It’s become a morning ritual, one you’d rather not keep. You wake your child for school, and immediately he or she begins complaining of feeling sick. As the time to leave gets closer, your child’s symptoms become more intense … finally, you agree that he or she should stay home today. Within hours, your child is back to his or her normal, playful self, and you’re wondering if you’ve been duped.
A handy excuse for missing school? Perhaps … but perhaps not.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, school anxiety – sometimes known as school refusal, school avoidance, or school phobia – affects as many as five percent of children. The symptoms can include headache, stomachache, vomiting or diarrhea. More importantly, the symptoms – like the fear itself – are quite real. Unfortunately, if such students are forced to attend school without addressing the root problem, anxiety and poor attendance tend to increase, and they sometimes lead to more serious mental and emotional problems.
School anxiety can have its roots in many issues. Bullying at school, social awkwardness, worry over school performance, worry over leaving parents, and many other things can lead to children dreading school, which over time manifests as physical symptoms. Excessive tardiness, especially on Mondays or after school holidays; irrational excuses about why he or she shouldn’t attend school; or unsubstantiated complaints about teachers or peers can be clues to a developing school anxiety. One of the key characteristics of school anxiety is that, once the possibility of school has been removed for the day, the anxiety disappears almost completely (until the next school morning).
So, what do you do if your child is showing signs of school anxiety, or school refusal? The most important thing is to talk to your child and try to help them identify what it is that causes them undue stress. Is there a particular person with whom your child is having difficulty? Is there a class or subject in which they are worried about their performance? Are they worried that, by leaving their home or parents, something bad will happen? Remember that a phobia, by definition, is an irrational fear … what scares your child may seem minor or even laughable to you, but it is very real and frightening to them. Be sure to also ask them what they enjoy about school, to remind them of the positive aspects.
Once the problem has been identified, appropriate steps can be taken: relaxation exercises, speaking with a therapist, or just making sure the child feels there is support from parents, teachers and guidance staff at school. For students with persistent school anxiety, or generalized anxiety, homeschooling can be an option (unless the root cause is a separation anxiety, or if the child is reflecting back the anxieties of an over-stressed parent). Or, students can thrive at schools with small class sizes and home-like environments, meaning students get more individualized attention in a less institutional setting.
Stephanie Crowley, PR consultant for the Russell Bede School, is a freelance writer, marketing consultant and actress. Originally from Massachusetts, Crowley now resides in Redwood City. She has a husband, Mark; a stepson, Anthony; and a tortoiseshell tabby cat named Gingersnap.