What to do when your child is anxious about going to school
At the beginning of each new school year or school term, our Psychology Team are flooded with questions from parents who are struggling to help their child transition back to school. This month we have noticed more requests for advice about school refusal concerns such as tummy pain, headaches, meltdowns, sleep disruption and lots of big overwhelming emotions.
In this Advice Blog our team has compiled our most used tips and app tools to help you help your child settle back into school.
So it’s Sunday night. You’re winding down and preparing for the next day when you start to hear rumblings from your child about a sore tummy. Or as you rush to get out the door on a rainy Monday morning, you’re met with tears and the overwhelm of a kid who simply doesn’t want to go to school.
What can you do? How can you listen to their concern, but know when to be firm on getting in to the classroom? We know that this can be an overwhelming experience, especially when you are feeling tired or fed up at the start of a new week.
As psychologists, when we see this type of school refusal our first step is to wonder about what your child might be avoiding or gaining by not going to school. Sometimes this might relate to a worry about homework that hasn’t been finished. Or an upcoming test or school outing. If your child is struggling with friendships or experiencing bullying, it is understandable that they will resist going in to this stressful environment. In exploring what’s happening for your child, we can support you as a parent to take the steps you need to help them feel safe again.
However, sometimes there isn’t a clear or tangible reason that your child might not want to go to school. This can make it even more difficult to know how to support them. In these situations, we need to build our understanding of your child’s anxiety and what tools or techniques work to help them cope. The following are some of our most used tips and Parent App tools to help you and your child through this transition:
1. Explore what’s going on
The first step to take involves reflecting on whether or not there is something specific underlying your child’s school refusal. Some of the most common reasons we see in clinic include:
- Separation anxiety
- Worry about academic demands
- Worry about friendship difficulties or bullying
- Coping with perfectionism
- Worry about feeling sick or going to the toilet in school
It’s important to remember that sometimes the underlying cause of anxiety can be more hidden, or a combination of things that might not be easy to identify or respond to. If there doesn’t seem to be a tangible reason why your child is avoiding school, don’t worry. Simply draw your focus and energy to helping them understand and cope with their anxiety itself.
2. Somatic Symptoms – 1) Check with your doctor, and 2) let your child know their pain is real
When we talk about somatic symptoms, what we are referring to is the physical manifestation of anxiety. So if your child is worried about going to school they might express this through physical symptoms such as:
- an upset tummy
- tight shoulders & muscle pains
- shortness of breath.
The first step is to respond to the symptom medically. If your child is experiencing symptoms like repeated tummy pain, constipation or headaches it’s important to check with your doctor to rule out any any medical reason. This approach can help your child feel listened to and further support their buy in to the explanation that anxiety can cause these symptoms.
Our second piece of advice when supporting your child with somatic symptoms is to let your child know that you believe that their pain is real. Parents often ask us what they should do when their child’s tummy pain only shows up when they have to go to school. A common question is: ‘what do I say when I don’t want to ignore that they feel sick, but I don’t believe that they are actually sick enough to stay home?’.
In this situation it can help to build your own understanding of somatic symptoms. Whether this tummy upset is from a medical origin or a manifestation of anxiety – your child’s pain is real. Something in their life is causing them enough stress that they wish to avoid it. Sometimes children may use a sore tummy as an excuse to not go to school because this was the outcome in the past. So they may not be truthful about how they are physically feeling – but their anxiety is still real. And most somatic symptoms feel just as painful in our bodies as stress has a very real, physical impact. So it is important to empathise first before stepping into any problem-solving mode.
If your child is a ‘bodytalker’ (someone who often expresses their anxiety or emotions through physical symptoms) they will need to feel believed in order to buy in to any support plan. This validation can be as simple as saying ‘I know that your tummy is hurting, that must feel horrible. I’m going to try my best to help’. Building their understanding of anxiety and their body (see next section) will help you prepare them for school, and allow you to develop some simple scripts for when they are ‘bodytalking’ and school refusing.
For example: ‘Oh you’re feeling sick today? I’m so sorry to hear that, that mustn’t feel good. Let take a moment to think about what you need. So it seems that your worried brain is making your tummy sick again. I wonder is there anything we can do to help your worried brain? I can do these 3 things – take some calming time in the car together before we go in to school, let your teacher know to check with you in 30 minutes to see if your tummy has relaxed, and let plan some relaxation time together for after school today. Will we write this down?’
3. Explain how anxiety works
It is easier to create effective scripts and use coping tools when your children understand how anxiety works. Again, you can adapt your explanation to what resonates for your child. Is there a character on a show or in a book who you can use as an example? In our psychology sessions we keep it simple and often draw out mindmaps or examples as a way of visually learning together about anxiety and how it affects our thinking and our bodies.
The following are some therapeutic stories on our InsightKids App that can help you explain to your child how anxiety works:
- Amelia worries about going to school
- I don’t want to go to school, I want to stay with mum!
- I just don’t want to go to school!
- Aisling and her worried body
- Harry learns how to relax his body for sleep
- Lexi uses her senses to stay calm
- Tobias beats school worries with breathing
4. Build a coping toolkit for you both
Help your child to find what tools can help them feel brave and safe. These might include:
- Deep breathing exercises
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Using a Worry Jar
- Using a Brave Diary (very helpful for building confidence)
- Sensory Relaxation Tools
If your child is struggling to sleep it can help to create a soothing nighttime ritual and use some sensory calming techniques. If they are feeling worried about going to school the next day take a set amount of time (up to 10 mins) to talk, write or draw these worries out together and park these worries after the time is up. This might involve using a Worry Jar or placing what you’ve written in a different room. This approach can help a worried brain feel seen and contained – helping it feel safer to winddown for sleep.
It can be really difficult as a parent to feel that you are pushing your child into a situation that is causing them stress or distress. However it is important to remember that you’ve taken the steps to rule out a medical condition. And in encouraging them to face their fears (with support), you’re building their resilience and shrinking their fears. Anxiety and school refusal is one of the most common queries that our psychologists provide advice about, so if you are struggling to know what to do you are not alone – seek whatever outside support you need, this difficulty will pass.
- Using transitional objects to support the school transition (4 mins)
- How to approach the teacher when your child is struggling (5 mins)
- I am a good enough Parent (5 mins)
- For when you need to feel calm (6 mins)
– January Offer –
Psychological Support for the whole family.
Offer available until the end of January.