Many children and teenagers struggle to get back into the school routine after a long break. They struggle with the change in bedtime routine, the long hours in the classroom and the workload can cause some stress and getting used to. Most children can handle the discomfort and get used to this change in a few days or up to a few weeks, but for some youth the emotional distress can be overwhelming. To relieve this distress, a child or teen may begin to avoid school, in other cases they attend school but with much resistance and stress for the whole family during the morning routines, other youth skips classes, and small children may cry or become clingy when they arrive at school. Anxiety and stress can cause unexplained headaches, stomachaches, and other ailments which may make it hard for children to get to school on time in the morning or make it feel necessary to leave early.
Why is this happening?
Avoiding or trying to avoid school happens because children and teens don't want to feel the distressing emotions. When we avoid situations that cause the distress, we have immediate short-term relief. Some common reasons for school refusal are:
What can you do?
First and foremost, if your child or teen is complaining of aches, pains, stomach issues, heart issues etc. have them seen by a medical professional. If there are no medical causes for the symptoms it might be time to talk to your child. Ask them questions about their day, their thoughts, their feelings about school. Questions like
Speak to the school if there are things they can do to help.
Finally, introduce coping skills like breathing exercises, mindfulness, movement/exercise, spending time in nature, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, challenging thoughts, problem solving to name a few.
If you are doing everything you can to manage this problem and are not finding a lot of progress, reaching out to a local mental health professional for help might be the next step. If you would like to consult with me, feel free to call (905) 464-1029, email email@example.com or use the contact form below.
What are normal school jitters and what might be more of a problem?
Being nervous about starting a new school year or doing certain school tasks is normal. You might notice that your child or teen might be talking more about school as it get's closer to the end of a long break, they might be asking you more questions and they might have trouble sleeping right before the event (i.e. first day of school, having to do a presentation or performing in a play). A little anxiety is good, it helps us to prepare for big events (i.e. tests or performances) or helps us to be more alert and stay safe (i.e. looking both ways before we cross the street).
Anxiety becomes a problem when it interferes with our lives. Some examples of how school anxiety can affect children and teens are:
These are just some of the signs and symptoms you might see, but everyone is different and might react differently to their anxiety. It's important to talk to your child or teen and find out what's going on for them. If their anxiety interferes with their enjoyment of school, social interactions or other activities, it might be time to reach out for help.
How can parents help?
As a parent, often your first instinct is to make your child or teen's big feelings go away. As a result we quickly move into problem solving/fixing the problem or trying convince them that they don't need to worry. So my first piece of advice is to resist the instinct to fix and spend more time on empathy and understanding. Children and teens will talk about the problem more if they feel they are understood; and once they feel understood they might be open to problem solving with you. Other things to keep in mind; are they getting enough sleep and eating well, do they have enough quiet time/calm time in their day, how much exercise or fresh air are they getting and do they have some valuable bonding time with family or important adults in their lives? Another consideration would be routine and structure; is there a consistent routine in your home and do your children know what to expect? Consistency and structure can support children to feel more safe and secure.
If you are doing everything you can to support your child or teen and they are still struggling with their anxiety around school reaching out to the school for advice and resources would be a great place to start, you can also reach out to a local mental health specialist.
I am currently taking on new clients both in-person and virtually. Feel free to contact me at (905) 464-1029, firstname.lastname@example.org or through the contact form below.