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.
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,
° 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:
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.
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).
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.
Woohoo I am so glad I stumble across this site! Printing this out for my 9 year old daughter’s 4 grade teachers ! She has some sensory processing issues( very sharp hearing and very sharp eye) as well as anxiety so basically sensory and emotionally overwhelmed.Since my daughter entered PreK I have been constantly called to school regarding her behavior, endless complains and etc. Which is beyond my understanding that they’ve put so much pressure on her when she was most vulnerable (Pre K and K grades) when she needed help the most even I told them that this child has emotions beyond her control.The things they said…”i think she playing us out” ..”oh she wants everything her way”…just a few stuck in my mind…Right know she started to express her feelings …all the things I was trying unsuccessfully to tell teachers over the years!!! Thank you!!!
I’m grateful to have found this article. My 9 year old daughter has been suffering with school anxiety since kindergarten, on and off. I’m mentally exhausted and sad for her, but I think this article is going to help us both so much! Thank you!
My 11 year old has struggled with anxiety for several years. We have worked with a counselor, have read books, etc., but the start of the school year continues to be rough and in the past it has continued to be an issue throughout the school year. This article is the BEST I have ever read for explaining what is happening and providing suggestions for helping your child. I am so incredibly grateful I found this resource. Thank you
Thank you for your tip to explain to my kids what anxiety is as a way to help them demystify it. My daughter has anxiety and depression, so I have been looking into child psychology to help her. I will keep this tip in mind as well as find a professional to help her.
I am 14 years old and is currently in grade 9. My case of anxiety is not extreme, but it is definitely affecting me deeply. During my whole life I had always been able to sleep well and never had any serious problems and worries about school. Even though I never liked Physical education class, I would never feel extremely anxious about it. As I started P.E. in grade 9, I have been feeling absolutely scared, worried, and embarrassed. I am horrible at sports and my fitness ability is low. Whenever we would do running for warm-ups, I am always one of the last ones to finish. P.E. has made me lose my self-esteem and confidence, and everyday I am worrying about how the next class will turn out to be the worst that could happen. The reality is that class is usually nothing and I even laugh and have fun with my friends a lot. For some reason even though I know that there is nothing to worry about and it will only be just nine weeks until Summer break, my body can’t stop feeling very anxious. It starts feeling anxious during the evening, and gets worse as I know that I may not be able to sleep well again. This anxiety has made me lose my appetite during dinner. Every school night I would not be able to feel sleepy, and my brain would start overthinking, and I just wouldn’t be able to sleep. Thoughts about the day would come racing through my mind, and song lyrics would get stuck in my head as I lay there in bed trying my best to fall asleep. My body would start heating up and I would feel out of breath when a long time has passed without being able to fall asleep. Oddly though, this only happens on school nights and on the weekends I am able to sleep well. I know that what I am worrying about is isn’t serious at all, but I just can’t help my body from feeling anxious and overthinking at night. In middle school, I even had bullies and people that I really hated that were in my class. Even so, my anxiety would never get so bad that it would affect my sleep. After reading this article I now understand why my body is reacting this way and that I really have nothing to worry about. I really want to be able to get rid of this anxiety problem so that I can live my normal days of fun again.
Can I tell you something? I used to always be the last one to finish in running at school! It can be hard to do in front of people can’t it. I want you to know that it doesn’t change who you are. You are brave, strong and wise. I can tell by your words. Your body is sensing the threat that comes with PE, and it’s getting you ready to get out of there. The reason anxiety often makes trouble at bedtime is because your brain is still – it’s at rest, so there is plenty of opportunity for anxious thoughts to take over. It’s very normal for this to happen, but I understand that it feels awful for you. Sometimes that might be helpful when your thoughts start getting too intrusive is breath counting. Take steady, strong breaths and as you breath in and out, count to yourself. So, it will look like: Breathe in (count 1), breathe out (count 1); breathe in (count 2), breathe out (count 2). This is a form of mindfulness, but the strong steady breaths will also help you to relax. Here is an article that might also be helpful for you https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-teens/. You will find your fun days again. I know you will. You are strong, and brave, and you’ve got this.
My son, 8 years old, is in his last 55 days of 3rd grade. It’s become increasingly difficult to get him to school without a fight. I found this resource after the panic-inducing realization that he still had 1495 more days in his public school career. How could I do this song and dance THAT many more days, AND still give him the comfort, reassurance, and patience he so desperately needs??
I sat down and read this article with him last night, and he was so excited to have all of this information and to feel like he wasn’t alone. He had a great many questions, but was empowered to know that he had all the tools he needed to get his pre-frontal cortex back in the driver’s seat. He was really happy with the part about bravery, and I think that was an “Aha” moment for both of us. Because he is incredibly brave, and it’s not his choice to be difficult most mornings.
This morning was a good morning. We talked about his amygdala and his prefrontal cortex, and he recognized his anxiety symptoms without succumbing to them. We did the breathing, we talked through it, and he was chipper as I dropped him off for school. This may not be a daily occurrence, but it was so heartening. I can’t thank you enough.
You’re so welcome. It can take time to turn anxiety around, but your son sounds like a brave little man with a lot of insight and with you by his side, he is in strong and wonderful hands.
This was a really great article. Thank you so much for putting it out here.
Thanks Brad. I’m pleased it was helpful.
Thank you so much for putting this into easy to understand words….hours of reading, and speaking with psychologists, have never given me the real understanding, or how to explain it to my little one.
As someone who suffers anxiety significantly and now having a daughter who has just started high school and suffering, this article is like a breath of fresh air and has made me cry with relief that I have found something that may help my daughter to understand that she is not weird or always going to be like this. I have read SO many anxiety books/articles over the years and this is, by far, the best article I have read. Thank you so so much.
A wonderful article with strategies I will try with my highly anxious 5 year old daughter. Can you please explain to me why ‘tough love’ is not a suitable approach when dealing with separation anxiety/school refusal? My head and my heart tells me that this isn’t an appropriate course of action in our case but the staff at my little one’s school feel that my daughter’s behaviour at the classroom door is “All for my benefit” and I should just leave her and go regardless of her uncontrollable tears and desperation.. They feel that I’m prolonging the agony for her by trying to calm her and encourage her to go in, that I’m reinforcing her anxiety by doing so and that “I’m not doing her any favours”.
Tough love isn’t the answer, but neither is allowing avoidance. It’s tricky, but the idea is to validate her, let her know that you see her, and then move her forward. When dealing with anxiety in children, it’s always important to start with the mindset that they have it in them to be brave. The brain changes according to the experiences it is exposed to, so encouraging brave behaviour will make brave behaviour easier. Here is an article that explains why tough love on its own won’t work https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-children-metaphor-put-shoes-right-beside/, and another explaining how the things we do as loving parents can sometimes make anxiety worse https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-children-parents/, and how to support your child through anxiety – finding the middle ground between tough love and feeding anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-children-anxiety-in-teens/.
Keep in mind that your daughter is still very young and she’s still learning how to be in the world when she is separated from you. It’s okay if this takes time. The main thing is to keep her moving in the right direction, towards being brave.
Thanks for the valuable article it is really helpful .. i have a question i think what you have said about the game of brain to deal with anxiety is the same way how the brain deals with Anger ?
Absolutely – both anxiety and anger are driven by the amygdala. Anxiety is about fight or flight. Anger is the fight part of the fight or flight response. Here is an article about that in more detail https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-or-aggression-children/. Also, anger is a secondary emotion, which means it never exists on its own. It is always there guarding another emotion. Most often, if not always, anxiety will be fuelling this. It is a very normal, healthy emotion. What we need to make sure of is that kids understand that it’s okay to feel angry, but they need to manage it in a way that won’t hurt them or others.
Thanks for the reply. I am so grateful for the information that anger guard another emotion. I will read the article. Actually I am looking for gathering all about anger especially for mothers who ruin thier childern when the anger controls them.
I have a 7 yr old son that has always loved school. He has many friends and I’ve always received compliments about his behavior. About 6 months ago I started getting frequent calls from the nurses office for tummy aches and headaches. In the last two months his school anxiety has been a constant battle and I am mentally and emotionally exhausted. I am so thankful having come across this article. My tears started flowing as I was reading it. I feel like I finally have a real way of explaining his anxiety to him. He always cries that he just wants to feel normal. I know it will take time and practice but this article has given me real hope. Thank you from one worries momma.
You’re so welcome! It’s amazing the difference that can come when kids have the information they need to make sense of what they’re going through. And you’re absolutely right – it might take time and that’s okay. Anxiety is powerful, and it’s our oldest instinct. It’s manageable, but it can take a little time to be convinced to back down. Trust that your son can get there – you might need to believe it enough for both you and your son for a while – but he’ll get there.
I don’t tend to comment on things I read on the internet, whether I find them useful or not. But having helped my son through anxiety issues & now dealing with my daughter’s similar situation I felt compelled to thank you for this article. Perhaps strangely, I’m not thanking you for telling me things I didn’t already know but for reassuring me I’m on the right track. I seem to instinctively be doing the same things your article suggests & with some external help as well, we’re slowly getting there. As a Dad with experience of exactly these issues I can say this is the best article and advice I’ve read or seen anywhere. I know it works – I’m already doing it and it’s what I learned would work when I got my son throug it.
Peter I’m so pleased to hear the article was able to give you the encouragement you need. Keep doing what you’re doing.
This is a wonderful article. It really helped me to help my 5yr old kid with school anxiety. I just tried to explain to him whatever you have explained in this article and it worked!! As you rightly said, it is the new environment which is making them feel anxious and we as parents need to help them understand this. Thanks for this article!
Thank you Karen for all of your insight.
I was an extremely sensitive, empathetic and loving child. I remember 2 incidents at school (nothing alarming, just getting told off by a teacher) and them leading to me shutting “who I really am” down and hiding myself away…out of fear I wasn’t good enough and fear that I would upset the teacher and possibly my parents.
I suffered internally for years, and it was triggered as an adult which resulted in what I call my mummy meltdown.
I dove into every spiritual book I could get my hands on and started a good meditation and yoga practice. I’m not 100% but learning how the brain works has been an incredible tool for accepting myself and understanding why I feel the way I do.
Now my 7 year old is suffering from the same school anxiety that I experienced. I feel so well equipped to support him and love him, but some of the things I’ve read, etc.. are hard to explain on his terms…and in the morning nothing penetrates the steel door that goes down in his mind.
Watching him go through this is shedding light on my own experiences, but I wanted a way to be able to help him at his level. He too is a very bright child but he too is also very sensitive and empathetic.
I loved this post straight away and I’m typing away in floods of tears. Tears of joy, and release and more.
Thank you for all that you do. I’ve been on your site for a whole whopping 15 minutes and I’ve already bought your book! I’m looking forward to implementing what you suggest in this article and to reading more.
Thank you for bringing your light to the world in this way….and because of you, my light and my son’s light will now shine brighter.
Thanks Kate. I’m so pleased the information is helpful x
I love your article My wife and I have been struggling with school avoidance for years first with our older daughter who was able to graduate now with our 10 year old son. Our son is refusing to go and has missed 29 days this year he has not been since Nov. We were just brought into court. The school is saying he wants to be home more than he wants to go to school because it is more fun. He enjoys video games and the internet they say remove them completely then he will go to school. We tried that makes him not want to go even more. He is currently going to tutoring at the public library for an hour a day to try and transition him back into the school building. He has a therapist she is requesting to remove all the videos and tv and everything to make him bored so school will be more appealing. Plese help
Alan it’s very important that your son attends school. The more he avoids it, the more difficult it will be for him to go. The brain learns by experience, so the more he avoids school and goes home to play video games the more he will want to do that. In the same way, the more he pushes through this and stay at school, the more he will adapt to this. While he isn’t at school, it’s important that he’s doing schoolwork at home and not video games or the internet. I would be certainly guided by your school and your son’s therapist on this.
I am 14 and I’ve been struggling with this ever since elementary and I’m worried 9th grade will be even worse. Anytime I think of going to school my stomach starts cramping and I get nauseous. I’m currently homebound and I still get nervous when I think of school and I go back soon. I’ve always been a very happy spirit intill this year when my anxiety got so much worse that I’m getting sick everyday and it’s making me depressed because I feel like I’m trapped and I can’t fix it. We’ve been seeing doctors but the only fix they give is nausea medicine or digestive gummies. I’m now getting an endoscopy done to rule out other sources but I know it’s the anxiety and I just want to blame it on something else. I’ve always loved school and been a straight A intill recently. Why is my anxiety suddenly worse? My biggest fear is school.
Destiny what you are describing is very common, so first of all I want you to know that you aren’t alone. Sick tummies and anxiety go hand in hand and there’s a very good reason for this. Anxiety is from a strong, healthy brain that thinks you need protecting. It doesn’t matter whether or not the threat is a real one – if your brain thinks it’s a threat it will get you ready to fight or flee the danger. You know school isn’t a threat, but the amygdala, the part of your brain that triggers anxiety, isn’t quite so sure. It’s a very primitive part of our brain and it acts like a fierce warrior, there to protect us. That means it acts first, and thinks later. It works that way in all of us, but in many people, the amygdala is a little too overprotective. This is when anxiety happens – when the amygdala is activated too often too unnecessarily. Now, the brain learns from experience, so the more it interprets school as a threat (even though you know it isn’t) the more it will activate the fight or flight response whenever you think about school. So how does this cause a sick tummy? When your brain senses a threat, it surges your body with a cocktail of chemicals (good ones) to get you ready to fight the danger or flee the danger. Again, this happens in all of us. The chemicals are designed to make us stronger, faster and more powerful. The problem is that is there is nothing to fight or flee, there is nothing to burn the neurochemicals and they build up. This is where the physical symptoms of anxiety come from. One of the things that happens is that anything that isn’t absolutely essential for survival shuts down a little temporarily, to conserve energy for fight or flight. This is completely normal and the way our bodies are meant to work. One of the things that gets shut down is digestion. When this happens, you can feel sick, crampy, and have a dry mouth. This response happens so automatically, before you even know there is anything to be anxious about.
The good news is that there is a way to turn this around. The first is to remember where your nausea and cramping is coming from. If everything else has been checked out and it’s been found to be anxiety, know that you’re safe and the symptoms will go when your brain realises you’re safe. The brain learns from experience, remember, so the best thing to do when you feel like this is not to avoid whatever it is that is making you anxious. That way, you’re teaching your brain that school is safe and that you don’t need to fight or flee. Another thing to do is to move – if you can, try running up and down stairs (if you can do it safely) or going for a brisk walk. The symptoms you are feeling are because of the buildup of chemicals that are getting you ready for physical action (fight or flight). Phsyial activity will burn these chemicals quickly and when that happens, your tummy symptoms will ease.
Finally, and perhaps the most important is to practice strong, deep breathing – in for 3, hold for 1, out for 3. This activates the relaxation response which has been found by science to neutralise the fight or flight neurochemicals that are causing you to feel sick and crampy. The thing is though, you’ll have to practice when you are calm because when you are anxious your brain can be too busy to remember. Try a couple of times a day – the more you do it, the more automatic it will become and the easier it will be to remember to do when you are anxious.
Here is an article that will explain other things that can help you with your anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-teens/. Know that you have a strong, healthy brain, and that what you are experiencing is very common. You’re going to be okay. You are strong, brave, and you are great at school. Anxiety is something that is getting in the way a little right now, but without a doubt you can manage it and along the way, learn some skills that will be great for you as you move forward.
I am so happy I came across your article. My daughter is 11 and has struggled with anxiety since Kindergarten. She just started 6th grade and is having a real hard time. She has TDT (therapeutic day therapist) services. But, the therapist is just starting out and does not seem to have the patience for this as she will raise her voice and yell. When my daughter tells her she cannot go to class, she says that she is refusing to go and even sent her to the principal’s office. I don’t know what to do anymore. We have tried everything. My husband thinks she should be homeschooled, as I think it would only shelter her, as I think she needs to be with kids her age. Do you have any advice? Also, I drive her to school and walk her to the door so I can help her with her self help and breathing, and on tough days where as we are standing around trying to calm her down the head counselor will come out and you’ve been out here long enough. Then tell her she needs to come in. And as I’m trying to stop her crying, which hadn’t even been a minute, she said she was getting the principal! How does a “school” not know what anxiety is and by doing what they’re doing only makes it worse? I’m at my wit’s end. Any advice or any other articles would be greatly appreciated. Thank you so much for educating everyone who wants to help their kids in a way everyone can understand! You truly are an angel!!!
Jenny I hear you! Some schools and teachers are fabulous and really understand what kids with anxiety need in order to thrive. Sadly though, there is still so much misunderstanding and lack of knowledge. If there is any way you can find another therapist, do that. The therapist and teacher sound as though they are doing everything wrong, whether from a lack of information or a lack of patience, the result for your daughter is that it’s setting her back not helping her to thrive. Anxiety comes from a brain that things it’s under threat. If your daughter is anxious, it’s not because she ‘won’t’ go to class or because she’s badly behaved, so threats and yelling will never work and will only make things worse. With anxiety her avoidance is because she feels as though she ‘can’t’. Of course she wishes she could, but when she is in that space it’s like asking her to fly. Yelling, threatening etc will activate the fight or flight response because the brain will do what it needs to do to get safe. This is how anxiety happens. Here is an article that explains that https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/.
Now it’s also important not to support her avoidance either because that will teach her brain that the only way it can stay safe is to avoid. What’s needed is gentle support, information about what’s happening for her (which is in the article I’ve linked to in this comment), and encouragement. She needs to feel safe, not threatened, and she needs to understand that her anxiety is a warning, not a stop sign.
Here is another article about what teachers need to know about anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-at-school/. When teachers understand this, they can do amazing things for kids with anxiety and really help them flourish. If you can, ask the teacher to read the two articles I’ve linked to in this comment. Once they understand and tweak their response, they’ll be in a much better position to influence your daughter in ways that will be great for her. Your daughter is lucky to have you advocating for her. Sometimes our little ones need our big voices.
I’ve been in tears all day. It’s week 4, for my 6yr old daughter. First grade. This has been an ongoing thing for her. Then switching schools this year only intisified the situation. She is scared to death that no one is going to be there to pick her up. When this has never happenes. I’ve tried everything from tough love to long talks. I was at a loss till this article. Thanks so much for giving me insight of what all I can do to try and lessen her burden.
Olivia I’m so pleased this article found its way into your hands. I hope it’s able to help your gorgeous girl find the comfort she needs.
Thank you so much! There are several of us with overactive amygdalae in our family and this is great for us all. 😀
This article is really amazing! I am a high school student and I have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder when I was 12,(7th grade) the anxiety was mainly due to bullying and assaults in public school, (the assaults havened in 6th grade and I didn’t say anything because they threatened my little sister) the anxiety itself manifested into horrible stomach pain. I ended up being hospitalized and having multiple things done. (X-rays, Scans, Bloodwork, Scoped) before I came out about what was going on and what I was feeling (I feel horrible to this day for putting my family through all that…..but at the time I didn’t understand what was happening at all)I ended up being suicidel because of the fear and anxiety of going back to school. Eventually though that year I was able to return back to school, thanks to the help of my parents and therapist (I didn’t tell my parents about the assault yet because they threatened my little sister). The rest of my 7th grade year still had bullying and my 8th grade year did as well. At the end of my 8th grade year my parents decided to put me in a private Christian school but when it came time to start school, I completely panicked. Anxiety attacks, flashbacks to the assaults you name it! I knew and kept telling myself “Yeah going to a new school will be awesome! You will make friends and have a great time” but as much as I told myself this part of my brain kept saying “Your not okay, your not safe, you don’t know anyone here” eventually that year I told my parents about one of the assaults. Things weren’t good and my parents put me in cyber school while I was in trauma therapy. Cyber school was horrible, my grades suffered. I am an A-B student and I was failing most of my classes, I wasn’t even doing some of my school work….that caused some bad fights with my parents…..(Granted I can’t really learn off of the computer but I was being very stupid immature and lazy, even if I was going through all of this school is a must). The rest of the year had ups and downs, but I became lazy, didn’t want to leave the house unless my parents were with me (still kinda working on that fear but it’s gotten a lot better). So when back to school time came around for my 10th grade year I felt okay for the most part, I was on the soccer team (we practiced in the summer before school) and at first I was excited for school. Once school kept getting closer and closer my anxiety went up and up…..the day before school was a nightmare, I was in a panic pretty much all day. My amazing neighbor though tried to help me and my parents out! (She was actually my 3rd grade teacher) I went the first day of school and at first it was fine then as the day progressed so did my anxiety, then when I went to soccer practice I just exploded into a huge panic attack…..That night I was still in an anxiety attack and my neighbor came over and tried to help both me and my parents I finally came out about the second assault….. My parents ended up calling my doctor for a much needed med check (I have been on medication since I was diagnosed) and to ask for help. (I was in therapy but the trauma therapist I had ended up moving). During that appointment, I went into the worst flashback I have ever had, during my flashbacks I dissociate, thrash around, scream and cry, it’s not good…..If someone try’s to touch me I think they are the ones hurting me (I can’t see them, I’m back in the assault situation being hurt) I feel and go back through everything that happens and I don’t realize really what I’m saying or doing and sometimes my brain runs with it and makes it worse. As this started to happen at the appointment the doctor actually thought I was faking it, hours later and I am still in this and in her office, my parents and neighbor didn’t know what to do and neither did the doctors. The facility ended up calling the state cops on me, saying I was “combative” even though all I was doing was trying to get away from the threat, couldn’t walk (my legs go completely numb and I can’t walk in flashbacks and some panic attacks). I honestly didn’t know what I was doing, this wasn’t intentional but looking back on that today I feel bad about putting people through that……I ended up going to a hospital and the flashback eventually ended and I was completely exhausted. I was put back into cyber school, had a medicine change and had to find the right trauma therapist, not to mention the nightmares that I still have. In cyber school I again didn’t do the work and failed many of my classes and ended up becoming out of shape and overweight.(I was so stupid for doing that). Though with the progress of my trauma therapist I was able to make amazing progress, learn new techniques and work on new existing problems that were masked by the trauma. That’s summer I actually made strides, 11th grade year was about to start and we had a plan with the Christian school that I was going to take a few classes there and do cyber school at home and transition slowly back into school. It worked out greatly, my anxiety was there sometimes but I was able to do it! I even joined the schools basketball team, and started to do archery with my sister. Around the middle of the school year I had all the classes I needed to quit cyber school! (Thank Gosh!) I did however have good grades at the end of cyber school, and good grades in real school, and I was finally full time and the rest of the 11th grade year was amazing! Now with back to school time coming back around for my 12th grade year I am starting to feel anxiety again, I am still working with my therapist to this day with things but I am really terrified that what happened in pervious years will happen again this year. I don’t want it to happen again, I can’t let it happen again, I don’t want to put my family through that…..I don’t want to go back to cyber, I want to feel like a normal teenage girl and enjoy school. It’s hard to talk to my parents, mainly my dad about this because he worries just as much as me…I don’t really understand why I am feeling this way, I had an amazing school year, I made friends and had fun but at points my. At one point my brain is saying “Your fine, school was great, and you did this before” then it says “Your not fine, something bad is going to happen, there is a new school building further away from home and something bad will happen.” (Our school grew so theybought a new school building. I was curious if you had any tips or ideas to help me out with this upcoming school year and with back to school time.
Hannah it’s great that you have the support of a therapist. It can really make a difference. Here is an article that can help you understand a little more about anxiety, and hopefully give you some strategies that can strengthen you against anxiety in the long term. Keep working with your therapist. You can get through this.
THANK YOU for changing our lives. I cried I was so happy to have found this site, whoever has created it and contributed – thank you –
It’s caught me at point where I can turn this around from a daughter who lost the love of life to someone who is now sitting up and listening to the wind of change – we’ve literally only just been through this article together once and it’s made this much impact.
I have just read a reply from a teenager about your article, she reminds me so much of my daughter.
Together we are strong enough
She knows about how her brain works., she needs to be able to allow herself for believe she can get through the anxiety and do the things she wants trouble do..
As well as what she needs to I will be showing her this article to remind her.
Thank you for writing this in such a way the older children can make sense of it all, they often don’t want mum or dad ‘bullying’ them,
I know this was posted a while ago but if you read this I wanted you to know this sounds exactly like what my son is going through right now. It is as if he were writing this! I am so sorry that you have gone through what you have. I pray that things have worked out for you. If you have any advise on what to do or what worked for you , I would love to hear it. I am a single mom and have neen fighting alongside my son for the past year to battle this social anxiety. He means the world to me and I have tried everything. Please help.
Hi my daughter is 10 yrs old and she has been having anxiety since she was 5. She refuses to go to school on a daily basis and whenever she thinks of school she gets sick. She has some kind of fear of going to school which she is unable to explain. The school that she is going to is run by nuns nd they are pretty strict in everything. I m thinking weather changing the schoo will be of any help to her. Please advice. Thank u
I’m not able to advise you on whether or not you should be changing schools, but I can suggest that if your daughter is finding the nuns a little frightening, this won’t be helping with her anxiety. The difficulty is that anxiety can also show itself when there is no issue with the school, teachers or peers. Anxiety comes from a brain that thinks there’s a threat. Often, it’s the brain being overprotective and there is no real threat. School anxiety is very common. Try the strategies in the article to help her understand what is happening and what is driving her anxiety, so she feels more empowered to manage it. Anxiety can be really scary when it hits and can create ‘anxiety about the anxiety’. This is why understanding where the feelings are coming from is so important. In relation to whether or not to change schools, be guided by your own feelings on that.
Thank you so much!
What an amazing article! I feel close to tears with relief having found this article.
My son has only just started not going to school (Year 7) but those few days have caused so much distress that anything to help both him and us is invaluable.
I have just read the article out to him as I’m already concerned about the coming week and whether he’ll go.
My son listened and I feel that he has listened and hopefully will be somewhat reassured and hopefully make use of the words and the breathing technique.
Love and prayers to all kids and parents going through this awful time. x
I don’t ever comment on these boards or write to the author but this article is so wonderful that I feel compelled to let you know just how much I appreciate this. I am a middle school counselor and I see a lot of anxiety in many different ways. School anxiety/refusal is pretty big at this level and this article will be an amazing teaching tool and “story” to read and process through with my kids. It’s written in such a way that is factual yet easy to process. I’m so grateful that I’ve come across this webpage.
Thanks so much Molly. I’m so pleased you found the article and I hope it’s able to help you to bring comfort and clarity to the kids you work with. Such important work you’re doing!
My son is 14 been off and on school for three yrs. He had a few girls being horrible to him in primary and carried it to high school Then he suffered racism at high school. We have social work and different parties involved but you article makes so much sense. I am thinking of The Thrive Programme which is £800 for 8 was one visit a week ,speaking to a counsellor once a week or to try hypnotist We do take his Xbox off him but that only gets him to school temp. It’s making everyone ill. Thank you ?
Steph I completely understand how difficult this is for everyone. Here is an article that might help your son. It’s about teens and anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-teens/. I wish kids weren’t so cruel to each other – if only they knew the damage they were capable of. It sounds as though you are a wonderful support and advocate for your son.