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Under pressure

Does back to school mean back to anxiety for your child? Learn to help

By Katie Ingram

 

For many children, autumn not only brings the start of a new school year, but also the stress and anxiety that can be associated with a school setting.

Often, such stressors aren’t easily identified, as there are a number of different situations that can cause these feelings and emotions.

“It varies grade to grade and changes from kid to kid,” says Brad Peters, psychologist with Cornerstone Psychological Services in Halifax and part-time professor of psychology at Saint Mary’s University. “What might have been easy for one kid could become more of an issue later and it may be the reverse for another kid.”

One student may feel anxious about being accepted by more popular peers as they enter a new school, while another might be worried about their grades as they start thinking about university or college. Whereas, another child might be dealing with a bully, or be worried about isolating themselves from friends by merely wearing the wrong clothes.

For others, anxiety doesn’t develop over time, but instead starts at the primary or even pre-school levels.

“If you think about it, it’s a huge change, especially for kids who might have a stay-at-home parent,” says Kati LaVigne, director of operations at the Strongest Families Institute in Lower Sackville. “They’re with their parents every single day and they’re going into a school where there are new people and are in a new environment.”

No matter what is causing this stress or anxiety, it can lead to other problems.

Leanna Closson, psychology professor at Saint Mary’s University, says anxiety and stress can often manifest itself as behavioural or physiological issues. However, she says parents shouldn’t automatically assume it’s a child misbehaving for attention, that they have an “attitude problem” or that they don’t like school.

Instead, parents should try to find the root of the problem first—especially if the behaviour seems out of character or is becoming increasingly common.

“This normally is not simply an excuse to try to get out of going to school, but a physiological symptom of the child’s anxiety,” Closson says, noting headaches, stomach aches and a lack of appetite as potential symptoms. “Parents can also watch out for changes in their child’s mood and behaviour, such as increased irritability and anger, or turning down opportunities to play with friends.”

LaVigne agrees.

She also notes that children can start to isolate themselves and avoid doing routine tasks, such as getting clothes ready on Sunday night and even brushing their teeth before bed, all to prolong the weekend in worried anticipation of Monday morning.

“Sometimes parents will think it’s behaviour-related because of the way kids react to being put in situations that cause anxiety,” LaVigne says. “In reality, it could be a symptom of that anxiety.”

Parents should also be aware of their own actions and expectations, as those can be a trigger as well.

“Over-controlling parents are the so-called ‘helicopter parents’ who hover over their child, making sure everything is perfect and their child’s life is going according to plan,” Closson says. “These parents mean well, but they’re often doing more harm than good.”

In this case, Closson finds parents need to let their child make mistakes and grow. While the child could still have anxiety about some aspect of school, it could lessen without parental pressure.

“The more parents try to control every aspect of their child’s life, the greater the likelihood of their child experiencing anxiety symptoms,” she says.

But, ultimately, the key to helping kids deal with anxious situations and feelings is through communication.

Sometimes, LaVigne says, simply asking if something is wrong can go a long way.

“Maybe they don’t really want to talk about it, but they might make comments, [such as] ‘I don’t want to go to school tomorrow’ and they’re saying it every single day,” she says. “Keep an ear out for comments like that and ask the child or adolescent if it’s something they want to talk about.”

Parents should also be careful to approach the situation delicately when initiating these conversations. They need to make sure they give their child room to talk and sort out their feelings without being pressured.

One solution Closson suggests is having these conversations on a regular basis, where both the parent or caregiver and child contribute.

“Parents and children should have regular and open conversations about their day, what’s going on at school, and how they’re doing more generally,” Closson says. “This should be a conversation, not an interrogation, so parents should be willing to share with their children about themselves as well.”

This also means that conversations need to happen face-to-face, away from technology and environmental distractions.

“People don’t do this much anymore, the face-to-face, talking about their feelings in the presence of another person; instead what you get is people text messaging one another, if anything,” Peters says. “What you’re getting is abstract words on a glowing screen and often you have to decipher what that means.”

Helping students move more smoothly through school isn’t just a job for parents. Teachers should also be mindful of their charges and any personality or behavioural changes. 

“Teachers should take time in the first few weeks of the school year to build a rapport with students and foster a positive classroom community,” Closson says. “Children that feel supported, both by their teacher and fellow classmates, are more likely to have positive social-emotional outcomes, as well as academic success.”

Peters finds that, sometimes, teachers are the first ones to see these reactions develop and can help students better understand what is happening. By having a “compassionate attitude” they can help a child identify what is wrong, and explain to them why they’re feeling the way they do.

“If a teacher was to interpret that as ‘oh, this kid is being lazy’ then that judgement can exacerbate things, because now the kid feels more ashamed and fearful,” Peters says. “I would encourage teachers as well to not be afraid of asking ‘are you okay right now or is there something I can do?’”

Additionally, parents and teachers should encourage pro-social behaviour among other students. This way something like social anxiety is curbed from the start of the school year, instead of building over 10 months or even years.

“For some children, the first day of school is not at all anxiety provoking; if they see a new classmate sitting alone eating lunch or playing alone at recess, these more outgoing and confident children should be encouraged to invite their classmate to play or join them,” Closson says. “All children want to belong, and sometimes it just takes a friendly gesture from another child to make all the difference.”

Once a child is more open, feels more accepted, and better understands their own emotions and fears, they can work together with their parents and teachers to better address the situation.

If something more than parental or teacher communication is needed, additional help and resources are there. These resources range from using breathing or calming techniques, to talking with a therapist or psychologist… whatever best helps that student in their situation.

“If a kid isn’t able to regulate those emotions… those feelings can become internalized and the body can see those feelings as overwhelming,” Peters says. “Now the body will pick those emotions up as a threat and now the kid will feel anxiety that at one point might have been a vulnerability, but is now showing up differently.”

Ignore the situation, and it will get worse.

“If the problem isn’t identified, that means nothing will be done about it,” Closson says. “The child will likely continue to experience the environmental triggers and that can lead to greater anxiety over time.”  


There are many different situations that can cause stress and anxiety for children and teenagers. The following are some of the most common:

  • Parental over-control
  • Parental pressure to succeed
  • Peer problems, including bullying and wanting to fit in
  • Extreme perfectionism
  • Academic difficulties

Resources

Cornerstone Psychological Services
• 902-407-4455
cornerstoneclinic.ca
• Located in Halifax

Strongest Families Institute
• 1-866-470-7111
strongestfamilies.com
• Located in Lower Sackville

Dr. Kiran Pure and Associates
• 902-444-3669
drpureandassociates.com
• Located in Dartmouth

GreenLeaf Psychological Services
• 902-932-8428
greenleafpsychological.com
• Located in Halifax

Marsh-Knickle and Associates
• 902-832-0830
mkpsych.com
• Located in Bedford

Kids Help Phone
• 1-800-668-6868
kidshelpphone.ca

IWK Mental Health and Addictions Central Referral Service
• 902-464-4110
iwk.nshealth.ca/mental-health

Editor’s note: This is a sample of the resources available. Consult a doctor for more advice.

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