Help Your Child Overcome School Stress

VIDEO: UH Case Medical Centers Aaron Ellington on doing your best under stress.
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RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The school bus is coming. Is your first-grader hiding under his bed? At least one out of 50 school-age children experience significant anxiety about going to school in the beginning of the year, according to recent surveys. Some kids react by refusing to get dressed, complaining of bellyache, crying, or even kicking and screaming.

Psychologists often group these behaviors under umbrella terms like "school phobia" or "school avoidance." But it's a mistake to label and treat all school stress the same. Knowing the specific type of distress affecting a child can help parents and teachers choose the most effective way to respond.

I believe there are five main categories that at the root of most cases of school stress:

1. Identity crisis—the child feels so vulnerable by himself that he fears major physical or psychological damage without his parent around to protect him.

2. Comfort withdrawal—the child clings to his home possessions, such as toys, food, specific pieces of furniture, because of the sense of comfort they provide.

3. Emotional timidity—the child is afraid of new experiences in the school such as the fire alarm, the school bus, or the physical aspects of the school building.

4. Social anxiety—the child is uncomfortable with the large number of people he is expected to interact with.

5. Performance anxiety—the child fears falling short of her own harsh standards and expectations.

Each type of child anxiety has unique aspects that, when understood, can be used to plan remedies to try. Look for these in your child and work with his or her teachers to formulate a plan:

Is SpongeBob Stressing Your Child

Identity Crisis

If this is your son or daughter's issue you probably have seen other instances where he or she has seriously protested your absence, such as when you leave for work. Stranger anxiety is normal in infants around 9 months old, but your child may have experienced it as early as 6 months and it might have been especially intense.

Strengthening the core of one's identity is a task that we all should work toward, but it's especially important in young children. For now, your job is to provide structured reassurance for your child by working with his teacher or school counselor. You want adults at school to become extensions of you so that your child can find reassurance in their presence. Spend time together with them, preferably before classes begin; have the child learn about these parent substitutes (find out their favorite colors, pet names, and such) and take photos of them to post on the home refrigerator.

Quick tip: Give your child a photo or some object he associates with you to put in his pocket as a way of maintaining a psychological bond with you. Over time, reduce the length of your morning good-bye sessions. This gradual separation approach is different than the more common total withdrawal approach where a parent quickly hands off the child to the school personnel. This is your decision to make, but the main issue here is the child's sense of vulnerability without your presence and any course of action you take should consider this.

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