Maybe you’ve been worried about this for a while, or maybe it has snuck up on you. But one thing is for sure, when a child is having anxiety and avoiding school, it is stressful for the entire family. You are not alone. There are many kids who struggle each year. There are several things to think about and many things you can do to help support your child if they are struggling.
Recognize the problem
Sometimes half the battle is realizing there is a problem. Sometimes our kids will flat-out say that they don’t want to go and are avoiding school. But often, the signs are much more subtle. Laying around and looking sad at bedtime on school nights. A stomach ache or headache that mysteriously appears every morning but isn’t associated with other signs of illness. Complaints of trouble breathing in a child who is clearly breathing fine.
And often they will really look like they don’t feel well. It’s easy to be duped. Because often it is not that they are faking the symptoms. Their symptoms are REAL, just not based on physical illness. So if you’re noticing a pattern, or noticing that the issues are happening more during the school week, it’s time to gather more information.
If this is a brand new issue, it’s time to ask some questions. Does your child know why they don’t like school? Are they having trouble with the work? Is someone picking on them at school? Are they constantly getting in trouble at school and losing privileges? These are important questions to ask. Knowing the answer doesn’t necessarily mean you can fix it. But you can help them come up with a plan to address particular concerns.
If your 3rd grader is struggling with reading, you can ask about tutoring resources or find some fun apps to help with sight words. If they’re getting in trouble a lot, a chat with the teacher can help figure out what the main problem is and the two of you can set up a behavior plan to help your child be successful.
Make sure you’re not contributing
This might be an unpopular suggestion. But I’ve found it is often true both in my personal as well as professional life. Sometimes, we as parents can unknowingly and completely unintentionally reinforce anxiety in our children. It is totally normal for us to be concerned when we sense our child is scared or hurting. But keep in mind if we allow our children to sense too much of that, it will give them further cause for concern.
Acknowledge but don’t reinforce
We want our kids to know that we are listening and that we hear them. Practice listening and acknowledging them without reacting to what they are saying. Try paraphrasing and repeating at times to make sure you are understanding what they are saying. Acknowledge their emotion. Ask questions. “How did that make you feel?” is a good one for helping them sort out their emotions. “What happened next?” helps move the story forward.
Encourage to go even if it’s scary
Sometimes we all have to do things we don’t want to. And school is their job. Set some clear expectations for the day. I’m going to drop you off at 8:30. I will see you after school at 3:15. Then we will have a snack and play outside for a bit. Having a firm plan in place for what to expect will give them something to hold onto as the day goes by.
Set clear parameters for staying home
If your child has been having frequent somatic complaints such as feeling sick, stomach ache, or headache, make sure that you have some clear parameters in place for staying home. For example, at our house, you must have a fever to stay home. Obviously exceptions are made for a stomach bug. But in general, if you do not have something objective, you go to school.
Allow venting time, but not ALL the time
Some anxious kids (and adults) get stuck in a venting mode. It can happen so much it consumes them to the point that they have trouble thinking about anything else. So let them vent, but set a time and stick to it. Let them know that at this dedicated “worry time” they can vent about anything they want and they will have your full 100% attention. But only for about 15-20 minutes.
Don’t solve their problems
Make sure your kids know that you trust them to solve their own problems. Ask them what they think would help. If they truly can’t seem to think of possible solutions, ask them if they’d like you to help come up with possibilities. Offer them several possible solutions. But allow them to decide which one works for them. Every success builds confidence.
Treat the Anxiety
If your child is anxious by nature, it is important to treat the anxiety. Not necessarily with medication. In fact, I rarely recommend medication for treat children, especially young ones. There are some great books for families dealing with anxiety in children. You and Your Anxious Child by Anne-Marie Albano and Leslie Pepper is great. It’s not always a “feel good” read, but it offers great insight for parents.
There is also a great cognitive behavioral workbook for kids by Dawn Huebner called What to Do When You Worry Too Much. It is a cognitive behavioral workbook geared for the elementary crowd and is a great source for working thru these issues at home with your child.
For other tips you can also check out my post on How to Help Your Kid Find Their Calm.
Ask for Help
If nothing you’ve tried has helped, don’t be afraid to meet with a child psychologist. There is absolutely no shame in asking for help. And your local child psychologist can be a great resource for helping you to develop techniques to best help your child in their situation. Ask your pediatrician for a list of local psychologists or check with your insurance company to see what resources are covered.