How to Manage School Anxiety – What Children and Teens Need From Us

Anything that takes children and teens away from their important adults comes with the potential for anxiety to steal into their world. For even the bravest of hearts, this can cause more distress than it deserves to, especially in relation to school. As intrusive as school anxiety can be, it is not a sign of dysfunction or breakage. It is one of the most human experiences, and it can be managed.  

First, the most important thing.

Supporting any avoidance of school will make anxiety bigger. The amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for anxiety, only learns from experience. Once it has associated school with threat, this will continue to drive anxiety until there have been enough experiences of that anxiety giving way to calm.

This can be tough. Often, anxiety will get worse before it gets better. This can make anxiety at school feel fierce, which can understandably move a loving parent to remove children from school before anxiety has had a chance to ease. This makes sense – there is nothing that feels okay about moving our children towards the things that are causing their distress, but here’s the rub. The more that children avoid school, the more the brain will learn that the only way to feel calm and safe is to avoid school. This will catastrophise school and make anxiety bigger.

This is one of the things that makes anxiety so difficult to deal with. I’ve been there myself as a parent, and I know how heart crushing it is to watch a child you love so much, in distress. Something that can help is understanding the important job anxiety is trying to do, and the important role you play in strengthening them against it. 

Anxiety is not a sign they can’t cope. It is a call to action. A call to courage. Sometimes it is a call to retreat. Sometimes it is a call to move forward. The hardest part for our children is knowing the difference, which is why one of the best ways to support children through anxiety, is to help them make the call.

To do this, we will often need to ‘go first’ with calm and courage. This will mean calming our own anxiety enough, so we can lead them towards things that are good for them, rather than hold them back when those things feel too big.

The very thing that makes you an amazing parent, can also get in the way of moving them through anxiety. As their parent, you were built to feel distress at their distress. That distress works to mobilise you to keep them safe. This is how it’s meant to work. The problem is that sometimes, anxiety can show up in our children when it doesn’t need to. The good news is that you were also built to move them through this. 

Why anxiety at separation makes sense.

We are wired to feel safest to our important people. This is a brilliant part of our human design. When children (or any of us) are faced with separation, anxiety happens to move us to restore proximity to our ‘tribe’. We are safer in groups, and children are safer when they are with bigger, stronger, braver humans, especially when that adult so attached to them, they will do everything they can to keep them safe.

If anxiety only happened in response to real threats, this design would work beautifully, but this just isn’t how anxiety works. Anxiety also happens in response to things that are important or meaningful. School is one of those important, meaningful things but it comes with its own challenges. One of these is the need for separation from important adults, and this will potentially (understandably) breathe life into anxiety. 

As much as children are wired to feel anxious when they are separated from their important people, they are also wired for courage and resilience. We can nurture their capacity to do hard things by making sure that whenever they experience anxiety, they also have the opportunity to experience being brave in the face of that. Often, this will mean taking avoidance away as an option.

Take the ice-cream off the table.

Sometimes, when decisions are too big for our children, the most loving thing we can do is to take that decision out of their hands. 

Think of it like this. Let’s say your child has ice cream every night for dessert, but you want them to choose an apple instead. You’ve talked with them about all the reasons they should choose an apple over ice cream. Then, dessert time comes around and you put the ice cream on the table, hoping they’ll say ‘nup’ to the ice-cream, and choose the apple. Of course, they choose the ice-cream.

You know that if you take the ice-cream off the table, there will be a truckload of trouble coming your way. The battle will be mighty, not just tonight, but probably tomorrow night and the next night and the night after that. Maybe this will go on and on for a couple of weeks. Ugh. Things would be so much easier if they choose the apple themselves right? There’s a really tough decision to make, but you’re leaving the decision to them. When the decision is a hard one, as long as both options are available, it’s understandable that they will choose the easier option. The brutal truth of it all is that the only way to stop them choosing the easy option is to take it off the table. 

We are asking them to do something really tough – to go to school – but as long as there is an option for them to avoid school, they will understandably be driven to choose this option. This has nothing at all to do with bad behaviour, and everything to do with a brain that has associated school with a lack of safety and will put up a ferocious fight (or flight) to avoid it. 

This will translate into avoidance behaviour (not getting ready, refusal), big feelings, tantrums, aggression, tears, yelling, tummy aches, headaches, and feeling sick at school time. Until there are enough opportunities for anxious children to reach the calm that is on the other side of their anxiety, their anxiety will drive them to avoid.

We need to take avoidance of school off the table. This won’t be easy. In fact, it will probably break our hearts on too many days, but remember why you are doing it. The only way through anxiety is straight through the middle. Anxious brains are strong brains and they will not let go of the fight easily, which is why for a while, you’ll need to be stronger. Of course, if there are other real threats at school, such as bullying, a screaming lack of emotional generosity from the teacher, or environmental sensitivities, these need to be dealt as best we can to clear their way towards brave behaviour. 

What are you really protecting them from?

Somewhere inside them, kids will know that school is safe enough. What they will also be aware of is that whenever they think about school, they get anxious thoughts, anxious feelings, maybe a sick tummy, a racey heart – it just starts to feel as though something bad is going to happen. Often, what that fierce drive to avoid is more about avoiding the thoughts, feelings and physiology of anxiety, than it is about avoiding school.

It is understandable that any loving parent might sometimes surrender to this, and let their child stay home, ‘just for today’, but this will always make anxiety worse tomorrow. When the drive to protect them feels overwhelming, ask yourself, ‘What am I really protecting them from? Am I protecting them from a real threat, or the thoughts, feelings, and physiology that come with anxiety? Then ask, ‘Will my next move build their world, or shrink it? Will it grow them, or hold them back?’

The question isn’t, ‘How do I get rid of their anxiety?’, but, ‘How do I help them feel a little bigger in its presence?’

One of the most powerful ways to do this is to change their relationship with anxiety, from anxiety being a brutal beast of a thing (even though that’s how it feels sometimes) to anxiety being their fierce protector – one that will fight with warrior daring to keep them safe, but sometimes too much when it doesn’t need to. When we change the story about anxiety, we can change their response.

Then, we add in strategies and information, and we shift their focus from the ‘threats’ (separation from you) to the important, meaningful things that anxiety is getting in the way of. They might take time to buy into this, and that’s okay. For a while, we’ll need to believe it enough for them. In the meantime, we build them big, so they can feel mighty enough even when they feel anxious – anxious AND mighty enough to move forwards, little step by little step.

How to help them feel safe, even when they aren’t with you.

You know your child best, so think of this as a toolbox. Here are some strategies to draw on:

Let them know that what they are feeling makes sense.
  • Their anxiety makes sense. They are doing something tough. This can register as threat in the brain, and it will work hard to keep them safe by pushing them to avoid. It’s just what we humans do sometimes – and all of us do it at some time. It’s so interesting to me that something which unites us as humans can make us feel so alone when it hits. Kids need to know that anxiety has nothing to do with strength, courage, character, and it is absolutely not a sign that they can’t cope. It’s a sign that they are about to something brave, important and meaningful – and that can be hard sometimes.
Play ‘matchmaker’. Facilitate the relationship between them and their teachers.
  • The best way for children to feel safe with another adult is for their important adult to facilitate that relationship. This might mean having a conversation with your child’s teacher so you can pass on the good things they said about your child and the good things your child said about them. (‘Ms Frizzle said she really loves having you in her class.’)
Let the goodbye be confident, loving, and quick.
  • As long as you are still with them, their amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for anxiety) will have hope that the separation won’t happen, and it will keep the fight or flight response going. Once you leave, the amygdala registers futility. Only then can your little one’s brain and body rest. The neurochemical surge that is driving the physical, emotional and behavioural symptoms of anxiety will start to neutralise and their anxiety will start to ease. The sooner this happens, the sooner your child can settle and get on with the day. There might be big tears when you leave, and that’s okay. These tears are a sign that the brain has registered futility, and is moving to adaption, which lies at the heart of resilience. It’s never easy watching someone you love so much is distress, but remind yourself that they are safe, that the tears will pass quickly, and that you are providing the experience that will build resilience and courage, and show them they can do hard things. 
Let them feel your strength.
  • Our children need to feel our leadership. If you were lost in the wilderness, you would want someone who had a plan, not someone who was unsure and needed you to confirm the direction to take next. Speaking with certainty opens the way for them to feel confident in our ability to keep them safe, and our assigning of other adults to take care of them. It’s important that this is said in a loving, ‘I’ve got this’ way, rather than an authoritarian, ‘Do this or else’ kind of way. Think of it as letting them feel that you have gone out in front, taken a good look around to make sure it’s safe, and now you’re coming back with the all-clear. Tell them the plan but frame this as statements, (‘This is what’s happening’) rather than questions, (‘Don’t you think it would be best to go to school?’).

‘I know that today feels big for you. Here’s what’s going to happen my darling. I’m going to make you your favourite breakfast – whatever you like, order up Champ. Then, you’re going to get dressed and I’m going to drive you to school. When we get there, I’m going to walk you to your classroom, give you a big squeeze, and say goodbye. I know your teacher/the school will take really good care of you. They’ve been waiting for you to come back. I spoke to your teacher and she can’t wait to have you in her class again. The best part though will be when I get to see you this afternoon and hear all about your day. I can’t wait to hear all about it!  

Your tone matters.
  • Let your tone be warm, loving, strong and melodic where you can. A low monotone voice is more likely to register as threat. It’s the tone of a growly predator in the wild, and one we’re wired to be wary of.
Let them know they will be taken care of.
  • If they plead with you to let them stay home, acknowledge their feelings, validate how hard it is, and reaffirm that you know they will be taken care of at school. You don’t need their agreement, but they will need you to be strong enough for both of you. If you’re feeling all the big feels when you drop them off, fall apart in the car if you need to. Cry, scream, turn the music up or call a friend to vent about how rubbish it all is (because honestly, it feels like rubbish). Just make sure that as long as you are with them, they can feel the safety and strength of you.
Focus on the next ‘hello’.
  • Anxiety will focus them on the threat – the separation. Help usher their ‘brave’ into the light by focusing them on what they want – the next time they get to see you. Give them a kiss, a cuddle, and point them to the next ‘hello’ – ‘Bye my darling. Love you so much. Can’t wait to see you this afternoon and hear all about your day,’ or, ‘You’re going to stay at school today, I’m going to go to work, and then this afternoon I’m going to pick you up and take you home. Let’s go for a play in the park when we get home.’
Sometimes all you can do is ride the wave.
  • If they feel overwhelmed, and if their feelings take up all the space in the room, ride the wave with them until they start to feel calm. Breathe, be still, and stay in the moment so they can find their way there too. Their calm will start with yours. Let them know you get it, that you see them, and that you know they can do this. They won’t buy it straight away, and that’s okay. The brain learns from experience, so the more they are able to find their way through anxiety back to calm, the easier it will get. 
They are not their behaviour, and neither are you.
  • Try not to let the symptoms of their anxiety disrupt the connection. They might get really angry, really sad, or behave in really terrible ways. This is not a measure of their capacity to cope, your parenting, or who they are. It’s anxiety.
What you focus on becomes powerful.
  • What we focus on becomes powerful, so make room for their big feelings, and then usher their strengths into the light. ‘I know that even though you feel anxious, you can do hard things. I’ve seen you do it before. I see you do it all the time. I know this is hard, and I know you can do this.’
Align yourself with their brave over their fear.
  • When your child is anxious or distressed, your anxiety and distress will be triggered as well. Their anxiety is trying to hold them back from danger, but they need us to not buy into that. Whenever we support avoidance, we align ourselves with their fear. They need us to align ourselves with that part of them that knows they can be brave enough, and that part is there in each of them.

    And finally …

    One of the tough parts of parenting a child who feels anxious sometimes is knowing when to push them gently towards brave behaviour, and when to let them take comfort somewhere warm and bundled. Even the gentlest nudge forward by you might not feel that gentle for them. Sometimes it can just feel cruel for both of you.

    But you can see around the corners that they can’t. And you can see their strength, and their resilience, and their courage. You know it’s there, in them, and you know they can do hard things – they’re amazing like that – but sometimes you need to believe it enough for both of you.

    The move towards brave behaviour and away from anxiety is a process, and not always a smooth one. Our kids need us to see them and hold a safe place for them, but they also need us to believe in them and to sometimes lead the way. An anxious brain is a magnificent, powerful brain – and so strong. When anxiety is involved, the need for our kids to avoid or flee can be seismic, but our belief in them can always be stronger.

    When their anxiety is screaming at that maternal or paternal need in you to keep them safe, ask, will my response build their world or shrink it? Do I believe in them, or do I believe their anxiety? And always, of course, go gently. Building brave, beautiful humans into braver, stronger, more resilient ones takes time, and that’s okay.

    9 Comments

    Lisa

    Does this article relate to separation anxiety disorder or would different strategies be helpful?

    Reply
    Elizabeta

    My daughter has a “nursery” anxiety. She is 4 and on every drop off she gets out of the car and vomits. There is no any other situation where she does this…only on her drop-off to nursery. I know if I don’t work on this matter now will progress in future. Thanks for the great post. I really needed this.

    Reply
    Sam

    Thank you so much for this. Your article is something I really needed to read as my son is struggling with school anxiety at the moment.

    Reply
    Kevin M

    Your site and articles are a big help my son is going through anxiety at the moment due to stay at home restrictions. Thanks for writing these posts

    Reply
    Joan

    I take my grandchildren to school sometimes and your site is a great help for me to understand their thinking. Thank you

    Reply

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    For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
    Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
    When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
    Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
    How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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