Many children at some time in their school career find going to school a challenge and may feel anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed.
School phobia (known to may professionals who work with children as school refusal), is a complex and extreme form of anxiety about going to school (but strangely may not be attached to the school itself as the name suggests)
It can be brought on by a bad experience, either with a teacher or with other children or can be related to a “traumatic” experience like being bullied, asked to stand up and read in class, or made to speak or sing at assembly, or when someone has laughed at them for a mistake.
The most common symptoms include stomach-aches, nausea, fatigue, shaking, a racing heart and frequent trips to the toilet.
Young children up to the age of 8, that suffer school phobia experience separation anxiety and find it really difficult to be parted from their parent or main carer.
In older children social phobia can manifest itself in anxiety about their performance in regular school activities such as during games, or drama or in tests and exams.
Children with anxieties about going to school may suffer a panic attack if they are forced to go and it can start off a vicious circle which then makes them fear having another panic attack and there is an increasing spiral of worry with which parents often don’t know how to deal.
How Does School Phobia Start?
Going to school for the first time can be a period of great anxiety for very young children. Many will be separated from their parents for the first time, or will be separated all day for the first time.
This sudden change can make them feel very anxious and they may suffer from a feeling of separation anxiety.
Children, who have never been to a nursery or playgroup, are probably unused to having their entire day organised for them and they may be very tired by the end of the day. This causes them to feel further stress and makes them feel very vulnerable and tearful with a sense of overwhelm and they may build up an aversion to going to school.
For older children who are not new to the school, who have had a long summer holiday or have had time off because of illness, returning to school can be quite a traumatic experience. They may no longer feel at home there. Their friendships might have changed. Their teacher and classroom might have changed. They may have got used to being at home and closely cared for by their parents, so they suddenly feel insecure when all this attention and support is removed and they find themselves back in the hurly burly of school life again.
Other children may have felt unwell on the school bus or in school and associate these places with further illness and symptoms of panic, and so they want to avoid them in order to avoid the panicky symptoms and panic attacks fearing, for example that they may vomit, faint or have diarrhoea again.
The “traumatic” or negative experience has been anchored in their mind as a bad experience so every time they find themselves back in that situation it brings back all the bad negative memories and they panic.
A negative anchor or a negative association has been made and an “anchor” is when your mood changes in response to some trigger or stimulus and your unconscious registers it every time you see it, hear it or feel it (which is a bit like going to the fridge to get a snack after seeing an advert on the tv or like jumping up at a party when your favourite song comes on that reminds you of going to college, someone’s birthday or a romance that’s become “our song”!)
Here are the most common possible triggers for school phobia:
1. Being bullied.
2. Starting school for the first time.
3. Moving to a new area and having to start at a new school and make new friends or just changing schools.
4. Being off school for a long time through illness or because of a holiday.
5. Bereavement (of a person or pet).
6. Feeling threatened by the arrival of a new baby.
7. Having a traumatic experience such as being abused, being raped, having witnessed a tragic event.
8. Problems at home such as a member of the family being very ill.
9. Problems at home such as marital rows, separation and divorce.
10. Violence in the home or any kind of abuse; of the child or of another parent.
11. Not having good friends (or any friends at all).
12. Being unpopular, being chosen last for teams and feeling a physical failure (in games and gymnastics).
13. Feeling an academic failure.
14. Fearing panic attacks when travelling to school or while in school.
Some children have a particular susceptibility to school phobia because of a medical condition such as Asperger Syndrome and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Children with Asperger Syndrome need to be dealt with differently to children without the syndrome as, for example, teaching them relaxation techniques can actually make them more anxious.
How to Help:
The longer school phobia goes on, the harder it is to treat so referrals to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services are usually quite quick to ‘nip it in the bud’. However, if your child is severely affected, it is better to ask for a referral (from your child’s doctor or head teacher) to the service before you are desperate as it is often overstretched: in reality it can take some time to get an appointment.
Things you can do yourself as a parent include getting help from your child’s school. Teachers need to be aware there is a problem. Sometimes being taught in a special unit in school, if the school has one, may help your child feel more secure as it is a cosier place and acts as a half-way point between home and school.
Some children are so severely affected that they stop going to school altogether. It should be made quite clear to your child’s teachers that they are not ‘playing up’ but that their anxiety is very real and they are suffering from it.
I always advise the parents that I work with to step back and imagine a camcorder is sitting on their shoulder noticing how they react to their child and the circumstances as often the child has picked up their parents anxiety and reacts to that too, making things much worse.
At home, life should continue as normal with all your normal routines and activities. In fact that can really help calm things down. But you might find that your child wants to stop going out, especially without you, even to parties that they were quite happy being left at before.
Although you need to deal sensitively with this, it’s best to help your child through this transition by going by going with them for part (or all) of the time so that their world does not shrink altogether while they build back their confidence.
It is also helpful to:
• Reassure your child. Keep a diary of the triggers and what is the main thing that brings on the feelings of anxiety so you can be aware of them.
• Explain that their fears are brought on by thoughts that are not maybe completely true thoughts so you create doubt in what they are thinking so you can turn down those scary voices. I often get the child to imagine they have a remote control button and can “turn down” the nasty, scary voices in their heads so they can’t hear them so loudly. Then we make the scary voices sound like Donald Duck – really silly and daft so they start to laugh at the scary voices– knocking out the hold those scary voices have over them.
• I also do a technique called the Circle of Confidence where the child imagines a lovely bright circle in front of them. They choose a colour which represents confidence to them and as they step into the circle the colour starts to spin all the way up and down through their body from the top of their head to the tip of the toes spinning faster and faster, giving them the feelings of confidence throughout their whole body.
I also use EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) to “tap” away their phobia which I have found to be the quickest way to alleviate school phobia and anxiety. For more information on EFT go to my Positive Parents Club to download my free ebook called “EFT Questions and Answers”
• Keep to the same routines as it builds confidence, predictability and security.
• Learn to relax yourself and find simple ways for your child to relax and make life predicable for your child so that they have less to be anxious about. (No sudden surprise trips out !)
• Deliberately look for things that your child can look forward to each day to keep them in a positive and upbeat mindset and don’t encourage lots of negative thinking and language to creep in that brings their confidence down.
• Encourage your child to find small and specific things that they can enjoy in the school day as it gives them hope and confidence and a new more positive attitude and mindset.
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About the author
Sue Atkins is a Parenting Expert who offers practical guidance for bringing up happy, confident, well behaved children. She is also the author of “Raising Happy Children for Dummies” one in the famous black and yellow series published worldwide and the highly acclaimed Parenting Made Easy CDs. She regularly appears on BBC Breakfast and The Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 and her parenting articles are published all over the world.
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Sue Atkins the Parenting Expert
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