Children can experience anxiety just like adults – especially when it comes to big life changes like going to school. School anxiety happens when your child becomes anxious about starting to school or returning after a long break.
Back to school nerves could be related to worries about a test, fitting in socially or having trouble using the toilet.
On this page we will talk about:
Different types of childhood anxiety
Common symptoms of anxiety
How you can help as a parent
Types of school anxiety
School anxiety is a catch all term that refers to any worries a child feels or experiences about attending school.
Childhood anxiety is growing - with emotional disorders (including anxiety) in five to 15-year-olds rising from 3.9% in 2004 to 5.8% in 2017. We’ll explore the various types of anxiety and how they can relate to your child’s experiences of school – whether you’re prepping your toddler for pre-school or have an older child already at big school.
With general anxiety, your little ones (or big one) might feel occasionally nervous but don’t have an anxiety disorder – think about how might feel worried before starting a new job.
For children, this could be back to school nerves or finding and using the bathroom. This is all normal. But you should keep an eye on it, in case it develops.
Separation anxiety is the distress a baby or toddler feels when apart from their parent or caregiver. Doctors consider it normal and suggest it should stop by the age of three.
Pre-school or reception in school are the first times many children are away from their parents, so separation anxiety is common among slightly older children. Usually, this shows itself as crying at the school gates.
Social anxiety is the overwhelming fear of social situations. It’s more common in older children and teenagers.
However, younger children can also be affected .
Your child appearing frightened of school and not wanting to play with other kids could be a sign of social anxiety.
Generalised anxiety disorder
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is a long-term, non-specific anxiety. People with GAD get anxious over and worry about lots of different and seemingly trivial things. For your child, that could mean consistently worrying about everyday stuff like going to school or using the toilet there.
With a phobia, your child feels fearful or anxious about one thing,
such as people, places, objects, activities or situations. One common childhood phobia is the dark, but other examples include:
With school anxiety,
a child could have a fear of PE or using the school bathrooms.
If you feel your child’s anxiety is impacting their life, regular routine or health, speak with your GP first.
How to spot anxiety
Though we’ve talked about several types of anxiety disorder, there are symptoms that apply to all of them.
Whichever condition underpins your child’s school anxiety, as a parent you should look out for the following signs.
Talking to you
The clearest sign of anxiety is your child telling you about it. If they speak to you about their worries or feelings, for example that they’re struggling to concentrate, then
it’s important that you provide reassurance. Tell them you understand how they are feeling – perhaps share experiences of your own childhood anxiety.
Alternatively, some children can clam up, especially as they get older. We know that many kids give one syllable answers to questions like ‘how was school?’. But if they used to be chatty and are now not giving the types of answer you might expect, it could be down to anxiety.
Fidety and tense
Children with anxiety often feel fidgety and tense, so look out for your child not being able to sit still. For example, when you’re sat at the table doing homework or eating dinner. Poor concentration is another anxiety symptom that can reveal itself in restlessness.
Many children don’t have the emotional tools at a young age to express the anger or worry they feel. If they are getting anxious, they might not be able to tell you why. Instead, they might resort to physical acts –
like become irritable or even lashing out. Depending on their age, this could be tantrums over not wanting to go to school, or refusal to do something you’ve asked them at home.
Struggling at school
Anxiety can be easier to spot in classroom environments as they might
struggle to concentrate. If your child has anxiety, they find it hard to focus on simple tasks. This can cause problems with everyday school tasks and general learning.
Anxiety can also make it difficult for children to put their hand up to answer a question.
Sleep problems such as insomnia are a common anxiety symptom. If your child is anxious about school, they may find it difficult to fall asleep – being wide awake at 3am as their anxious brain works overdrive. This lack of sleep exacerbates other school anxiety symptoms, making it harder for your child to concentrate and stay alert in class.
Return of toileting issue
Anxiety can also affect your child’s digestive system – we’ve all heard the phrase ‘an anxious stomach’.
And if your child feels anxious, they may visit the loo more often, and perhaps have diarrhoea. This can potentially create anxiety at school itself around using the toilet, perhaps over worries about leaving a mess or not making it in time.
Also, it could lead to wet beds. Secondary bedwetting happens in older children who haven’t wet the bed for some time but have accidents out of the blue. Anxiety around school could be an underlying cause of this.
What to do as a parent
If you already know your child has anxiety, or you’ve recognised symptoms covered on this page, you may be wondering what you can do to help. Follow these tips to support your child with school anxiety:
Talk to them: It sounds obvious, but talking to your child about how they feel and why is a good first step. Listen to what they have to say, and make sure they know you understand them. Don’t dismiss any feeling they have – even if it’s anger.
Rule out issues at home: Ask them if everything is okay in general. Are there any issues with their sibling, friends or another family member – including you or your partner?
Talk to teachers: Arrange an appointment with their teacher and share your concerns. Request they keep a closer eye on your child at school.
Be consistent: Children need routine. Try to ensure you have stable routines at home around meal times, homework, relaxing time and bed. Depending on their age, do the same with toilet use.
Seek professional help: Don’t hesitate to speak to your GP if anxiety is becoming a problem for your child. You can also call mental health charity helplines such as Young Minds.