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.

    10 Comments

    carolyn s

    This article along with both books Hey Warrior and Hey Awesome have helped so many of the parents and carers at the school I work in as a Learning Mentor and Parent Support Adviser.
    Thank you

    Reply
    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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    Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
    We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
    Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
    Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
    A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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