By Sheila Stinnett, LPCAs the last few days of summer wind down, thousands of elementary children ready themselves for their return back to the classroom. During this count down to the big “first day”, back packs are filled with brand new supplies, new clothes and shoes are purchased and social media buzzes with the excitement of seeing old friends and meeting new ones. However, what is a parent to do if the thought of school for their child is not one of jubilant celebration, but one of intense dread, overwhelming panic or mind-numbing fear.
First, parents need to understand that their child is not alone. Research has shown that 2 to 5 percent of school age youth during any school year experience school anxiety or school refusal and it is most likely to occur in children ages 5 to 11. Often a child’s anxiety manifests itself in a barrage of somatic symptoms such as headaches and stomach pains which mysteriously occur on school mornings and disappear during the evening hours or on weekends.
A pro-active parent can often circumvent a child’s feelings of anxiety by using the following strategies:
Establish that school is a priority. A child experiencing school anxiety or refusal should understand that an absence from school is only an option due to serious illness. Missing school only reinforces a child’s anxiety. Be sure to plan preventive medical appointments and family outings after school hours, during natural school breaks or on weekends.
Establish an environment of excitement. Include your child as much as possible in all “back to school” preparations. Feelings of excitement are inherent activities that require planning. Let them pick out key school supplies such as backpacks or take them shopping for school shoes or clothes. Arrange play dates with possible school friends so relationships can be fostered, which gives your child peers they look forward to seeing. Organize a count-down activity, like creating a calendar and making a special time every day for the entire family to mark off a day.Establish a consistent schedule. Work as a family to create a structured schedule for sleep, school and playtimes. If a child understands what is coming next, he or she is less likely to experience feelings of anxiety. Be sure to incorporate visual elements in schedules for younger children and post schedules where everyone has access, such as the front of the fridge. Often children experience anxiety due a fear of what will happen to a parent if they are not present, so make sure you include your activities on the family schedule. If children are aware of the location and activity of a parent, they are less likely to worry.
Establish a support system. Find friends and family that understand your child’s fears and that are willing work with both you and the child to alleviate them. Communicate with the school and let them know that your child needs extra support. Often by contacting school administration or the school counselor prior to the start of school, arrangements can be made for your child to tour the school and meet key personnel. Do not be afraid to discuss the situation with your pediatrician. If necessary a pediatrician can make recommendations to local mental health professionals that can assist both you and your child in conquering their fears.Edmond Family Counseling’s mission is to make quality mental health care accessible to all. Please help support their work with your tax-deductible contribution. By mail: 1251 N. Broadway, Ste. C, Edmond, OK 73034 or online at edmondfamilycounseling.org. Like us on Facebook too!