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How to Help a Child with Anxiety About School

Fiona Gray

Fiona Gray

Friday, 8th March 2019

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Anxiety in school age children is reported to be on the rise. It is essential that we continue to develop language around how to engage anxiety in order for us to support them to be mentally healthy.

Our school years are some of our most developmentally rich years academically, physically, and socially. Think back on your own school years, I wonder what memories you can recall. Perhaps there was a teacher that particularly impacted you, or a kid who said mean words that you can still remember to this day, or maybe you can recall the anxiety of walking into the dinning room looking for someone to sit with.

It is typical for children to have some experience of fear or worry around school. Fear and worry can alert us to the fact that we care deeply about something, or have desires we want to have met. Worry can be a helpful emotion for us to engage and experience; however, it can become deeper rooted and turn into anxiety, impacting your child’s day to day behaviours.

You might see this manifest in refusal or big meltdowns before school. Or it might emerge physically, through tummy aches or difficulty sleeping. Some children will display their anxiety through the use of their words and language; perhaps they seem quieter, or to be having more worried thoughts.

If we consider emotional first aid as being similar to physical first aid, we must first understand what the wound is before we can effectively treat it.

Anxiety is a fear based response to a perceived danger and can be a helpful and important emotion. It alerts our bodies and creates a fight or flight response to something that feels (physically or emotionally) unsafe. Historically this might have been a physically dangerous situation. On a typical day we are (hopefully) unlikely to encounter physical danger, but our body responds in a similar way with perceived emotional danger.

When we experience excessive anxiety over a long period of time, it can begin to infiltrate many areas of our lives, making the world feel like an uncertain and unsafe place. Anxiety shifts the way our brains respond and perceive the world. Fortunately, it is possible to rewire the way our brain engages with the world.

Understanding the brain

An example I often use with young people is to think about being a cavewoman/man, and then to imagine you see a bear at the entrance to your cave. Anxiety would be a helpful and appropriate response.

When we see the bear, our brains send a signal up our brain stem for us to fight/flight/freeze. It then activates and floods our limbic system, allowing it to feel fear and anxiety. As the limbic system (the centre that controls emotions, memory, and arousal) becomes flooded with the emotion of fear or anxiety, it “flips our lid.”

Flipping our lid refers to our prefrontal cortex going offline. You may have had the experience of trying to rationalise with your kid in the grocery store mid meltdown - it rarely works, because their prefrontal cortex has gone offline. Our prefrontal cortex is the front part of our brain involved in a number of functions, including critical thinking, decision making, and planning ahead.

When faced with the bear, we do not need to be able to think critically about the colour of its hair or to empathise with the bear. So in this context anxiety can be helpful: we have used our strong emotional reaction to move into action.

Let’s apply this example to your child; they might be experiencing anxiety about going to school and their lid has “flipped.” This might look like a number of things dependent on your child: perhaps they are having a visible meltdown, or perhaps you can see they are struggling internally. At this point the first thing you need to do is soothe their limbic system.

How to soothe a limbic system:

  1. First try breathing! Taking a big breathe in for 3 counts, holding for 1 or 2 (age dependent), and then deeply breathing out for 4. Do this 3 times if possible. Children learn by watching more than they do by teaching, so it’s time for us all to practice what we preach! Model this behaviour if you become stressed. Practice doing it together and invite your child to do deep breathing with you. For older teens you might experience resistance to breathing, but if you manage your own breath and slow your breathing down when they become anxious it will likely impact their breathing subconsciously and help their bodies to breathe slower.

  2. Mindfulness! This can be interactive. As an example, a quick mindfulness exercise is to choose a colour and look for 5 objects of that colour in the room. Once the limbic system has become soothed, our prefrontal cortex will begin to turn back online.

  3. Practice validating what they’ve shared: “I hear you saying that you are feeling anxious about going to school today.” With validation you are trying to shift your language to show you are on their team and fighting the anxiety away together. Sometimes when we try to “fix” our children, it can feel invalidating to their experience and end up with a head-to-head confrontation.

  4. Name the emotion together. When we identify the emotion being experienced with someone else it validates our experience and makes us feel less alone. Show them your curiosity about what that emotion feels like to them; this will help you to more effectively understand what the emotional wound needs. Statements such as, “I wonder what colour your anxiety is?” or “I’m curious where you feel it in your body?” can be helpful ways of further understanding your child’s experience.

  5. Observe what you have seen with your child: “it seemed like your body was feeling anxious, I noticed your breathing seemed tight/your shoulders appeared tense.” At this point we can begin to move towards engaging dialogue around the anxiety and fear that has been experienced.

  6. Create a mantra to say together when the anxiety arises. I have a student who has a note in their pencil case with an encouraging quote for when they are feeling anxious.

  7. Teach them about their brain and anxiety so they have a deeper understanding of what is occuring to them.

  8. Forward plan for the anxiety. Although your child might not want to go to school, you can give them choices around the journey there or the morning routine, such as the playlist to listen to. This might help them find a sense of voice or control in the midst of anxiety.

  9. Reward brave behaviour! We can unintentionally reinforce anxious behaviours, so instead observe and notice when they do brave and bold things that might cause anxiety or engage risk (in an appropriate way!) .

Longer term engagement around anxiety

When we see kids experience anxiety it can be tempting to rescue them or to try and fix the anxiety. However, by doing this we may reinforce the notion that there is something to be afraid of, or that they are unable to handle the situation. Instead, work towards creating a middle ground.

Consider approaching fear like a ladder, increasing their tools and confidence to face what they are afraid of, or what seems scary to them. This develops their resilience.

The hard part of anxiety is that it tells us to avoid situations because we perceive them as emotionally (or sometimes physically) dangerous. But avoidance ends up reinforcing the very fear and anxiety itself by feeding the belief that we cannot handle these situations.

Anxiety can work like a fire alarm in your kitchen that goes off everytime you start cooking: it has become an ineffective guide as to what is dangerous, and you causes you to change your behaviour and stop cooking.

As parents we want to protect our children and see them happy. Anxiety is powerful and undoing its work is not easy. So as parents, be kind to yourselves - this takes time! Developing resilient children does not involve protecting them from the harshness of the world, but equipping them to engage and face the complexity of life with courage and awareness.

If your child is experiencing anxiety, find support not only for your child, but also for yourself. Raising a child is hard, so bring your village of people in to support you - we can do hard things together!

You can book a session with Fiona by clicking on her bio below.

Fiona Gray

Fiona Gray

Fiona Gray (MBACP) is a psychodynamic psychotherapist who works with children and teens at a school in SE London, as well as with individuals in her private practice in Central London.