brain organises for your breathing to change from normal, strong breaths to fast little breaths. When you think about it, it’s a pretty good way to save oxygen, even though it might not feel that great.

Your heart might feel like it’s beating out of your chest. It might feel like you’re having a heart attack.

This is because your heart is working hard to pump the fuel around your body so it can fight or flee. It’s doing a great job, but it can feel a bit scary. It’s nothing to worry about. It’s just your heart doing exactly what a healthy heart does. You are definitely not having a heart attack. If you were, there would be other symptoms, including  a pain in your chest that would be unbearable, not just uncomfortable.

You might feel dizzy or a bit confused.

This happens because there’s nothing to fight or flee, so there’s nothing to burn the fuel that’s surging through your body. As the oxygen builds up, the carbon dioxide drops, making you feel dizzy and confused.

Your arms and legs might feel tense or wobbly.

Your brain is sending fuel to your arms (so they can fight) and to your legs (so they can run away).

You might feel a bit sweaty.

Your body does this to cool itself down. It doesn’t want to overheat if it has to fight or flee.

You might feel like bursting into tears or your might feel really angry

This is the handy work of the amygdala – the part of the brain that triggers the fight or flight. It’s also involved in emotions. It’s in full control and it’s working super hard. When it’s highly active, you might get emotional or angry at all sorts of things or nothing at all. It’s a really normal part of anxiety.

You might feel like you’re going to vomit or you might actually vomit. You might get tummy aches or feel as though you have butterflies in your belly. Your mouth might also feel a little bit dry.

Everything that’s happening in your body that isn’t necessary in that moment for survival will shut down. One of these is your digestive system, which is the part of the body that gets the nutrients from  food. That can wait, so it shuts down until the crisis (or what your brain thinks is a crisis – nobody said brains were always sensible!) is over. It’s a great way to save energy, but it can make you feel sick. It’s feels awful, but it definitely won’t hurt you and it’s definitely not a sign of anything worse going on inside you.

As you can see, there’s a really good reason for every physical symptom. It’s your brain doing a great job of what brains are meant to do – keep you alive.

This is why you might feel so strongly you that you can’t go to school – because that’s what your brain is telling you. It’s why it might upset you when people tell you there’s nothing to worry about. You kind of already know this, but your brain and your body aren’t so convinced – your body is being driven by a brain that thinks it’s under threat. This can feel scary, which is totally understandable. 

Here’s the thing though: Even though your brain is telling you there’s danger, sometimes it might misread the situation. It happens to everyone from time to time but some brains will be a lot quicker to sense threat than others. There’s nothing wrong with that. An anxious brain is just as healthy and strong and capable as a non-anxious brain. In fact, it’s often even more capable, more creative and more sensitive to what’s happening around it. 

When your brain is reacting to things that aren’t really a threat, what it actually needs is for you to come in and be the boss. Let’s talk about how to do that.

1.   Your anxiety isn’t the enemy, so try not to fight it.

Remember that the amygdala that sets your anxiety in motion is like a fierce warrior that’s trying to protect you. Even though it might be causing you trouble, it really doesn’t mean to. If it could, it would hug you and walk one step in front of you to keep you safe. It can’t do that, so instead it surges you with fuel to keep you strong, fast and powerful whenever it thinks you need it, and sometimes just in case. If you can put the thinking part of your brain (the pre-frontal cortex) back in control, it will stop the fuel surging through you and this will help you to feel better and braver. It really needs your help though because the only way it’s going to be let back in control is if the amygdala thinks you’re safe. That message needs to come from you.

2.   Let your brain know, ‘I’ve got this. You can stop worrying now.’

Luckily, there is a very cool thing your brain can do and it’s called the relaxation response. You don’t have to believe it works because it’s programmed into your brain, like breathing, so it just does. But – it won’t work until you flick the switch. The best way to do that is to breathe. Not just any breathing though – strong, deep breaths that come from your belly.

°  in through your nose for three,

°  pause,

°  out through your mouth for three.

(Imagine that you have a hot cocoa in your hands and you’re breathing in the delicious smell through your nose for three seconds, then blowing it cool for three seconds.)

When you do this, it’s like a gorgeous massage for your amygdala. It totally relaxes it. It tells it that you’re okay and that it can chill for a bit. When your amygdala is relaxed, something kind of wonderful happens. Your prefrontal cortex (the ‘let’s think about this’ part of your brain) can take back control. The first thing that it does is to neutralise (get rid of) the fuel (oxygen, hormones, adrenalin). When that happens, the intense physical and emotional things you’re feeling all start to settle down. You’re back in control. Back to being the boss of your brain. It might not feel completely comfortable straight away, but it will be to a level that you can handle. Very soon after that, you’ll feel as strong, brave and as awesome as ever.

3.   Get really active for a couple of minutes or go for a walk. 

Remember that the fuel surging through you is there to make you strong, fast and powerful. If you don’t burn it up, it will build up, and that’s when it feels bad. Walking or exercise will burn the fuel and stop the awful physical things you’re feeling. If you can get sweaty for five minutes by running, skipping, jumping – anything – that will really help. Otherwise going for a brisk walk will also be a great thing to do.

4.   Feel what’s happening outside of yourself.

When you feel anxious, you become really aware of what’s happening inside your body. Your brain also continues to worry itself silly by living in the future with a truck load of ‘what if’s’. Bring your brain back to the present by turning your attention to what’s happening around you. Feel the ground beneath your feet. Touch your arms and feel the touch of your fingers against your sin. Feel your breath coming into you, and then going out. Feel the temperature. Hear the noises around you. You’ve got the idea.

5.   Dear Me, This is what you need to know …

When you’re calm, and the thinking part of your brain is back in control, make a list of things you would like your amygdala to know. Then, use this as a reminder when you’re feeling anxious about school. What would you say to someone if you saw them feeling the way you feel when it’s time to go to school or say goodbye? These are the things that the thinking part of your brain would say to your amygdala if it was online when you were feeling anxious. Write it down and use it to remind your brain of what it needs to know when it starts to get you into fight or flight mode. Remember, you’re the boss. Maybe it will look something like this:

Dear Me,

This is what you need to know … you are completely okay. You’re feeling like this because your brain thinks there’s something to be scared of. It’s trying to look after you, but it needs you need to be the boss.

You’re brave. You’re strong. And you’re okay. Here’s why:

♥  Your friend(s) are at school and they care about you.

♥  Your teacher is on your side and would never ever let anything happen to you.

♥  School is strengthening your brain, so it can be even more amazing. 

♥  Today you’re doing these fun things at school … (even if it’s just playing at lunch or eating something delicious – it all counts!).

♥   You’re brave and you can handle school no matter what.

♥   In fact, you’re probably one of the bravest ones there today because you feel really anxious – and you’re doing it anyway.

♥   You only have to get through the next five minutes.

Go me. You’re pretty awesome.

Love, Me.

6.   Get organised.

Make a list of the things you need to do before you leave home to make your day goes smoothly. That way, you can remind yourself that things are under control, even if they feel like they aren’t.

Breakfast eaten. (Gotta be strong).

Teeth brushed.

Uniform on.

Homework done.

Lunch packed.

Shoes on.

Bag packed.

Parents (or important adult) hugged.

‘See ya later,’ to pets – done.

‘See ya later,’ to sibling/s – done.

Hair – done. Lookin’ fine.

Good to go.

7.   Get some sleep.

When you sleep, your brain gets stronger and sorts out it’s emotional worries. The more sleep you get, the better.

8.   Have something lavender nearby.

Lavender oil calms a stressed out, hectic brain. Spray it around your room or have some ready when you need it by putting lavender oil on a tissue. Have a little smell when you need to feel calmer.

9.   Anxiety and courage always exist together.

Anxiety means that you’re doing something brave. It doesn’t matter whether it’s easy for other people or not. We all find different things hard or easy. If you’re anxious, it’s because your brain thinks there’s something to worry about. It responds the same whether you’re about to give a presentation or about to skydive. It doesn’t matter what the thing is that’s making you nervous, an anxious brain is a brave brain, an anxious body is a brave body, and an anxious person is always a brave person.

And finally …

School anxiety never just swipes at one person. It’s affects kids, parents, siblings and the teachers who also invest in the children in their care. One of the worst things about anxiety is the way it tends to show up without notice or a good reason. For kids (or anyone) who struggle with anxiety, it can feel like a barrelling – it comes from nowhere, makes no sense and has a mind of its own. The truth is, the mind that anxiety has is theirs, and when they can understand their own power, they can start to establish themselves firmly as the ‘boss of their brain’. Understanding this will empower them, and will help them to draw on the strength, wisdom and courage that has been in them all along.

You might also like …

‘Hey Warrior’ is the book I’ve written for children to help them understand anxiety and to find their ‘brave’. It explains why anxiety feels the way it does, and it will teach them how they can ‘be the boss of their brains’ during anxiety, to feel calm. It’s not always enough to tell kids what to do – they need to understand why it works. Hey Warrior does this, giving explanations in a fun, simple, way that helps things make sense in a, ‘Oh so that’s how that works!’ kind of way, alongside gorgeous illustrations.

 

 


 

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57 Comments

nicole

Great read. We are dealing with anxiety based school refusal and its tough. Its been over a year and its 1 step forward 2 steps back.

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Carole

Great article thank you. we have been dealing with school refusal anxiety most of this year too and its very tough on child and parent. but we just have to keep trying

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Hey Sigmund

School anxiety is really tough on everyone isn’t it. I know how difficult it can be. Keep putting one foot in front of the other and celebrate the wins, however small they seem.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Anxiety can be difficult to shift, but keep trying the strategies in the article. Even if you just choose one or two that you think your child might respond to, and be consistent with them. I hope there is some comfort for you all soon.

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Chrissy

Thank you so much for this article! Like so many other articles on your site, it’s an amazing balance of empathy, science and daily truth. I’m usually in fight/flight when my daughter is in the thick of it, so having your words to digest when I’m back at the midline is incredibly helpful.

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Brandy

Love this article, I was a good reminder to understand as a parent how your child feels, we don’t always understand because many of us don’t feel that way or we respond different to situations then our anxious child. I am curious to know if you have any articles geared more for parents and how they can react when your anxious child refuses to go to school and you are afraid they may fail. It’s hard to find the line of being sympathetic but giving that encouraging push as well….thank you!

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Hey Sigmund

It’s so difficult when they really don’t want to go isn’t it. Don’t worry if you don’t always get the line between sympathetic and encouraging push – it can be a hard one to find. See if these articles help:
>> School Anxiety: The Powerful Things That Adults Can Do http://www.heysigmund.com/school-anxiety-what-parents-can-do/
>> What to Say to Children When They Are Anxious http://www.heysigmund.com/building-emotional-intelligence-what-to-say-to-children-with-anxiety/
Hope they help.

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Sarah McGonigle

Thank you for this article – heysigmund is a wonderful resource. After huge and positive changes after a diagnosis of sensory processing disorder and two years of continuous occupational therapy, we really thought we were out of the woods and those terrible days of fear and worry were behind us all.
Then when our son turned nine, out of nowhere it seemed, came an avalanche of anxiety which appeared to take over our child’s mind and colour his every experience and pressurise every relationship especially those familial. School anxiety is now a feature of every day and we have made every mistake possible in our reactions before resources like this one helped us to calm our own nerves and come from a place of empathy.
What worries (there’s that dreaded word) us most now though is the transition to secondary school (high school on your side of the pond). Any advice or articles addressing this kind of major school transition would be most welcome.
Thanks and keep up the great work you’re doing.

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Hey Sigmund

Thank you. I’m so pleased the information is useful for you. School anxiety is difficult for everyone and I’m sure anyone who has been through it, (including me!) has made every mistake humanly possible. Don’t give yourself a hard time about that. We love our kids so much and would do anything to make things better for them and as part of that, it’s really normal to try absolutely everything – even the things that don’t work so well. It’s really understandable. Transition to secondary school can set things off. It can be a tricky time anyway because of the hormonal changes and the massive brain changes that come with adolescence. If it’s a new school, see how your son feels about going there with you to familiarise himself with what his first day might look like. See if the school can help you with this – they’re usually pretty good with this sort of thing. Even if you can show him what his trip to and from school will look like – the route, the drop off and pick up point. Let him take the lead though – if he isn’t interested in this, then definitely don’t force him. One thing I would strongly suggest is to teach him the breathing techniques in this article http://www.heysigmund.com/building-emotional-intelligence-what-to-say-to-children-with-anxiety/. Deep, strong breathing triggers the relaxation response which neutralises the neurochemicals that cause the physical symptoms of anxiety. It’s hardwired in to the brain, so he doesn’t have to believe it will work, it just will – but only when he triggers it. Strong, deep breathing will trigger it, but it’s really difficult to do in the middle of an anxiety attack. The way to get around this is to practice it so much during calm times (maybe before bed) so that it becomes almost automatic. The other thing I would consider is omega 3. It’s been found to strengthen the brain against anxiety and I’ve had quiet a few parents say that they notice the difference it makes with their kids. Over here one of the ways it comes is in gummy lollies, so the fishy taste isn’t there at all. It’s available in the supermarkets here, but a pharmacist should be able to help you with that. Here are some other non-medication things to think about http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-without-medication/. He will get through this. Sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back, but don’t be dishearten by this – he will get there. I wish you and your little guy all the best.

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Michelle Ferreri

This is so great!! My six year old is starting to fall into the footsteps of his big brother and “hates school”. I don’t think it’s all anxiety (which his brother does have). I think a lot of it is, simply not wanting to work. I’m working on a blog right now about how hard it must be to be six and in grade one. My son has no control in his life. He told me the other day “Mom, you know what school is? ROLL CALL! Doing stuff you don’t want to”

Soooo I think he has life figured out!

I was contemplating a “safe bear’. I’m not sure if you’ve tried anything like this. Or if you have any research on such a tactic. The idea is to give my kids a “safe/swear bear”. They can go to a quiet safe place and tell safe bear everything. They can say all those words they are not supposed to say or talk about feelings that they don’t want to share with you. It would be something they could control in their life. Have you ever tried something like that?

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Hey Sigmund

Michelle this is a great idea! Anything that can help your little man to get what’s inside of him out of him is a good thing. I’ve used things that are based around a similar concept and have found that they can work really well. I’ve tried worry trees, where the kids draw or make a tree and write their worries on the leaves, worry dolls, and writing or drawing the worry down on paper then ripping the paper up. The safe bear is a wonderful idea. They all need the space and the opportunity to download sometimes don’t they – they’re no different to us like that. I’d love to read your article when it’s done.

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Jan

Good information, can apply to more than children, I think everyone can benefit from this information regardless of age.
thanks

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Hey Sigmund

Thank you. You’re right – the information can apply to all ages. The symptoms can sometimes package themselves up a little differently but, yes, the way anxiety works and the reason it feels the way it does is the same for everyone.

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A

I have subscribed to your newsletters for a little over a month now. I really appreciate the information you offer. The way you describe teaching children about anxiety is thoughtful, encouraging and empowering. Thank you!

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Dean Conklin

Now age 78, for years I told M.D.’s, good folks, about this feeling of electricity in my body and go blank looks. Finally I figured it out: ANXIETY! Thanks to counseling and a lot of work I now manage it–most times. You explanation is RIGHT ON. Thanks so much.

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome. I wonder how many more people are struggling without realising its anxiety. We’re still learning a lot about anxiety, but thankfully we have enough now for it to start to make sense.

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Jess

Another fantastic article – thanks, Karen!
Our three year old daughter seems to have school anxiety. It started at her home daycare where she would cry uncontrollably when we were dropping her and our son (who’s 21 months now) off for the day. By the time we picked her up, she was happy to tell us about the great day she’d had. But it got to the point where we were concerned a few of the other little ones – who had much stronger, more aggressive personalities than our daughter does – were intimidating her. So we decided to switch the kids to a daycare centre, hoping it would improve the situation.
Well, the crying isn’t as uncontrollable but it still remains when we drop her off. The kids do not go full time, but just two days a week. And like clockwork, our daughter begins to cry as soon as we walk in the door; she even stands at the window with huge tears rolling down her cheeks, watching as we drive away. It’s heartbreaking for myself and my husband; there’ve been several mornings where I’ve cried all the way home from dropping them off!
So – any ideas or tips or articles that I could read? She does take her favourite stuffy to school with her for comfort. But when she begins attending kindergarten next fall, she won’t be able to take it with her. And we want to make that transition as smooth as possible.
Thanks in advance, Karen. LOVE this blog. 🙂

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Jess,

I really understand how hard it is to leave a little one who is upset about you going. It feels awful! It’s not at all unusual for your daughter’s age. Even in much older kids, it’s very common. Having said that, it’s still distressing for you and for her. It sounds as though you have made a good decision switching daycare centres. It’s always important to go with your gut on these things.

Probably the most important thing is to be really confident when you drop your daughter off at daycare Even if you just want to scoop her up and take her home, let her see that you are really confident about leaving her there.

When she is old enough to understand, explain why she feels the way she does and use the strategies in the article. She might tend to be a bit anxious and you might have a little while longer of this, but you sound like a pretty great team.

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Susan

I have read both articles and think they contain much useful information. The child I am concerned about is 9 years old and refuses point blank to go to school once or twice a week and no matter what anyone does, he still refuses. Is the best solution to allow him to stay at home and continue to try to get to what is wrong? He is very resistant to any conversation. Thanks

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Hey Sigmund

This is a hard one for everyone – the parents and the child. The problem with allowing him to stay home is that the more he avoids school, the more difficult it will be to go. Staying away will be reinforcing that it is the best option. The idea is to strengthen the scaffold, to make it as safe and as calm as possible for him to go. That doesn’t mean it will feel like that for him, but it’s giving him the best support.

Often with anxiety, there is no identifable reason. Anxiety spirals and it can become anxiety about the anxiety. The anticipation of the physical feelings that come with anxiety can be enough to trigger an attack.

Sometimes schools with work with parents and a child to have the return to school a gradual one. They might start with one day, then work up to two, and so on. Most schools will have dealt with this sort of thing before and will be really supportive and able to come up with a plan that works best for everyone.

If he is resistant to conversation, let those be the words, ‘I know how difficult it can be to talk. I wish you didn’t have to go to school, but you do and when you’re ready, Id like you to talk to me about what would make this easier.’ This is what makes school anxiety so difficult – you’re dealing with a brain that thinks you’re trying to make it do something unsafe. A meeting with the school (if this hasn’t already to been) will be a good place to stat. I wish you al the very best.

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Michelle Rogers

I disagree with you. If a child is made that ill by schools, should we not consider that the education system itself is the root cause of the anxiety? What is it saying to a child that they have to continue to endure that, not matter how distressing it is for them day in and day out? Why do they have to go to school? What about home schooling. Having forced my child to stay in school, I am sorry I did that because of the effects it had on what was at the beginning a bright and happy human being.

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Hey Sigmund

All children need an education and there are certainly different ways to achieve this. Home schooling is definitely an option, provided that it is academically, socially and emotionally enriching. I don’t know enough about it to comment, but I do know that many people consider it to be a good option. It’s about finding the environment that will best support the academic, social and emotional learning for each child. It’s also important to consider that not all schools are the same. There are many wonderful schools that are nurturing and supportive and work hard to find ways to support kids who struggle with anxiety. I would be reluctant to give up on the education system too quickly, but if there is an option that works better for you and your family, then of course, that’s a great thing. It sounds as though you have found a way that works really well for your child.

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Baltimore County parent

I just came across your blog and really enjoy it. I can’t comment on home-schooling but I can comment on school systems becoming more strict, less play and any kind of movement allowed and an emphasis on testing. I do believe that this impacts most kids in the school system and it is contributing to anxiety in kids who might not otherwise “refuse” or hate school.

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Marni

My brother emailed our family this article to help us understand what they are going through with his youngest boy. All these symptoms and reactions were exactly what I went through as a child and still do. Back then they had no name for it and I always was made to feel like it was in my mind and I needed to change or stop acting like a baby. So glad for my nephews sake they know what is causing it and he is getting help with it.

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Hey Sigmund

Gosh I can’t imagine how awful it would have been when you were younger to have these very real symptoms with no explanation of what was going on. Thankfully we’re learning more and more about anxiety so hopefully, there will be increasingly fewer people who will have to go through this. You will be a great support for your brother and your nephew, having been through this yourself.

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Michelle Rogers

Great article. The only thing I would add is that school (depending on your country’s education system) is often the root cause of the anxiety. Our schools are often punishing and stressful environments. Sometimes you would have to wonder about the wisdom of forcing a child to continue to endure such an environment and teaching them not to trust their judgement about the stressful sausage factory environment they naturally feel is alien to their sense of dignity, curiosity and aliveness.

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Hey Sigmund

I completely understand your concerns. Some schools are stressful, that’s true, but then there are many that are more sensitive to the needs of the children. I’ve seen many that are very nurturing and work hard to give students the support they need to flourish them. Of course, not all schools are like this, and not all schools will be right for all children. The most important thing is that all kids are given the opportunity of an education, together with the opportunity for social and emotional enrichment, but the best way to do this will differ between children.

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Julie

Brilliant article superbly written, I see quite a lot of young people with anxiety and I tell them the same information but love the way yours is written, thanks for sharing such valuable content.
Best wishes
Julie@Time2Shine

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Tony Smee

Let’s all go to the nearest construction site and ask if we can walk along one of those girders at 100 feet up in the air.
Let’s get up and make a presentation to a large hostile audience on a subject we know nothing about.
Let’s all sail some 20 miles offshore and jump into the sea with no assistance.
Let’s imagine we were living a fairly civilised life in Syria and suddenly half our relatives have gone and we are about to sail in a small life raft hoping to get to Greece where we may not be welcome.

On the school bus a bunch of kids is gathered around your little one saying “Look at him he doesn’t speak”, “you don’t speak do you!”

Can you imagine a school day where you cannot go to the toilet, you cannot ask a question, you eat a packed lunch in a quiet corner hoping no one comes near you ( if you forget your packed lunch then you don’t eat or drink all day). You don’t speak from 8 am when you catch the school bus to 4pm when you finally get back to the safety of your home and family.
Your contact lens slips out and is lost, you have any kind of personal accident, there’s no one to tell, they find you crying in a corner and phone your Mum.

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Hey Sigmund

No, I can’t imagine what this would be like, but I know this is what it is like for many children. I wish every child could feel nurtured and strengthened at school and protected from the people and things that pull them down. I wish they knew how capable, brave and loved they are, and I wish we knew how to make this better.

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Anonymous Girl

Hi, I’m 12 with major anxiety about going to my new school. The weird part is, I love my new school and friends. But when someone tries to get me to go, I have a panic attack. This article helped me, but I was wondering, is there anything else I could do?

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Hey Sigmund

I really understand how difficult anxiety at school can be. I can be awful can’t it. There are certainly things you can do to help to strengthen your brain against anxiety. Firstly, if you haven’t read this article yet, it will help you to understand why you feel the way you do when you have anxiety. It also talks about some things you can do that will help you to deal with your anxiety. Here you go http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/.

Next, it’s really important that you get enough sleep. Any time you can get 9-10 hours will be so good for you. Let me tell you why – when you are asleep your brain gets really busy helping you to be healthy. It works through the emotional memories and the things that have happened during the day that have upset you. Anxiety can get worse when you don’t get enough sleep.

Exercise is so good for anxiety. We all have chemicals in our brain called neurochemicals. The levels of them changes from time to time and when the levels aren’t right, you might get anxious or your mood might not feel quite right. It happens in everyone, not just with anxiety. Exercise helps to get the levels right. It’s important not to go overboard – too much exercise isn’t good for you either. If you can do at least 30 minutes 3 times a week, that would be really good for you. It can be anything that gets you moving – dancing in your bedroom, going for a walk, kicking a ball in the backyard, playing sport.

Finally, one of the best things you can do for anxiety is mindfulness. This is an activity, kind of like a meditation, where you focus on the present moment for a certain amount of time. Here is an article with a little activity http://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-for-children-fun-effective-ways-to-strengthen-mind-body-spirit/, and here are some more ways to practice mindfulness http://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-for-children-fun-effective-ways-to-strengthen-mind-body-spirit/. Sometimes it’s really important to be able to think about the future, like planning a holiday, or studying for an exam, but if you spend too much time thinking about the future, it can lead to anxiety. Mindfulness helps to train your brain to stay in the present when you want it to.

Try the things in this article, and if there is someone you can talk to about how you are feeling, that would be great for you to. I also want you to know that there are so many young people your age who struggle with anxiety. You would be amazed! The other thing I want you to know is that anxiety is a sign that you are about to do something really brave. Brave means whatever is brave for you. It doesn’t matter that other people find it easier to go to school – they will have other things that bother them. You have proven how brave you are by writing to me and asking what else you can do. I know that you can get through this. You’re amazing.

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Lena

I want to tell you that this article is wonderful and very helpful. I have a 7 year old who suffers from “separation” anxiety and we see it manifest at school drop off several periods for days to weeks at a time each school year. With the start of a new school year I was trying to find a way to help her work through these feelings. Your article is wonderful and is written in such a way as I feel I can read it to her and maybe, just maybe, she can begin to understand why her mind and body are reacting the way they are to an activity that ultimately she does enjoy. She loves school, just not the “going to/leaving mom and dad” part of school each day. So thank you!

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Lena you’re so welcome! I’m pleased you were able to find this information when you needed it. Kids can do amazing things with the right information. The start of a new school year can be such a stressful time. I hope this is able to help. It sounds as though your daughter is in very wonderful hands.

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Lisa Trueman

Wonderful article, Hey Sigmund. But I think there is another element to explore. Anxious kids are often also also often very sensitive. School anxiety can often be because the school they are at is not a good fit or them, or there is a genuine problem with the teachers not understanding them. My anxious and sensitive daughter was at a school where her teachers considered her anxiety a weakness and something that she needed to ‘get over’ despite numerous letters and reports from her clinical psychologist. After over a year of school refusal, and numerous reaches out to the school, we gave up and switched to a nurturing school that understood anxiety and offered genuine ongoing support through their own school psychologist/counsellor. At her previous school she has seen a psychologist fortnightly, since switching school three years ago, she has not had any need for support outside the school. Sometimes its important to look at the fit between the school and the child, and if your child is school refusing, and the school is not supporting your child in managing their anxiety, and you have other options, you should consider them.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Yes, absolutely. The fit between the school and the child is crucial for all children, not just the anxious ones. A lot of teachers understand anxiety but there are also a lot who don’t. All kids need support in some way to reach their full potential – none of them do it on their own – whether it’s support to be extended, support in learning, or support for their anxiety. The biggest thing schools do wrong is the ‘one size fits all’ view of children. Being in the right place can make huge difference. I’m so pleased you found the place that is able to nurture your daughter’s strengths and not look at her differences as weaknesses.

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Lorna

Thankyou very much for the article I feel a lot better now at understanding my daughters stress at going to school shes 5 and is in reception and everyday I have to promise her that I will tell the teacher that she has pains in her tummy and ether her thumb hurts or some part of her body as long as I tell the teacher she’s ok but from the moment she opens her eyes till we get into the class that is all she will say promise you will tell miss it makes me so upset that she feels like this going to school I just tell the teacher and she says ok I don’t know what else to do. Now she is going into year 1 in two weeks and I think it will happon all again xxx

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Jennifer

Great article. Helps me understand what my 12 year old son is going through. He started 6th grade this year and is struggling with school refusal. He most days won’t get out of the car to wall into the building. I talk to him, try to get him to calm down but nothing works. Have told him that if he gets out and walks in he will have a reward. That doesn’t work either. I understand that his brain at that moment is not working properly. I get it but if going home is not an option then what do i do to get him to actually get out of the car. He does have a separation issue as well which makes it twice as hard. Some days he does great, like on Fridays but Mondays are horrible knowing he has the full week ahead of him. It’s very hard on the entire family as well. Thank you for your information. It is really helpful. I will be reading this to my son. I Love the idea of writing a letter to himself. That is a great idea. Thank you!

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

I’m so pleased the article was able to help you and hope it is able to help your son. At 12, he is just at the beginning of his adolescent adventure. His brain is changing massively, and it’s not unusual for anxiety to get worse for a little while. Here is an article that might help http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/. It explains will help to explain why he feels the way he does when he has anxiety, and how his brain works when it is feeling anxious. It can really help to take the mystery and the punch out of anxiety. It also explains why breathing is so important, as well as mindfulness. I hope it helps.

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Alison

Thank you, this is certainly the best article I have read on helping your child through school anxiety and I shall read it to my daughter. She is 12 years old and started high school last September. She has suffered with anxiety from day one. She will wake up and start worrying about school which causes her tummy to knot and then frequently gets bad enough that by the time we have driven to school we have to park around the corner for her to be sick before going in. She has no problem with bullying, the teachers etc., she just hates having the tummy ache and having to go to the medical room frequently because she feels sick. She always comes out saying she had a great day, telling me of something funny that happened that day. The next morning we will have the same thing over again. Since Christmas she has been so upset and anxious in the morning that she hasn’t made it into school, although I know that’s not the answer. There is definitely some separation anxiety in there, she has always been a clingy child and struggled to settle into primary too. It’s hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel but we are talking to the school and about to see a counsellor so hopefully we’ll get there soon.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Anxiety at drop-off can be so difficult can’t it. I completely get it! It’s great that she is getting counselling. Kids tend to grow out of this eventually, but in the meantime it can cause more than it’s share of heartache. You may have already read these articles, but here are some that might also help …

>> This one will help your daughter to understand why she feels sick and why her tummy knots. Understanding what’s causing the physical symptoms can help with the ‘anxiety about the anxiety’, which is what tends to maintain anxiety. As well as this, the physical feelings of anxiety can put forward a strong case that there is something to worry about, even when there isn’t. Knowing what’s behind the physical feelings can help with this http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/

>> This is one for teens and anxiety with some strategies that can help to manage the symptoms of anxiety. It also explains how they work to strengthen and protect against anxiety http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-teens/.

I hope these help. I know it can feel overwhelming (I’ve been there myself), but know that there is a way through. All the best to you and your daughter.

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Alison

Hi Karen. Thank you so much for your reply. I read both the articles, they are fantastic. As it says, it empowers you so much, helping you understand why you are feeling this way and how to overcome it. We shall sit down and read it through together. I have practiced mindfulness in the past when I had my own anxiety issues, I shall now do this with my daughter. What a great website!

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Claire

Thank you so much for this!! We have turned a corner since Christmas after a year and a term of difficulties and part of it is me not talking and making him do anything when it’s time to go. I stand still say Have a great day etc, bye and his teacher takes him off. He doesn’t line up with the rest of the children yet but this is a big step from crying and his teachers having to peel him off me. I love all these ideas! And we’ll be having a great chat tonight about the brain. Thank you so so much!

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Claire. It’s so wonderful that your little man has moved forward on this. Every move forward matters and will add to his confidence and his bravery.

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Barbara

Hi my 14 year old daughter has always been shy, but the last 3 years very much so along with increasing anxiety after starting senior school. We are at the stage now where she isnt going to school, as she has panic a/ anxiety attacks on a morning, im thinking of home schooling her. its so awful to watch your child suffering. Im searching for any help i can get for her. The school dont seem to understand, its so annoying and worrying

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

It can be so distressing when anxiety becomes so intrusive, not only for your daughter but also for you as you watch her struggle with it. Here is an article about anxiety in teens that might help to give your daughter some strategies and a plan to feel stronger http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-teens/. Mindfulness is perhaps one of the best things for anxiety. It changes the structure and function of the brain to strengthen and protect it against anxiety. Be patient though – it’s not an instant fix. The research with adults has shown significant changes in the brain from mindfulness after 8 weeks of 27 minutes a day. That might feel like a lot to start, but anything your daughter can do will make a difference. If she can, try for 10 minutes twice a day. Aerobic exercise is also important, as the article explains. I hope this helps and I hope your daughter is able to find the strength that is in her.

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Marleah

What a wonderful article, and helpful for my 6 year old with Asperger’s (and loads of anxiety). He has a horrible time sleeping, and his school anxiety is based on the idea that he’s just too tired to go to school. Any thoughts or help around sleep? We’ve done sleep studies (all normal), give melatonin, all sleep hygiene you can imagine. Still he’s up worrying by 3am and never falls asleep again.

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Jemma

Finally I’ve found some wonderfully helpful information on school anxiety and reading all the comments made me finally feel I’m not alone in this journey. My 5yr old boy started prep this year and I have to stay with him all day at school because he is ‘not brave’ enough yet to stay on his own. We did start last year for two terms and ended up removing him and starting fresh this year and at a new school. He now loves going to school every day but just can’t let me leave becoming quite anxious when we are in the class room with me having to sit on the mat with him or close by and also following him around. Thankfully his teacher is amazing and understands. Some days I can sit out of view and he is very comfortable with this other days not. There seems to be no rhyme or reason. At lunch he’ll tell me he is going to the playground and I must sit here and not move. I have drawn up a brave chart 1-10 (10 being the bravest & staying at school by himself & with a reward). We are currently on number 7 brave. He has had some major successes. He stayed with his grandparents for the 1st time ever in his life when I had an appointment. He lets me signal that I need a toilet break during class and I can now go to the bathroom without my little shadow and he joined in the swimming lessons without me getting in the pool with him. I just feel now he won’t make any new steps forward. He talks about getting to number 10 on the brave chart but says that he’ll still need me at school with him. We also talked about me sitting in library for last half hr of school but he still refuses and also the possibly of me leaving at afternoon tea and returning at pickup time. It’s now week 7 of 1st term and I’m happy to continue to stay with him until he is comfortable with letting me leave but am wondering whether I should be taking a different approach. We are seeing a child psychologist but any advise would be so appreciated. I did read that Fish Oil may help. Many thanks for your help and thank you so much for all you do for us parents. It can be a difficult and exhausting road with often not much understanding from other parents. Thank you for allowing me to share.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Here is an article that might help http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/. Explain your son’s anxiety the way it is explained in this article. Another great thing for anxiety is mindfulness. It changes the structure and function of the brain in ways that can strengthen and protect it against anxiety. Here is an article with different ways for your son to practice mindfulness. Start with whatever he can handle, but if you can work up to 10 minutes twice a day (eventually) that would be perfect http://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-for-children-fun-effective-ways-to-strengthen-mind-body-spirit/.

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