It is essential that parents learn how to recognize childhood anxiety and tools to help them cope.
School can make many children feel anxious, whether it is their first time or not. Whatever the cause may be for these emotions it is essential that parents learn how to recognize and help their child manage those feelings. Also, kids don’t always experience anxiety symptoms, the way adults do.
“The major difference is that an adult generally can verbalize that they’re experiencing anxiety, whereas a child tends to express it through their behavior,” says Michelle Felder, LCSW, founder and CEO of Parenting Pathfinders. “Behavioral changes such as difficulty speaking in certain situations, refusing to go to school, avoiding certain people or places can be clues that a child is experiencing a heightened level of anxiety,” she says.
“Kids may also seem more angry, irritable, or have uncontrollable outbursts, as a result of anxiety rather than demonstrating worry or fear directly,” says CEO of Mingo Health Solutions Dinisha Mingo, M.S. who specializes in educational psychology and the founder of Solutions of Change.
Signs to Look Out For
In addition to the behaviors above, other signs to look for include:
- using the bathroom frequently
- being clingy
- bed wetting
- fear of certain places or situations
- difficulty sleeping, nightmares/bad dreams
- negative self talk
- express complaints of not feeling well, such as tummy and headaches
Why Do Some Kids Get Anxiety?
While external factors such as a new move in housing or schools, parents arguing, divorce, the death of a loved one, and being bullied can lead to anxiety; it shouldn’t be ignored. “Some anxiety about going back to school is developmentally appropriate and to be expected, but it’s important to stay in tune with your child and their emotional experience to understand how deeply their anxiety is impacting them and how they function day-to-day,” says Felder.
Furthermore, genetics can also play a role. In fact, a 2019 study found that children of anxious parents can inherit genes linked to the development of anxiety.
Helping Your Child Overcome Anxiety
An effective way of teaching your child how to manage stress and anxiety is to model healthy and positive ways of coping with emotions. "Parents should [also] talk to their children without being defensive towards the child's feedback and needs, demonstrating empathy and reassuring them," says Mingo. "They should try to assess what triggers their anxiety so they can try to reduce the triggers," she says.
Also, a healthy lifestyle is a significant precursor to relieving anxiety, like eating and sleeping properly. "They should have a nighttime routine—limiting technology and social media, especially 2 hours before bed—and a routine for the morning so it's not rushed and stressful, including eating a healthy breakfast," says Mingo.
Enlisting the Help of the Teacher
"Talk with your child's teacher about how they're feeling about going back to school, to get the teacher's perspective of what your child's experience in school is like, and work together to create ways to support them emotionally at home and school," says Felder.
You can also ask for other forms of support. "This may be simple accommodations in the classroom, or you may require the need for a 504 or IEP," says Mingo. IEP and 504 are plans to help support kids with certain learning needs. "Parents should also ask who the onsite school social worker or clinical support is so the child can know who they may be able to speak with should the anxiety cause a crisis at school," she says.
"Although it can be tempting to keep your child home longer or to take days off, these are short-term solutions that don't help them develop the ability to manage their anxiety," says Felder. "It's important to keep in mind that the goal shouldn't be to make your child stop worrying; instead, let your focus be on increasing their ability to tolerate the uncomfortable feelings and uncertainty that they're experiencing about school," she says.