THE MANY FACES OF SCHOOL ANXIETY

My child has school anxiety

When a parent tells me that their child has school anxiety, a big question mark pops up in my brain because school anxiety can mean so many things.

The fact is most children who struggle with anxiety find that their anxiety does follow them to school.  

This is because children spend an enormous amount of time in school.  

And also because anxiety doesn’t generally come with a nice fence around it. 

Anxiety tends to bleed out into all different areas of life.


Anxiety at school…little wonder

Apart from the aforementioned factors, the school environment has a number of elements that can certainly bring anxiety to the forefront.

First, anxiety demands a tight rein when it comes to control and predictability. 

At school, children tend to have less control than at home over how things go.

Teachers are dealing with a whole classroom of students, so will not prioritize a single child’s individual preferences.

And the school environment tends to be far less predictable.

It has many variables and moving parts. 

For starters, the cast of characters is much larger and, thus, less predictable…there are teachers…substitutes …multiple staff members…classmates…all the other students… 

Then there are the ever-changing and ever-increasing demands and expectations, both social and academic…

Once a child masters one hurtle, it’s on to the next.

For example, a child learns and becomes confident with their ABC’s…then it’s on to sounding out words…then reading and writing sentences…and then on to paragraphs…essays…research papers…

It’s never ending.

Also, with each passing grade, social interactions become more nuanced and complicated…demanding increasingly more sophisticated social skills.

School, a training ground for life 

As adults, we know the process of learning and skill building never ends, as parents or professionals.

We barely get the raising baby stuff down…and then when we’re beginning to get the groove of toddler-hood, our child suddenly transforms into a preschooler…then a grade schooler…a middle schooler…and on it goes.

It’s never ending.

In one way or another, from cradle to grave, we are all contending with an ongoing learning curve…and the discomfort and uncertainty that inevitably comes with it…as well as the feelings of deep satisfaction that mastering something difficult brings.

 

Wise vs Problematic Worry

Now there are certainly situations at school, such as bullying or an inappropriate staff member, which should set off a child’s wise worry alarm. 

But even there, we do need to differentiate between a true bullying or inappropriate situation versus normal teasing, social discomfort, or people your child just doesn’t care for. 

Children need to have the knowledge, and tools to report the former, and with our support, learn to handle the latter.

And many an anxious child can blur the lines or confuse the two. 


Anxiety and Learning disorders

We also want to make sure our child does not have an undiagnosed learning disorder.

This can certainly supercharge an existing anxiety. 

If your child does have a learning disorder, this needs to be identified so the proper supports can be put in place.


Anxiety and learning discrepancies

It can also be worthwhile to look out for a learning discrepancy.   

A learning discrepancy is when a child has high capabilities in one or more areas, but in contrast has average or lower capabilities in one or more other areas.

This is not the same thing as say being better in social studies than in math, for example…

Most everyone has subjects that come easier for them in comparison to others. 

An example of a learning discrepancy would be a child with a high I.Q., but with an average or below average processing speed. 

Such a discrepancy can lead to feelings of great academic frustration and anxiety.

If your child is really struggling to get their work done despite a high intelligence, you might want to seek out a neuropsychological evaluation.

Sometimes if such children can gain an understanding of who they are as learners, this alone can help ease the pressure.

The Just Playing Hooky Student

Also, it bears to mention that there is a certain contingent of children, anxious or not, who don’t want to attend school simply because it’s more fun and relaxing to stay home.

These children may complain of other issues, but the real draw is the reward of staying home. 

When they are at home, these children are allowed to sleep in, play video games, surf the web, watch television, and such.…and not do the things they deem to be boring or hard. 

Most children are very present oriented, and, thus, not too concerned about the effects that ditching school will have on their future selves. 

We, as parents, must be the ones to provide this higher-level of thinking…along with clear and nonnegotiable rules.

Upward and onward

While danger, learning issues, learning discrepancies, and playing hooky are important to tease out, here we are focusing on situations where problematic anxiety is in the driver’s seat running the show.

 

School Anxiety and the Big Five

School anxiety is not a specific type of anxiety…anxiety at school occurs for the same reasons it does outside of school.

But there are what I refer to as the Big Five, the most common drivers of school anxiety that I see…

So, let’s take a front row seat into the minds of five different children, each child experiencing one of the Big Five.

 

1. School…emetophobic disaster

Jessie doesn’t want to attend school because of her fear of throwing up, clinically known as emetophobia.  She wakes up most mornings thinking thoughts such as:

“Oh no, this is going to be the day…I can feel it.  My stomach just doesn’t feel right…and what’s that weird taste in my mouth?!  I was talking to Samantha a couple days ago and she wasn’t at school yesterday…she’s probably sick…I bet I caught something from her!  I’m going to go ask mom if she thinks I look a little off…and tell her I should really stay home from school today.  If I threw up at school, it would be so gross, and everyone would talk about it for days…that would be the worst of the worst…I’ve got to stay home…Mom!!!  

 

2. School…cramping my compulsion’s style

Miguel has OCD and is worried that his house will catch on fire.  And school is interfering with his ability to “satisfactorily” perform his compulsions. This is what is churning around in Miguel’s mind as he tries to head out the door to school and then once he is in school:

“Dad’s going to get mad if I don’t get out the door…but let me just check one more time…okay I guess I can leave…oh did I unplug the toaster?!  I need to go back in again.  While I’m here, I might as well check everything else one more time…just to be absolutely sure…okay, I better get going…hey, did I unplug my lamp? Better go check that before leaving…”

Miguel does manage to get to school…but once there…

Hmm, am I absolutely sure I checked everything…well, I’m not 100% sure.  I think I checked that lamp…but did I really?  I could have gotten distracted before I checked it…and then forgotten to check it.  Oh no! If the house catches on fire, it’s totally my fault…I won’t be able to live with that…I need to go back home.  I need to ask my teacher if I can go to the office to call my dad.”

 

3. School…social anxiety’s nightmare

Karina has social anxiety.  She has a best-friend and feels okay when she’s with her. This is what went through Elisa’s mind when she found out that her best-friend wouldn’t be at school this week:

“Oh no, what am I going to do?  Who will I eat lunch with…and what am I going to do at recess?  It’ll be so embarrassing…everyone’s going to think that I’m a total loser…and I guess I am…I never know what to say to anyone…and if I do think of something, I’m sure it’ll sound stupid. I could ask my teacher if I could go to the library…what could I say I need to go for…oh I’m too scared to ask her!  I’m going to tell my parents I’m feeling sick…but I’m going to have to pretend to be sick all week…”

 

4. School…A minefield of worrisome possibilities

Chloe has generalized anxiety.  She worries about lots of things and her worry is unremitting.  Let’s peek into Chloe’s busy mind.

“I’m so tired, but this homework is going to keep me up late…and I should probably get up early too…so it will be good enough…I hope I can sleep tonight.  My coach is probably disappointed in me for letting that ball slip by…she probably regrets picking me to be goalie.  I hope Mandy’s not mad at me for talking to Lucinda…I don’t think she likes Lucinda.  Oh, good grief, now I have a headache…how am I going to do all this work now?  Maybe I can skip school tomorrow to get it done…but then I’ll get behind…how am I going to even deal once I get to middle school?!”

 

 5. School…Separation or CATASTROPHE???

Anthony has separation anxiety.  He’s worried something bad might happen to his mom when he goes to school.  From the moment his eyes crack open on any given school day, his mind starts cranking out catastrophic thoughts such as:

“I can’t go to school today…I have a really bad feeling…my heart is raising…it feels like it’s going to jump out of my chest…yeah this is much worse than normal.  If everything was truly okay, why would my heart be pounding so hard?  That does it…I cannot let mom out of my sight today…or something super bad is really going to happen!  This is no joke…I cannot go to school today for sure...”

 

Plus one

This category represents the many anxious children that hold it together all day at school only to then fall apart at home.

In fact, many of these children appear to be model students at school…their teachers having no idea how much they are struggling…while their parent’s may be at their wit’s end.   

There may be nightly homework battles…with their accompanying meltdowns.

Or they may frequently lash out at parents or siblings, leaving family members confused, hurt, angry, or walking on eggshells. 

Other children seem to hold it together both at home and at school, but are suffering greatly inside with their harsh, unrelenting internal critic. 

These children arrive home carrying hidden feelings from school…feelings such as frustration, inadequacy, shame, and rejection…hard, overwhelming feelings.

But, instead of opening up, or reaching out for support, these children respond through acting out, rigid perfectionism, and/or isolating behavior.

This creates a closed feedback loop that can eventually turn toxic.


My school attendance soapbox

Before ending, I would be remiss if I failed to stress that with school anxiety, we need to be especially vigilant regarding school attendance. 

By that I mean, children should never be allowed to miss school because of their anxiety.

It’s the old slippery slope. 

If you give anxiety an inch, it will try to grab a mile. 

I’ve seen how things in the school avoidance realm can go downhill surprisingly fast, quickly developing into full-blown school refusal. 

And, of course, we want to avoid that at all costs! 

So, the bar for missing school should be set extremely high with these children…limited to such things as a fever or incapacitating illness. 

Mild colds, and such, just don’t cut the mustard with these youngsters. 

If you cave in to your child’s anxious demands, and let this genie out of the bottle, it is a tough one to get back in. 

Now, of course, most children aren’t going to say that they don’t want to go to school due to their anxiety.

So, you’ll need to be an undercover detective of sorts.

And even if you don’t think your child would refuse to go to school, missing school still makes it harder for them to return. 

Notice…it’s probably harder for your anxious child to go to school on a Monday than on a Wednesday…and probably harder yet after a vacation. 

Thus, letting a child with school anxiety skip school isn’t doing them (or you!) any favors.

What these children do need is anxiety managing skills and support in using these skills at school.

If anxiety is getting in the way at school, in most cases, it is not a school problem, but an anxiety problem.


And Finally 

There are, of course, an endless variety of ways that anxiety can show its face at school.

I hope my fictional characters have given you the flavor of what the Big Five can look and feel like.

School can bring up anxiety for all kids (and parents too) …anxiety is a normal feeling that we all experience.

But, if your child sounds anything like our fictional characters or like a child in the Plus One category, I urge you to reach out for support.

 Note: The information in this blog is not directed to families who have decided to home school for reasons other than anxiety.  Home-schooling can be a wonderful option for some families.


Helping Anxious Kids is here to support your family.  If you are seeking anxiety treatment for your child and my approach resonates with you, schedule an appointment today. 

 

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