It’s normal to be anxious sometimes, but when anxiety interferes with your quality of life, or you experience it constantly, this may be the sign of an anxiety disorder.
School can be a source of anxiety for many kids and young adults. It’s a setting filled with expectations to succeed, large groups of people, opportunities for bullying, and more. School anxiety can cause students of all ages to feel overwhelmed at the thought of stepping foot on campus.
Treatment plans for school anxiety may need to address the symptoms of the condition as well as the external factors that are triggering anxiety. Let’s take a look at the causes of anxiety at school as well as some strategies to help kids feel comfortable while they learn.
The reason a child feels anxiety about school will vary according to their specific situation. Possible causes
- Social anxiety: Social anxiety is about concern about how one is perceived by others, usually peers. Academic anxiety typically does not have a social component, but the two can overlap. Social anxiety can also impact a student’s performance academically, creating a cyclical effect where the student is concerned about both.
- Bullying or cliques: A child may feel anxious about going to school because that is where they encounter bullying.
- Academic anxiety or testing: Children might be anxious about school because they don’t feel like they are performing well enough, or they are worried about standardized testing.
- Past or ongoing trauma.Trauma (a divorce, a death in the family, or abuse) can cause students to feel anxious in school or in other group social settings. Students may also be traumatized by the news of school shooters and the need to go through safety drills for it.
- Separation anxiety: Younger children may not feel they are safe when separated from their caregivers, leading to school drop-offs that are difficult and upsetting for everyone involved. While some of this is a normal part of development in most children, it can reach detrimental levels.
- Generalized anxiety disorder: Sometimes school anxiety indicates that a child may have a generalized anxiety disorder, sometimes referred to as chronic anxiety. This type of anxiety might not be specifically related to school, but the child demonstrates symptoms in the school setting.
- Chronic health conditions: Children who live with severe allergies, are immunocompromised, or have a chronic pain condition may see school as a place where they are not safe. They may also be concerned their condition may keep them from succeeding in school activities. Several studies of students with chronic pain have found that they are
more likelyto try to avoid school due to anxiety.
Why does my child get sick whenever it’s time for school?
If your child is resisting getting ready for school, or if they regularly feel sick or nauseous in the mornings before school, that can be an indicator that the child is actually dealing with school anxiety.
You don’t have to be dismissive of a child’s physical symptoms; in fact, showing empathy for morning tummy aches will make a child feel safer expressing their feelings to you. Try giving the child language to describe how they are feeling — do they have a sick tummy ache or a scared one? Explain that sometimes stress can cause our bodies to feel sick.
While they obviously can’t miss every day of school, kids sometimes need a “mental health day” just like adults do. Your child will likely look back on these moments when deciding how they address their own mental healthcare later in life. While these episodes can be frustrating in the moment, remember that your child is dealing with big emotions that are completely new to them — compassion will create better results in the short and long term.
Signs and symptoms of anxiety will vary according to how old a student is.
Anxiety symptoms in primary grades
Possible symptoms of anxiety in children who are 10 and under may include:
- irritability, crying, yelling, or having a tantrum
- refusal to participate in the process of getting ready for school
- loss of appetite or nausea as it draws close to time to leave for school
- nightmares or difficulty sleeping
- increased heart rate and/or rapid breathing
Anxiety symptoms in older grades
As students grow older, their anxiety may show itself in the form of external school-avoidance behaviors. Signs of anxiety in children who are in middle and high school will vary across cultures and individual families, but
- truancy/excessive absence from class
- refusal to participate in school activities
- rapid breathing and/or quick heart rate
- loss of appetite, nausea, or headache
- self-harm behaviors
While it’s easy to think of anxiety as an adult problem, many types of anxiety disorders can begin during childhood. Let’s look at some of the most common ones.
- Separation anxiety disorder: Separation anxiety disorder is caused by fear of being separated from caregivers. This type of anxiety is most common in children under age 2. Children who are dealing with a recent traumatic event (such as a death in the family or moving) or children who have timid personalities are most likely to experience this type of anxiety. The level of anxiety being experienced isn’t considered developmentally appropriate or related to a recent event.
- Social anxiety disorder: People with social anxiety disorder feel extremely anxious in social settings. A history of negative experiences in family or group settings can be the underlying cause. Children who have been bullied in the past or who have survived abuse are more likely to have social anxiety disorder.
- General anxiety disorder: Chronic anxiety is another name for generalized anxiety disorder. A child with school anxiety who has symptoms in a wide variety of other non-academic settings may have general anxiety.
- Panic disorder: Panic disorder is characterized by recurring panic attacks. Someone with panic disorder may also develop a fear of their panic attacks, and this anxiety about the attacks becomes a symptom all its own. Panic attacks may be triggered by specific events, or they may seem to happen for no clear reason. Panic disorder is more common in young adults than in other age groups.
Why does my child throw a tantrum at school drop-offs?
If your child is crying at drop-off, clinging to your car door, or refusing to board the school bus, it can be traumatic to physically force them into school. Separation anxiety is best addressed before a child is in panic mode.
Consider giving the child a photo of your family to carry into school, or ask if your child can bring a stuffed animal or another safety object. Don’t prolong goodbyes; establish a quick goodbye ritual that is a physical action (like a short hug) and a reassuring phrase (“You know I will see you at four o’clock!”). Positive affirmations that you both recite together (I am brave and loved!) can also be helpful.
You may also want to reach out to your child’s teacher to let them know that you’re trying to help them through separation anxiety.
There are plenty of options when it comes to helping your child through school anxiety. Most of them boil down to acting with empathy and compassion, rather than establishing strict rules and punishments.
Teachers, parents, and school nurses may pick up on school anxiety, even if a student doesn’t have the language to say that they feel anxious. If you are concerned that a child in your care is dealing with school anxiety, you’ll need to communicate well to try to identify potential causes or underlying issues.
Talk openly about feelings and mental health
When a child acts out, one of the most helpful things you can do is be curious. Finding out what your child is feeling and what they’re afraid of can show you the best way to help them. Make discussions on emotions and mental health a part of everyday life at your house.
Ask questions about school during moments when your child is calm. Is there a person at school who is scaring or bothering them? Is there a certain staff member or teacher who makes them feel uncomfortable? Who are they sitting with at lunch? What is the loudest part of the day?
You don’t want to make your child feel interrogated, but you can strive to give them a chance to make their feelings known so that they feel understood. Young children may also benefit from books that introduce them to different emotions and the names that we use for them.
Check your priorities
Sometimes the source of school anxiety may start at home, and a different parental attitude toward academic success can help children who are afraid of failing.
It’s understandable that you may have your own anxieties about your child’s future and want the best for them. Grades and tests can all feel very important, and it’s easy to place more importance on them than they deserve. But recent research has actually found that a person’s personality is the most accurate predictor of future success.
Teaching your child healthy ways of dealing with anxiety and pressure at a young age will likely do more good for them than making sure they have straight As.
Get help from an expert
With the rise of telehealth, there are lower barriers to finding the right therapist for your child when it comes to time and location. A therapist can help you and your child discover the root of their anxiety, and build a treatment plan around their needs.
Your child seeing a therapist isn’t a failure on your part or theirs, as mental health care is important for everyone. A therapist will also be able to help diagnose conditions like ADHD that may benefit from medications.
Consider a change of environment
In some cases, environmental changes are needed to help support a child who has school anxiety. Consistent bullying can usually be addressed through administrative support and parental guidance.
In rare cases, a child with anxiety may benefit from changing schools or learning from home, if that is an option. This is a big decision that is best made in partnership with a team of other people who know and support your child, including your pediatrician, school administrators, school counselors, and/or other mental health professionals.
If your child does change learning environments, they should understand that anxiety is a medical condition, and it typically can’t be turned on and off just by changing the surrounding scenery.
How do I help my child deal with bullying?
Teach your child what bullying looks like, and regularly remind them that no one deserves to be bullied. Storybooks or cartoons about bullying may be useful to help illustrate what bullying looks like for young children.
You can give your child examples of a plan of action you would take if bullying were occurring. For example, let your child know that you will first bring the bullying to a teacher’s attention without calling out a specific name, and that if that doesn’t work, you can shift to be more direct about the source of the threat.
Lead with your child being protected and cared for, not getting someone into trouble.
Having anxiety about school can lead to school avoidance, school refusal, and other anxious behaviors. Managing school anxiety is about identifying the root cause so that it can be addressed at home and at school. One of the best things you can do is to develop ways of communication that help your child feel safe and open to share their feelings with you.
School anxiety can be a sign that generalized anxiety disorder or another mental health condition is at play, so it’s worth working with a therapist or your school’s social worker to create your anxiety game plan.
Speak with your child’s pediatrician or doctor if you are concerned about their level of school anxiety.