If you're the parent of an anxious child, you probably know the school nurse pretty well at this point in the year! Or, perhaps your child doesn't go to the nurse often, but has been described as inattentive by the teacher. Maybe you have had meetings at school about your child's behavior. Kids with anxiety often show tell-tale signs that they are struggling. Parents and educators may not recognize these signs as anxiety. Sometimes anxiety in a child may be mistaken for something else. For example, a child may be struggling with worries in the classroom and appear to be "inattentive" or lacking in "focus." So, parents, educators and even mental health professionals may attribute the signs to another disorder or problem in the child.
Childhood anxiety can show up at any time, but for some kids the start of elementary school is enough to do it! Going into kindergarten can be overwhelming for any child. It's a big change and for little ones with anxiety, it can cause troubling physical symptoms and behavior problems. As an anxiety specialist working with children, I see some common themes amongst the kids I see. Here are a few:
Tummy troubles and physical symptoms
Kids with worries tend to complain about stomach aches or other physical symptoms that accompany anxiety. When they get nervous about something they can actually feel like they might vomit. Sometimes they get that "butterfly" feeling or a racing heart and think "oh no, something is wrong!" Off to the nurse they go!
Difficulty paying attention
When a child has a lot of worries it can be almost impossible for them to pay attention or focus on what they are learning in the classroom. Kids with anxiety worry about all sorts of things, "what if I throw up?" "what if something happens to mom while I'm at school?" "what if there's a fire drill today?" and so on. If they don't know how to manage those worries they might spend the majority of their time in school ruminating or trying to avoid whatever it is they are worried about.
This is one that tends to get noticed pretty quickly by schools. When a child acts disruptive or requires much of the teacher's attention, parents are notified. Kids who don't know that they are experiencing anxiety or how to deal with it can be reactive or angry. Anxiety can be very convincing and kids tend to believe the messages it sends! For example, a child who is following the "rules" set by his or her worry may react explosively if something or someone gets in the way. Often, this is confusing to other children and may cause social discomfort.
If you suspect that your child's difficulties at school may be the result of anxiety, it's important to get a plan going as soon as possible. Read up about how anxiety works and how to help your child. Seek out a therapist who specializes in the treatment of anxiety. With the right treatment plan, your child can learn how to manage their worry in school!
I enjoy writing about issues relevant to managing anxiety in families and individuals.