Behaviour & Emotions Health & Well-being

Beating school anxiety: Powerful things parents can do

School anxiety

Anxious kids are brave kids. They are creative, thoughtful and have the potential to light the world on fire – every one of them, often in unexpected ways. When anxiety takes hold though, it’s overwhelming. It can shut down their potential, their engagement with the world and their self-belief. Anxiety feels awful and life can become all about avoiding it. But the good news is that anxiety can be managed so that it stays in the background and out of the way. For anxious kids, the important adults in their lives are powerful allies in helping to make this happen. So what exactly can parents do to help?

Let nothing be off-limits

Let your child know that they can come to you with anything. They don’t have to know where to start or how to say it. Ensure your child knows that it’s enough to let you know that something is troubling them, even if they don’t have the words yet. The next part you can do together.

Let them know you can handle anything

Our kids catch whatever we send out, so let your words and demeanour be peaceful and calm – even if you have to fake it. Let your child know that there is nothing they can say that will make you sad, angry or disappointed in them. You might feel all of these things, but try not to project these feelings onto your child. If your child is opening up to you, it’s because they trust you and want to bring you into their world, which is a pretty special place to be. Maintain the connection and take the opportunity to show them that coming to you, however hard it is, will always be worth it. You can’t imagine how grateful you might be for this one day.

Set a time to chat – with a definite beginning and a definite end

Have a regular talk time with a definite beginning and a definite end, so your child knows they can stop the conversation if they want to with no pressure from you to keep it going. Let them have the control. Sometimes kids find it difficult to raise things because of where it might end up – too much digging, too many questions, too much intensity or even phone calls to the school.

Kids appreciate the opportunity to say what they need to say, even if it’s just downloading about a tough day, and then leaving the conversation at that. It’s a safe way to raise difficult things. It can feel uncomfortable until your next opportunity to chat – which will come – but what’s important is that your child has been able to bring you in to whatever is troubling them. If it needs to go further, you can deal with that later, but at least you've got the ‘heads up’ that something is going on.

Don’t judge, criticise or push them too hard to move through it

What your child is doing might not be working for them, but for the moment it’s the only thing they know how to do. Be the one who ‘gets it’. Don’t worry, you won’t reinforce their anxiety by doing this. What you’ll be doing is validating them. When a child feels validated, they can start to respond from a position of strength. Criticising them, judging them or demanding a different response will only intensify their feelings of self-doubt and put distance between you.

Be the one who ‘gets it’. Don’t worry, you won’t reinforce their anxiety by doing this.

They need to know you get it

Telling an anxious child there’s nothing to worry about will only make things tougher for everyone. The more you fight their feelings, the harder their feelings will fight back. Be with them where they are, rather than pushing them to be somewhere else. When they are anxious, they are being driven by a brain in fight or flight. It’s working towards survival and has no time for rational thought. The rational, thinking part of their brain ‘disconnects’ from the instinctive, reactive part. You can play a powerful part in turning this around.

Stay calm and gently tell them that you can see that they’re struggling and that you understand. Tell them that you know how difficult it is for them and that you wish it could be different. Then, give them in fantasy what they can’t have in reality. "I really wish that going to school was easier for you. I can see how much it upsets you. I really understand how awful it feels and I wish you didn’t have to go, but you do." Take away any reasons to fight you or withdraw from you. This will help settle the reactive part of their brain and bring the rational part back online. When this happens, they’ll find calm and will be able to make better decisions.

Help them find words for what they might be feeling

Anything you can do to flourish your child’s emotional vocabulary will help them to make sense of things. Name what you think they might be feeling in a way that makes it easy for them to correct you. "You seem angry/confused/sad right now." Then let them know that it’s okay for them to feel what they’re feeling, and that you understand. Let them know these emotions make sense to you.

You can also talk your child through what’s happening in their brain when they feel anxious. Use this script if you like.

When your brain feels really strongly that it has to protect you (and remember, your brain doesn’t care if the danger is real or not), the fight-or-flight part of your brain forces the thinking part of your brain to be quiet so that it can get on and deal with the danger. If your brain had a conversation, it would probably sound something like this:

The thinking part: "Oh, we have school today. Cool. Let’s do it."

The fight or flight part (the amygdala): "Yeah, no. That’s not going to happen. You’re going to be away from home and you don’t really know what’s happening today. It could be dangerous, so ‘Thinking Part’, you need to sit out while I check it out."

Thinking part:"Dude. It’s school. There’s not going to be anything dangerous. Maybe new or unfamiliar, but not dangerous. You need to calm down, okay? Chill."

Amygdala:"Whoa! You don’t get it. If there’s something bad – and I’m pretty sure there’s a chance of that – then we’re going to have to run for it or fight – but fighting can bring its own bag of trouble – so maybe run. Or maybe just stay away. Yep. Let’s stay away. I’m trying to save a life here and you’re kinda getting in my way."

Thinking part: "For a brain, you’re not being very sensible. Think about it. It’s school. It’s teachers and other kid-sized humans and playgrounds and lunch and things. Nothing at all to worry about."

Amygdala: "Gosh, you seriously don’t get it. This could be deadly. You’re getting in my way, man. I’m sending you offline for a bit while I check it out. Here, have this – some oxygen, some adrenalin, some hormones. It’s superhero fuel, but for you it will keep you quiet. Now, go to sleep. I’ve got this. I’m saving your life. You’re welcome."

By now, the amygdala has surged your body with fuel to make you strong, fast and powerful in case you have to fight or flee. Of course, when it comes to school there’s nothing to fight or flee but the thinking, good decision-making part of your brain is offline, remember.

Explain to your child that anxiety is actually a sign that they’re about to do something really brave.

Anxiety and courage exist together

It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that brave people do what they do because they are fearless, but anyone who is pushed to the edges of themselves will feel fear. Explain to your child that anxiety is actually a sign that they’re about to do something really brave – otherwise they wouldn’t be anxious about it. What pushes the limits is different for everyone.

There will be things that are tough for them that are easy for others, and things that are easy for them (find the things they’re good at) and tough for others. Everyone feels anxiety at some point, but for kids going through it, they can feel like they are the only ones. Model self-belief and normalise anxiety by sharing stories of times when you've been anxious and acted bravely.

Get the information you need when they’re calm

When things are calm and happy, have a chat about what you can do to make things better when their anxiety is at full throttle. Ask them what helps and what you (or others) do that doesn’t help. Listen and try not to take it personally.

Notice every little step

Kids who struggle with school anxiety are generally really well-behaved and want to do the right thing. Your approval means everything to them. When they do something that would be difficult in the face of anxiety, notice – even if it’s just finishing breakfast or putting their hair in a ponytail. Their anxiety feels big. Whenever they’re bigger, let them know that you’ve noticed.

Being tough or telling them to ‘get over it’ will be as useful as telling them to catch falling stars in a thimble.

Understand why being tough won’t help

It’s likely that you’ve tried the tough love thing, even if only in desperation. It’s also likely that it didn’t work. Anxiety is driven by a brain that thinks it’s under threat. It’s physiological. Their body is being surged with neurochemicals and when there’s no need to flee, the neurochemicals build up and it feels awful. That’s anxiety. It’s not bad behaviour and it’s not the result of soft parenting.

Kids with anxiety just want to be like other kids who have no trouble going to school. They don’t want to feel the way they do, so being tough or telling them to ‘get over it’ will be as useful as telling them to catch falling stars in a thimble. When the brain is in survival mode, as it is during anxiety, it’s in lockdown and completely focused on staying alive. There’s no human instinct that’s stronger. The brain won’t sideline its need to stay safe just because someone is getting cranky. All it will do is make your child feel more alone and less understood. It can be really easy to feel judged by people who suggest that toughening up is all that’s needed. Ugh. Anyone who says that has never had to deal with a child in distress from anxiety. Ignore them and move on. They have no idea what they’re talking about. Trust that you’re doing a great job, because you will be.

And finally...

It’s more than likely that the anxiety didn’t happen overnight, so change won’t happen that way either. Any progress is great progress. Anxiety is difficult to deal with, but it is manageable. There will be steps forward and steps back, but over time the forward steps will become more and the backward ones will become less. Don’t underestimate the difference you’re making by being there, believing in them, and seeing them for the amazing humans they are, not just despite their anxiety but also because of it.

Karen Young

Karen Young

As a psychologist Karen has worked in private practice and educational and organisational settings. She has an Honours degree in Psychology and a Masters in Gestalt Therapy. Karen is the founder of Hey Sigmund, the website dedicated to bringing the science of psychology to the art of being human. She has two children and two stepchildren and lives in Australia.

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