Worried About Your Child's School-Related Anxieties? Here's How to Help

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Take your child's concerns seriously. Credit: Getty Images

Most parents anticipate a certain level of back-to-school jitters for our kids, and even ourselves, but some children's anxieties need to be taken more seriously than others. So, how does a parent tell the difference, and what can be done to help?

For starters, parents need to realize that while much of a child's angst surfaces in August or September, there are stressors for students throughout the academic year, as anxiety is both seasonal and age dependent, pediatric psychiatrists say. By knowing what to expect, parents can help their children deal with worries they might not understand themselves.

"In child psychology, we see patterns throughout the year, and they're often related to school," Dr. Jodi Gold, director of the Outpatient Department for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, tells ParentDish. "Knowing your child, and knowing that he or she might be anxious is really important."

If parents can anticipate potential difficulties, they can often help manage their child's unease, Gold says.

Even if a child's worries seem trivial to you, take them seriously.

"Your assessment of their stress level is not their stress level," cautions Dr. Robert Murray, director of the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children's Hospital and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on School Health.

Younger students tend to naturally feel a bit insecure when starting a new school, be it preschool or kindergarten, and may cry or cling to their parents at drop off.

"Some teachers are particularly good at bringing kids in and making them feel the warmth of the environment, but not all of them," Murray tells ParentDish. "A lot of kids are not as socially adept as others."

But these kinds of frets aren't cause for serious concern, Gold says.

"It's pretty normal to have anxieties about starting school," she tells ParentDish. "Parents can help by understanding why."

Gold suggests preparing kids by talking to them about what they can expect in the classroom and helping them feel they have some control over their lives by allowing them to do things such as pick out their own clothes or choose what to eat for breakfast. Parents also should manage their own apprehensions, as kids are adept at sensing when their parents are nervous.

Finally, "don't give in to the temptation to pull the child out," Murray advises. A better approach is to go to school early with your child and explore the classroom together to help him or her feel more at home there.

Separation anxiety isn't limited to the youngsters, however. Kids as old as 12 can suffer from it. These fears often look different in older children, who may have trouble falling asleep or suffer from stomach aches. They might wind up in the school nurse's office complaining of vague symptoms and want to go home.

Older kids can be beset with concern that something bad will happen while they're away -- to their parents, to a sibling or to them.

"That is a normal part of separation anxiety, to worry that your loved ones aren't safe because you're not with them," Gold says.

She suggests parents reassure their children that family members are all secure, even when they're apart.

"Other kids who feel the same thing are latch key kids," Murray tells ParentDish. "Those kids are relatively hidden and they have a lot of anxieties, but there's also a certain vulnerability there."

Also particularly stressful to kids are "break points," such as starting middle school, Murray says, adding that moving from class to class, using lockers and having several teachers instead of just one can cause extreme anxiety for some kids.

But if August and September are the toughest months on younger kids, October and November are the rough times for many older students. That's when kids are taking tests and getting progress reports. They may not perform as well as they want, and their parents may begin to recognize that they're struggling.

Parents should support their kids and help them feel confident about their work, Gold says. They also should know when the grading period is, so they can recognize and address their children's angst.

One of the biggest challenges for parents is supporting their children academically while, at the same time, pushing them to work hard without putting too much pressure on them.

"So much of that is knowing your own child," Gold says. "Have realistic expectations of your child's academic abilities. It's important to be supportive, but it's also OK to have expectations."

Again, performance anxieties can sometimes be hard to recognize.

"Stomach aches are the most common thing we see," Gold says.

If your child is complaining about her stomach, rule out physical causes first. Once you've done that and have determined it's psychological, don't make a big deal out of it and help him or her understand it's OK to go to school with a stomach ache.

"It's critical not to enable kids to avoid school," Gold says. "The treatment for school avoidance is to go to school."

Come December, wintertime blues start to emerge. Adolescents and teens can suffer from seasonal affective disorder, just as adults can, and that sometimes crosses the threshold into major depressive disorders. Depression generally shows up in the early- to mid-teenage years, although it can manifest as early as the beginning of puberty.

Depression in adolescents can look different than it does in adults, because adolescents are often able to socialize and function reasonably well while suffering from it. In adolescence, depression can be indicated by a change in mood, sleeping habits or grades. Depressed kids might be irritable to the extent that it keeps them from spending time with their friends or makes them intolerable at home, Gold says.

Communication is key at every age. Having someone a kid can talk to, an independent adult to whom they can unburden themselves, has been shown to be a potent source of emotional protection, Murray says. And stay tuned in to your child's behavior. If you see changes that last for more than a couple of weeks, try to figure out what's behind them.

"Kids with anxiety can't always put their finger on what it is that's triggering it," Murray says. When it begins to interfere with their life, it's time to get help. Start with your pediatrician, he advises. "They've got a wealth of experience and they've seen this many, many times."

And don't hesitate to get professional help, Gold urges. Your child's school guidance counselor should be able to refer you to a therapist that your child can talk to.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.