CSP Team Note: As the school year winds down and many children are “moving on” to the next stage of schooling – kindergarten, middle, or high school (or maybe just moving around this summer and starting a new school) – anxiety is sure to hit. We recently spoke with Dr. Rhonda Patt, a pediatrician with Atrium Health Levine Children’s Charlotte Pediatric Clinic, to get some tips on easing your child’s anxiety as she/he transitions. This is the second post in our series on anxiety and stress as it relates to kids and teens. See the first post on teens and anxiety here. We appreciate her time and expertise on this important subject.
What are some common fears children have when starting a new phase in their educational life (ie kindergarten, middle, or high school)?
Anytime a person is faced with change, there will be some fear of the unknown or unfamiliar situation that lies ahead. Whether this is a transition to kindergarten, middle school, high school, or a change of schools due to a move or life transition. At the root of the fears may be concerns about making new friends, losing old friends, and increasing academic coursework.
What are some ways these fears might play out that might not be so obvious to parents?
Some children may describe their emotions outright; however, most children will not know why they are feeling uneasy. When a child is feeling anxious, he or she may have difficulty falling asleep or seem short-tempered or irritable. Younger children may regress or become “clingy” while older children and teens may seem quiet and withdrawn. If the transition is because of a parent’s job relocation or a divorce, it would not be uncommon for a child to place blame and show resentment toward one or both parents.
What are some physical signs that the child is anxious about school?
Headaches, nausea, and stomach aches are among the most common physical signs of school anxiety. Sometimes these symptoms can lead to frequent absences or school avoidance.
How can a parent be direct but compassionate when helping a child with anxiety?
As a parent, it is important to listen to your child and ask questions that allow your child to open up. Spend more time listening than talking, and keep the conversation positive. Rather than saying things such as, “Are you nervous about the first day of school?”, consider rephrasing this to “Are you looking forward to the first day of school?” The second question allows the conversation to open in a positive way.
If a child is having stomach aches or headaches and avoiding school, a great way to open the conversation is to just start with general questions such as, “How is school?” And “who do you sit with at lunch?” When I see kids in the office as patients who are showing signs of anxiety and school avoidance, I often ask, “Is there anyone who has done anything to annoy you or embarrass you or may you feel sad at school?” It is surprising how often children open up about a bullying situation when it is phrased this way.
What are some talking points for parents of younger children (kindergarten-fifth grade)? What about older children (sixth grade and up)?
For younger children, the most common situations are:
– Separation anxiety or sadness and fear associated with being away from a parent
– Fear associated with certain school rules such as being afraid to ask to go to the bathroom
– Bullying or difficult peer relations
Discussing each of these would depend on the specific scenario; however, once the root of the fear is found, the solution involves providing the child with the knowledge and skills necessary to advocate for himself or herself.
For older children, the most common reasons for school avoidance would include:
– Bullying – social or physical
– Academic problems
– Social insecurity
In this age group, the difficult part is that parents really do have to teach a child to self navigate in most of these instances.
Is it appropriate to ask the school for help? If so, when?
If a child is avoiding school, it is always appropriate to ask the school for help. School counselors are such a great resource. Although this is likely a parent’s first time dealing with the issue, the school counselor confronts this problem on a weekly or daily basis. The school counselor has insight into the school’s process and the personalities of everyone involved. If there is bullying, then it is also imperative to notify the school to help prevent future bullying.
What are some things parents could do this summer to make the fall transition easier?
There are several things parents can do to help children transition in the fall.
– Visit the school for Open House or Beginners’ Day or Orientation.
– Speak with other parents who have children already at the school for pointers and share the information you obtain with your child.
– Schedule time for your child to play or hang out with friends from school over the summer.
– Stay calm and do not let your child know if you are also nervous about the first day.