There are many types of anxiety disorders that a child or teen may experience. However, school anxiety can be especially challenging to manage. Anxieties may stem from fears about academic performance, making friends, or bullying. Thankfully, there are many ways a parent can both provide support to and find treatment for their child through this difficult time.
What Is School Anxiety?
While not an official diagnosis, school anxiety is a form of an anxiety disorder characterized by fears related to academic performance, interacting with peers at school, and other school-related stressors. They often become overwhelmed by the thought of academics in general, whether it be in a school setting or not. A child may be especially afraid of interacting and engaging with other students their age or fitting in with certain groups.
Oftentimes, a child who experiences school anxiety will have difficulties forming and maintaining relationships as they struggle to open up at school. Because a child spends so much time in a classroom, not feeling comfortable or anxious in this environment can result in them missing out on opportunities to interact with others their age.1
School anxiety in children may be related to:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): Many children diagnosed with GAD might also experience school related anxiety. This can be triggered by worries about anything related to being at school, completing assignments, meeting friends, etc.
- Specific phobias: In extreme cases, a child may have a specific phobia related to something related to school that induces school anxiety.
- Separation anxiety disorder: Separation anxiety disorder in children occurs when a child experiences distress when being away from parents or caregivers for extended periods of time. This can greatly affect a child’s anxiety about school as they know they will not have immediate access to loved ones.
- Social anxiety order: When a child experiences social anxiety, they struggle to engage with peers and become overwhelmed when in social settings. A child may be especially stressed by the thought of being stuck in these environments when at school.
Symptoms of School Anxiety
School anxiety encapsulates every aspect of school, from taking tests to making friends. Children will experience many typical symptoms of anxiety that relate specifically to academic tasks or settings. This may include physical reactions such as sweating, rapid heart beat, or a decrease in appetite. A child with school anxiety may also experience test anxiety. Parents should keep an eye out for physical or behavioral changes in their child if they suspect their child has school anxiety.
Common physical symptoms of school anxiety include:
- Panic attacks
- Loss of appetite
Common behavioral symptoms of school anxiety include:
- Avoidance behaviors
- Frequent temper tantrums
- Crying spells
- Missing school
- Pretending to be sick
Common emotional symptoms of school anxiety include:
Causes of School Anxiety
When addressing school anxiety, it’s helpful to know what may be triggering or causing it. A child may have another associated anxiety disorder that contributes to their symptoms, or possibly a particular phobia related to people or school-related tasks. Genetics can also play a role in the development of school anxiety, too. There are many factors that may result in this condition.2
Possible causes of school anxiety include:
- Genetic factors: A child with a family history of anxiety disorders may be at a higher risk of developing a school-related anxiety disorder.
- Bullying: If a child is being bullied by peers, they may experience fear or anxiety related to being in a school environment. Cyberbullying can also contribute to a child’s school anxiety.
- Academic related issues: The grades and academic performance of a child may impact school anxiety when they are fearful of showing up to school because they are low performing.
- Problem making friends: When a child has difficulty making friends, they may feel like an outcast at school. This can make them feel anxious about attending classes or being in a school environment.
6 Tips for Helping a Child With School Anxiety
When a child is experiencing school anxiety, it’s important for parents to teach and provide them with healthy coping mechanisms. There are several ways you can teach your child how to handle their symptoms, when they are at home or at school.
Here are six tips for helping a child with school anxiety:
1. Create a Safe Place
Providing your child a safe space to talk is essential. They should know that when they share their feelings with you, they can do so in a space free of judgment or disappointment. When you create this environment, your child will feel more comfortable coming to you during times of distress. This way, you can help them tackle their issues in healthy ways. This could also come in the form of a physical location, such as a room in the house where topics related to school are discussed in private and away from other stressors.
2. Be Empathetic
A child who doesn’t feel comfortable sharing their feelings with others may be afraid of being judged for these emotions. Always provide your child with empathy and support. Relate to and validate their experiences. Openly express that you are available whenever they need to talk and encourage them to come to you with their struggles.
3. Seek Support
It is important for parents or caregivers to seek support when their child is experiencing school anxiety. This may include enlisting the help of their child’s teachers in order to provide their child with extra support when parents are not physically present to do so. Caregivers can also simply reach out to school staff to gain insight into what may be causing their child’s stress. Try setting up a meeting with your child’s guidance counselor or one of their teachers to determine a good course of action.
4. Encourage Self-Care
There are many benefits of self-care when it comes to navigating school anxiety. Parents and caregivers should remind their children to take a break and check in with themselves frequently. Encourage your child to make an effort to engage in activities that bring them joy and help relieve stress. Model healthy self-care behaviors for them so they know the importance of prioritizing both their mental and physical well-being.
5. Teach Mindfulness
Mindfulness for kids teaches children how to check in with their emotions when they are feeling overwhelmed. It helps a child remain grounded in the present moment, rather than focused on other stressors. For those who experience school anxiety, they often feel anxious by factors outside of their control. Encouraging your child to focus on what they can control–how they react to their emotions–will help them feel less distressed about school-related issues.
6. Encourage Extracurricular Activities
Encouraging a child to engage in activities outside of school, whether supported by the school or other organizations, is an important piece of their development. Extracurricular activities allow a child to build and gain confidence so they feel better equipped to overcome their fears. For children with school anxiety, a new sense of confidence may help them feel more comfortable about their school performance and their standing amongst peers.
Treatment for School Anxiety
Being able to give a child the support and space at home is crucial in setting the tone of a healthy environment. While this is the first step, it’s also important to be able to get professional help and treatment that will help a child. A multifaceted approach will typically be recommended to a child so that there are a variety of interventions used to help all aspects of school anxiety that a child is experiencing.3
Generally, frontline treatment for school anxiety includes some form of therapy. There are many benefits of therapy as it offers children a safe place to share their fears and feelings, as well as receive insight into how to tackle these emotions. Therapy aims to identify what causes a child’s anxiety and find ways to address these triggers. It is important to find the right therapist for your child, so they feel comfortable opening up and learning.
Therapy options for school anxiety include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT for kids focuses on teaching children how to change their negative thoughts to, in turn, change their behaviors.
- Family therapy: When the entire family engages in family therapy, each member learns how to be supportive for a child and teach the child effective tools for stress management together.
- Play therapy: Play therapy can be especially beneficial for children experiencing school anxiety. It places children in a calm setting in which they can feel entirely free to express themselves without the pressures that typically accompany an academic-driven environment.
- Group therapy: Having a child attend group therapy will put them in contact with other peers their age who are experiencing similar symptoms. This can help a child learn how to better manage their school anxiety while also making new friends.
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): When engaging in DBT, a child is taught how to use mindfulness skills during periods of stress and overwhelm. This can help them manage their school anxiety symptoms as they occur.
- Exposure response prevention therapy (ERP): While this may be a more challenging form of treatment, being exposed to one’s triggers can help them overcome their fears. Through ERP, a child can learn how to react to and handle their triggers in healthy ways.
There are a variety of medications for anxiety that may be helpful in alleviating symptoms of school anxiety. Parents and caregivers should be sure to discuss both the benefits and drawbacks of prescription medications with their child’s pediatrician. Their doctor may recommend SSRIs* or SNRIs* depending on the child’s symptoms and treatment plan.
*These medication have a black box warning, the most serious kind of warning from the FDA for a risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in certain people. You should talk with your doctor about these risks before starting any of these medications.
Navigating school anxiety with your child can be difficult. It is important to talk with your child and provide a safe space so that they can let you know what it is you are feeling. Providing support does not have to be done alone. Finding the appropriate treatment plan and support is a helpful step in having your child feel their best.