The Troubling Rise in Childhood Anxiety
Long ago, before the pandemic, the research found that approximately 7% of children had a diagnosable anxiety disorder responsible for disrupting everyday functioning. Aside from that, 20% tended to feel anxious which, while not rising to the level of a clinical disorder, impacted their lives nonetheless.
However, a study that will soon be published, surveying 238 teens between January and May 2021 at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, found that a disturbing 64% experienced increased anxiety throughout the pandemic.
And to whatever extent the delta variant reduces in-person instruction when the children return this fall, going back to school this year will again differ from pre-pandemic years. Primary among those challenges will be the increase in school anxiety.
Just What is School Anxiety?
While there are different types of anxiety that children may experience, many of them morph into school anxiety, which can present differently depending on the student’s age.
For preschoolers, school anxiety is probably separation anxiety and fear of being removed from their parents or caregiver. This may mean increased crying about going to preschool or daycare, tantrums when being dropped off at school, clingy behavior, or regression in milestones such as toilet training.
By the time the children enter elementary school, parents may experience resistance to attending school, oppositional behavior, and complaints of stomach aches or headaches. Or they may see that their child worries excessively about academic expectations — to the degree that the child no longer wishes to go to school.
In middle school, children are becoming more sophisticated social beings. This can result in increased turmoil within relationships and bullying. These social difficulties are very often manifest as school anxiety.
And by the time students enter high school, their lives have become more complex. They can often be found juggling problems in their home lives, within their friendships and relationships, and being saddled with mounting and conflicting responsibilities like holding down a job and trying to achieve good grades for college.
Any of these may become the recipe for becoming withdrawn or more irritable, refusing to go to school, or resorting to substance abuse.
Ways to Help
1. Look for General Symptoms of Anxiety
Probe the child to see how he/she feels about returning to school. Be on the lookout for headaches, stomach aches, sleeping difficulties, persistent “what if” questions, irritability, excessive concern about events that lack direct relevance, challenges focusing on schoolwork, and worries that persist despite reasonable explanations.
For example, the child may be worried that there has been no progress in arresting the pandemic, despite widespread awareness of effective vaccines and treatments.
What you need to be cautious of is that many of these symptoms can be doorways to discovering another seemingly unrelated problem. So you must take a second step which may give you invaluable clues as to why the child is feeling so anxious.
2. Help your Kids Understand the Pandemic
Using books and activities that can educate kids about the pandemic and post-pandemic life will help children understand what is happening around them. For example, children may not understand what a vaccine is, and how it can protect against contracting the virus.
A way to feel less helpless about a cataclysmic event is to become informed, and in this, our children are no exception. Find an age-appropriate book that conveys information to children through using pictures.
3. The Strength of Family
The psychological anchor for children during difficult times is the emotional connection they have with their families. In a world filled with uncertainty, where so much has changed and continues to change, spending time with family can be the antidote. It could be eating supper together, playing a game, or taking a leisurely walk.
It isn’t only the children who feel anxiety as they begin school. Parents feel anxious as well. So they need to find healthy coping strategies to manage their stress, instead of allowing that stress to be expressed in ways that increase their children’s distress.
Whether they like it or not, parents are their children’s primary models. When children sense that their parents are anxious, they are going to feed off of that negative energy. This obligates parents to be mindful of their own emotions so they can self-regulate and become fully emotionally present for their child.
Although parents want to be a steady source of support for their children, it is essential to admit that they feel concerned, or that they don’t have the answer to a question. Admitting their concern models to the child that it is alright to feel concerned or uncertain. The problems come when parents lose their sense of calm.
If parents seem like they are confident and secure in the decision to return to school, that helps their children to feel the same way.
5. Empathetic Listening
When one’s child is anxious, the instinct is to do whatever is necessary to eliminate that distress they’re experiencing. But this shouldn’t be a reflexive reaction. Don’t jump right into solving the problem.
The first step is to listen empathetically to the child; create space to hear what the child is concerned about. Parents must acknowledge and validate what the child is feeling, even if the parent doesn’t have that same feeling or even agree with it. Children need to know that they are being heard and that it is alright to feel what they are feeling.
After the parent has a better grasp of what the child is feeling, then the parent and child should work collaboratively with the child on how to deal with those emotions. Questions such as “What does the child feel like they’re capable of doing?” or “How can Mom or Dad help?” are important to ask.
Engage The Child’s Anxiety with Hope
School anxiety is rising quickly amongst kids, as they attempt to adjust to a routine and schedule after the pandemic uprooted all that was previously considered standard. But the increased prevalence doesn’t make the situation hopeless.
These strategies will help, and if additional assistance is needed, it is available. And don’t forget that most children are very resilient and, despite the formidable challenge, they will make it through!