School anxiety isn’t at all uncommon, but how can parents help?

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Most parents can probably remember dealing with some level of school anxiety in their own childhoods. Maybe it was over a test you weren’t prepared to take. Or it could have been a disagreement with friends that left you feeling anxious about facing them in the halls.

Whatever the case may be, you may have had knots in your stomach at the thought of going to school.

Kids today experience the exact same thing, but at a level that is potentially higher than ever before.

After all, kids today have to deal with the impacts of social media seeping into their real-life social interactions. They’re facing ever-increasing academic expectations. They’re up against a rise in bullying.

And in a world that’s slowly reopening, yet still feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, many may also be experiencing a loss of social skills and anxiety around a return to school after over a year of online learning.

It’s no wonder that the estimated prevalence of anxiety among children ages 6 to 17 has increased over time — from about 5.5% in 2003 to 7.1% in 2016.

Plus, evidence suggests that children and young adults experienced an increase in anxiety symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 7.1% of kids between the ages of 3 and 17 have been diagnosed with anxiety. For 2% to 5% of kids, that translates into anxiety-based school refusal — one potential result of unaddressed school anxiety.

In other words: School anxiety isn’t at all uncommon. But how can parents of kids with school anxiety help?

There are quite a few types of anxiety that children may experience, many of which may translate into school anxiety. These include:

  • Separation anxiety: a fear of being separated from home or one’s closest attachment figures, both of which are often required when attending school
  • Social anxiety: anxiety that accompanies social interactions and settings, to include those that may take place at school
  • Generalized anxiety: generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can impact and encompass many facets of life, including school
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): OCD is characterized by a need for extreme order, rituals, and perfectionism, all of which can be more difficult to maintain in school and may contribute to social anxiety for a student who is afraid of being made fun of as a result of their OCD habits
  • Specific phobias: a specific phobia can relate to just about anything, from snakes and heights, to certain foods and school

School anxiety can look different depending on the student’s age group.

For preschoolers, it may have more to do with separation anxiety and a fear of being away from mom, dad, or other caregivers. This may result in tantrums at school drop-off and trouble relaxing throughout the day.

By elementary school, school anxiety could be related to any of the above types of anxiety.

A student this age may not yet have developed age-appropriate social skills and may have anxiety about school as a result, or they may spend excessive time worrying about academic expectations — to the extent of not wanting to go.

Middle schoolers are beginning to develop a social hierarchy that can result in an increase in bullying and various friendship turmoil, all of which can contribute to school anxiety.

And by high school, students may be juggling problems in their home lives and within their friendships and relationships, alongside mounting responsibilities like holding down a job and trying to achieve good grades for college.

At all these ages, school anxiety may result in school avoidance and refusal.

According to the children’s mental health advocacy group Child Mind Institute, school anxiety can manifest in a lot of ways. Parents and teachers may notice their students are:

  • struggling with paying attention
  • having a hard time sitting still
  • exhibiting a heightened level of clinginess
  • becoming ill (or feeling ill) more frequently, which may sometimes be interpreted by others as “faking” feeling ill
  • throwing tantrums or displaying other behavioral problems
  • avoiding eye contact in class
  • freezing or panicking when asked to answer a question in class
  • struggling with the school work (anxiety can often accompany learning disorders)
  • failing to turn in homework
  • keeping to themselves at school rather than socializing with other kids

For kids whose school anxiety has persisted or increased in severity, physical symptoms may appear, such as:

  • nausea
  • loss of appetite
  • trouble sleeping
  • headaches

School anxiety can also contribute to signs of depression and isolation in the student who is struggling.

Some kids are just more prone to anxiety than others. There is a relatively high rate of heritability (30% to 67%) in anxiety disorders, for instance, so a child who has a family history of anxiety may be genetically predisposed.

Plus, a child who experiences other forms of anxiety is more likely to also develop school anxiety.

But sometimes, various circumstances at school can increase the risk of school anxiety. Some circumstances include:

  • Bullying. A child who is being bullied may be anxious about returning to the place where their harassment has been taking place.
  • Interpersonal struggles. Navigating evolving friendships and relationships is just part of middle school and high school, especially. But that doesn’t make those shifts, changes, fights, and breakups any easier to handle. For some kids, friendship fallouts and relationship drama can make the thought of returning to school anxiety-inducing.
  • Academic hardships. For kids with learning disorders (particularly undiagnosed learning disorders), school can be a place of high anxiety as they struggle to succeed. Plus, they don’t necessarily understand why doing so is so hard.
  • Other mental or neurological health conditions. Conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, or autism spectrum disorder can make fitting in and succeeding at school that much harder — paving the way for school anxiety.

One of the most important things parents of kids with school anxiety can do is recognize the signs. If you notice your child may be struggling, talk with them about it. It may be that they will open up to you and that together, you can find a solution.

Perhaps that means developing routines to help your child better prepare for school every morning. You could look over their homework together, enjoy breakfast as a family at the table, or come up with a mantra you can chant together on the drive to school.

In the weeks leading up to school, you could help your child face their school anxiety by discussing all possible scenarios they may be anxious about and helping them to consider how best to handle those situations before they face them.

And after school, you may find it’s helpful to your child for you to be available to talk if they need it. Why not start a tradition of having an after-school snack at the table together while you discuss their day and assess together how everything went?

If you can’t help your child to work through their school anxiety on your own, don’t hesitate to reach out for help.

Your child’s school administration may have resources available, and a qualified mental health professional can also help your child to identify the root cause of their anxiety and to begin to work through it, developing tools that can help along the way.

Teachers and educators are often uniquely situated to recognize signs of school anxiety in a child before anyone else does. That puts you in a position to reach out to the child’s parents early and discuss possible strategies for helping the child to cope with their anxiety together.

You can also help by simply being a safe place for the child to go to on days when they’re especially struggling. Perhaps you could develop a code word the child could say to let you know they’re feeling anxious.

Teachers of young children may want to consider having a “chill-out” area in their room for kids to go to when they are struggling. This could be as simple as a corner of the room that is equipped with a beanbag chair and books for the child to take a moment alone.

For older kids and teenagers, teachers can help by being a trusted adult they can talk with. When you notice signs of anxiety, you can let them know you’re available if they’re struggling.

Being empathetic and kind can help form a connection. Praising them when you’re able and letting them know you care and are there if they need you would also be helpful.

That alone could make all the difference in the world.

Anxiety in general, and school anxiety in particular, is fairly common for kids. This may prove even more true in the years to come, as kids adjust to a regular routine and schedule after the pandemic uprooted all that was previously considered standard.

All that to say: You and your child are definitely not alone if this is something they’re dealing with.

Therapists, pediatricians, school guidance counselors, and administrators can all be great resources if you’re worried about your child. They don’t have to go through it alone, and you certainly don’t have to find ways to help them all on your own.

There is support available for you. You can set an example for your child of what that looks like (and how they can do the same) as you do.