How to reduce school-related anxieties
A couple of months ago, I wrote about helping your child settle into school after the summer break but, however well prepared they are, sometimes children’s problems with school go on into the whole year instead of being a minor or temporary situation.
It’s natural for children - and teenagers - to feel anxious about returning to school after the summer. Just as they get used to freedom, they have to readjust to the school routine. It’s worst for children who are starting a new school or are stressed by school anyway, for example, if they have experienced bullying or suffer from learning difficulties and don't have the right support. There are steps parents can take to reduce the problem and soothe their child’s anxiety.
Three types of school-related anxiety are common; separation anxiety, test anxiety, and social anxiety, each with its own triggers and solutions. Many children experience these problems mildly or short-term in which case, make your child’s teacher aware of the situation and monitor them for a while. Teaching staff can be a good source of support and ideas to help ease any transitional issues. But if symptoms persist or are severe you might need to seek more personalised help.
Children with separation anxiety will be unhappy and anxious about being left at school by whoever cares for them at home, and they may refuse to interact with teachers or classmates. It can be common in children starting school for the first time, but older children experience it too.
You can help reduce separation anxiety by practising short separations before the term starts and the child has to be away from you all day; leave them with someone you both know and trust for short periods, increasing the time as they become less anxious. Try to stick to a routine in the mornings even during school holidays, and practice this as well so they know what to expect.
It can help both of you to visit the school before the term starts and get to know teachers and other children and parents, so someone familiar will be there.
If you worry about them leaving you, too, try not to show it It’s normal for you to wonder about how a child is coping, especially if there is a history of problems, but they will pick up on it.
When the moment comes, make goodbyes brief and not too emotional. Develop a special – brief – ritual such as a hug or handshake, as a ‘time for school now’ cue. Don’t leave when the child is distracted without a goodbye, this will tend to worry them more. Try leaving a note in their bag or lunchbox so they know you’re thinking of them during the day.
Despite the name, test anxiety doesn’t just apply to actual tests. Sports, performances, and presentations can all cause the same sort of problems.
Test anxiety is caused by fear of failure and, ironically enough, can cause failure by making it harder to perform well. Worry and anxiety tend to close down the ‘thinking’ parts of the brain – memory, speech/words and logic – and this all impacts on your child’s ability to learn. Severe or long-term anxiety can also cause headaches, panic attacks, and poor sleep.
To reduce test anxiety, make sure your child prepares and practices for tests or other worry triggers. Let them know it’s okay to ask for help. Children with learning difficulties will especially need help; talk to their teachers to see what they can do. Help your child to work out a study system which works for them.
Tell your child about times you did poorly on similar tests if you have any appropriate anecdotes, and how you improved later. This lets them know it isn’t the end of the world if they do fail. Assure them that it’s okay to make mistakes and make sure you praise hard work and effort rather than specific results.
Also known as social phobia, this is more than simple shyness. It can affect adults as well as children. Sufferers experience high levels of anxiety in social situations, sometimes to the point of panic attacks. Sometimes just thinking about or anticipating social situations can be a problem. Medication might be necessary in severe cases, but there are other solutions to try.
Encourage the child to say hello to cashiers or bus drivers to practice talking to unfamiliar people. Try slowly introducing your child to smaller-scale social situations; visit one friend, then two, then a small group.
Be supportive and don’t say anything to imply your child should be different. Acknowledge they feel bad and say it’s OK to feel anxious, but you’d like to help them feel happier. Help the child to identify unhelpful thoughts, like ‘everyone will laugh at me’, and to challenge them constructively. You’ll find some ideas about doing this elsewhere on this blog and although that article is aimed at adults most of them can be adapted for children’s use.
General tips for managing anxiety can also be found elsewhere in this blog or on my stress blog.
Getting other help
It’s often best to start with your GP; even if you are sure that school is the problem, anxiety can sometimes be caused by medical issues and these need to be ruled out before considering any kind of therapy for your child. Once you have the all-clear, hypnotherapy can help by reducing anxiety and teaching coping strategies, and EMDR can help reduce negative feelings around specific triggers. I work with children aged ten and upwards, but other therapists do work with younger ones.
None of us likes to see our children in distress, but your child will pick up on your feelings if you're upset or worried as well. Anxiety is infectious and being calm and relaxed about things yourself can help your child. It can also help to develop some coping strategies of your own: there are plenty on this site and the stress one mentioned above, or a couple of sessions with me might help if they're not enough.
Please ask me if you have any questions about your or your child’s situation.
Debbie Waller is a professional hypnotherapist, specialising in stress, anxiety and related issues. She also offers EMDR which is used for trauma, PTSD, phobias and OCD and publishes hypnotherapy-for-ibs.co.uk for those interested in using hypnotherapy to relieve the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
Debbie owns a multi-accredited hypnotherapy school, Yorkshire Hypnotherapy Training and offers further training for qualified therapists via CPD Expert. She is the author of Their Worlds, Your Words, editor and contributor to the online magazine Hypnotherapy Training & Practitioner, and co-author of The Hypnotherapy Handbook.
For more information on any of these services, phone 01977 678593.
Researcher & drafter: Rachel Waller.