School anxiety

Playing sick may be a sign of schoolitis

Amy Bickmore is a mom herself now, but she remembers her school days all too well. “At least once a week I would be ‘sick’ and be completely cured once the bus went by. The real issue was I did not want to go to school.”

Amy was a good student, but school was not a happy place for her. “I was the fat kid who always got picked on or felt out of place.” Sometimes school was just too hard to face.

There are all kinds of reasons why a child might be anxious about going to school, and anxiety can cause headaches, stomach aches, nausea and other symptoms.

But, cautions Michelle Ponti, a London, Ont., paediatrician, parents should not make this assumption on their own. “Parents need to make sure symptoms are not an underlying medical problem.”

Understanding the cause of your child’s anxiety takes careful listening and, sometimes, detective work. “Obviously, the child doesn’t feel safe and secure,” says Carla Hitchcock, executive director of the Fredericton Regional Family Resource Centre. “You really need to have that open communication with your child so he can say to you, ‘This is what happened at school and this is why I don’t want to go.’”

If anxiety is being caused by bullying or learning disabilities, talk to the school. “You need strategies to relieve the anxiety and increase the sense of security,” says Hitchcock.
Realistically, school is never going to be as enjoyable for a child who struggles academically as it is for her classmates who find the work easier. But there should be support to allow her to experience success at her level and to be protected from humiliation. Once the teacher understands what is upsetting your child, she (or the school’s special ed teacher, if appropriate) may be able to suggest some modifications that will help her feel more comfortable. And, of course, situations like bullying, which affect a child’s safety as well as his mental health, should never be ignored.

Separation anxiety

But not all school anxiety is related to serious school problems. “Some kids have separation anxiety,” says Kelly Moroz, a child psychologist in Calgary. “They worry that their parents could be hurt when they’re not in their sight, for example, or they are anxious about being away from home.” And sometimes, he adds, “kids don’t know exactly why they’re feeling this way — it’s pretty tough to sort out.”

Talking and helping the child learn coping strategies are important first steps. For chronic anxiety, though, Moroz says there is no escaping the need to “face the fears” — and this is something you want to do with the guidance of a psychologist or counsellor. “Exposure” is a controlled way of staying in the anxiety-provoking situation long enough that your reaction to it is desensitized. “It’s like the way your skin gets used to the feel of cold water in a swimming pool,” explains Moroz. “Our brain is made to learn to tolerate.” That’s why, he says, it’s common for kids who do quite well through the school week to experience a spike of anxiety on Sunday night or Monday morning — their weekend away has given them a chance to re-sensitize.

It’s important to keep the school in the loop, says Moroz, “so they know what the child is going through, but also so that they aren’t allowing the child to phone home constantly. The best way to do it is gradually. The child might be allowed to call three times a day for the first week, twice a day for the second week, and so on.”

Whether your child just needs a bit of coaching to manage one of school’s everyday challenges, or needs professional help for an anxiety disorder or learning difficulty, schoolitis shouldn’t be ignored.

“The longer you ignore it, the worse it could get,” says Hitchcock.

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