When our children and teens have anxiety related to school and start to avoid going each day it can be a difficult issue for the entire family to manage. Mornings can be full of tears, stomach aches, and begging not to go to school. This ultimately results in stress for the whole family and it can be challenging knowing the right way to respond as parents. Anxiety can cause strong physical symptoms in some children and teens such as headaches or stomach issues and they may genuinely not feel well and believe they can not be at school while they are feeling this way. Sometimes it feels like it would be easier to let them stay home but this can start a pattern of avoidance. Avoiding school typically leads to more anxiety for fear of missed school work or other students asking them why they were not at school. If they stay home from school because of their anxiety, it is likely that when the next day comes and they are supposed to return that the same symptoms of anxiety will return. This can result in daily struggles to get your child or teen to school. Here are some helpful tips on how to handle this as parents:
Encourage them to talk to you about what is specifically making them feel anxious about going to school. Is the work too difficult or the pace of their classes too fast? Are they avoiding a teacher or student? Do they have anxiety about taking tests or giving presentations? Having open communication and giving your child an opportunity to express their feelings about their anxiety should help them feel some relief.
Validate their feelings of anxiety and offer support and encouragement. It is important to recognize your child’s feelings and show them that you understand how they feel. They may not even be able to pinpoint why they get anxious about school and it is important to be supportive of them. An example could be saying something like, “I can tell that you are worried and that you do not feel well and that must be really frustrating and scary for you”. Offering them encouragement such as, “I am here to help”, “I know you are feeling nervous, but you can do this”, or “You are strong, and you can get through your day”. Put a nice little note in their lunchbox or book bag with an encouraging message like, “You can do this” or “I believe in you”. If they have a phone and they are allowed to have it during the school day, you could send them an encouraging text message as well.
Practice Mindfulness. There are different apps that your child or teen can download on a cell phone or device that help with mindful meditation and using calming techniques such as taking deep breaths and meditating when anxious. You and your child could do deep breathing exercises together in the morning to start their day to help relieve anxiety. Help them come up with a mindful mantra that they can say to themselves in the morning such as “I will be okay” or “I am strong”.
Exercise. Have your child or teen wake up 10-15 minutes earlier and engage in some type of physical activity. Maybe you have a treadmill or elliptical machine in your house that they can use. If not, they can do things such as jumping jacks, jumping rope, running in place, or even hopping around the room like a bunny. Making the activity fun and silly might make it more appealing to your child depending on their age. Physical activity can help reduce some of the anxiety they are feeling.
Make an incentive chart. For younger kids, each morning that they get up and go to school they could earn a sticker for that day. Once they reach a certain number of stickers, they could earn an incentive of their choice such as a small prize or a special outing with you like getting frozen yogurt or a trip to pick something out at the store. Offering some more age appropriate incentives for teens will help them as well.
Involve your child’s teacher and school counselor to let them know how your child is feeling so that they are aware of what is going on and so that they can offer help and support. Sometimes schools can make accommodations such as allowing them to start their day by checking in with the school counselor or taking a break during the day to talk to them. Some schools even have short term groups designed to help students with anxiety. It could be helpful for them to hear that other peers are dealing with these feelings as well.
Send them to school. Stay strong and do not allow them to stay home due to their anxiety as this may cause a pattern of stressful mornings. It can be very difficult to not give in as your child or teen may be crying, begging you to let them stay home, or genuinely not feeling well. Modeling calm behavior in the mornings can also be helpful and relieve some anxiety for them. Helping your child or teen face their fears and work through their anxiety is key and so that they see they can get through their school day.
Involve a therapist who can teach your child or teen coping skills for anxiety. Having your child participate in art therapy or play therapy can be especially effective in reducing their anxiety because it allows them to process and discuss their feelings in different ways through a variety of techniques. Therapists can also work with families and guide them through how to work together to come up with helpful strategies for dealing with school avoidance and anxiety.