School Anxiety

School Anxiety, p.3

Q: How should parents handle it when their child says he's sick and wants to stay home?
A: Always have recurrent physical symptoms checked out by a pediatrician to rule out medical problems. But assuming kids are physically healthy, parents need to be firm about not allowing them to miss school. Just as it's our job to work and raise our family, it's part of a child's job to go to school.

So tell your child that it's normal to feel a little scared in new situations. But nervousness doesn't mean he should stay home or that he won't enjoy himself. Remind him of new situations he's dealt with, such as sleeping at Grandma's house for the first time without you. Stress that although it was difficult at first, later he was glad he did it.

Finally, rule out problems at school or at home. Ask your child and his teacher if something upsetting happened, such as bullying or teasing -- both are very common causes of school anxiety. Or has there been a change at home -- a move, a divorce, or even the death of a family pet -- that is distressing him? He may need to talk through his concerns with you.

Q: What about preschoolers? If your child cries every day, should you make her stick it out?
A: It's normal for preschoolers to have some separation anxiety at first, but it should subside after a few weeks if you've tried all the strategies we've discussed. If it doesn't, ask the teacher whether your child is showing age-appropriate behavior. It may be that your 3-year-old's language isn't developed enough yet. Or she might have a speech or language disorder that prevents her from communicating well and following rules. In such cases, it may help your child to remove her from school and wait until next year.

Q: Do parents ever trigger school anxiety?
A: Sometimes I see parents who rely too much on their kids emotionally. One mother of a third-grade boy I was treating, for instance, had been mistreated as a child, and so, when she needed comforting she leaned on her son. He didn't want to separate from his mom because he felt she needed him and he worried about her.

Often, if parents have a child who is shy or was emotionally needy as a baby, they see him as vulnerable and they become overprotective. I had one patient whose parents picked her up from preschool whenever she showed any distress. When the parents had adopted her as an infant from an abusive home, she'd had lots of emotional struggles and needed them to dote on her. They were still treating her that way although she was now a preschooler who needed to learn independence.

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