by Dr. Paulo Pires, psychologist, McMaster Children’s Hospital
Anxiety at School
The start of school can be a stressful time for everyone. It’s natural for children of all ages to experience some anxiety. Some contributing factors can include separation from parents, worry over making friends, and concern for academic performance.
Anxiety is our body’s natural response to perceived danger or risk. Sometimes it can be a positive thing, pushing us to do our best. Other times it can be overwhelming. It doesn’t always look the same, so pay close attention for signs of anxiety in your child, such as:
- Avoiding school or saying they’re too sick to attend
- Increases in acting out or misbehaving
- Being overly focused on schoolwork and, despite experiencing extreme anxiety, still excelling
Physically ill or anxious?
Evolution has equipped our bodies to respond physically when we’re afraid. So, anxiety can result in symptoms like an upset stomach, dizziness and shortness of breath. If you suspect your child is anxious, first try to rule out other physical causes. Then, see if their illness matches up to their school schedule and if they improve when they’re not at school. Finally, try talking to them about what aspects of school they find challenging.
So, how much is too much?
“Normal” anxiety varies and changes with age. As kids get older, they’ll experience less anxiety about being away from their parents, but more anxiety about social situations. Serious anxiety can affect sleep, appetite, concentration and relationships. Your child may be experiencing too much anxiety if it:
- Happens frequently
- Feels very intense
- Stops them from doing fun and/or important things
Tips to help your child manage anxiety
• Be aware of how you react to stress and manage your own feelings – Your behaviour directly impacts your child
• Take care of yourself and seek your own supports – You can’t be at your best when your stress levels are high
• Plan ahead – Calmly explain new situations in advance
• Be an active listener and don’t jump to fixing things – Problem solving builds their confidence and self-esteem
• Acknowledge and empathize with their feelings, and remind them of the facts – e.g., “most times it goes better than you think”: “ We’re here to support you through it”
• Do not focus on outburst/anxious behavior – Instead reward their brave behaviours
• Build routines – Feeling more organized helps lower stress
• Teach your child some relaxation techniques – Listening to music, playing with a pet, reading, writing, going for a walk, etc.
Below, Dr. Pires hosts a Facebook Live Q&A session on school-related anxiety.
Check out our back to school booklet for more tips on other common topics.