Every year, parents and children seem to feel the first day of school quickly approaching. There’s that strange month between the ease of family vacations and the hectic rhythms of school mornings and homework. Parents go through the school supply checklists and make their shopping trips for binders and shoes and pencils. Our children realize that they have grown out of last year’s clothes, and need new shoes. Then, in the midst of all that energy, some children begin to experience anxiety and dread. This is because they feel the anxiety of the first day of school coming closer and closer.
You try your best to keep things positive with your kids. “You’ll have Ms. Henderson as your teacher this year.” “Let’s go get you some new clothes.” “So, are you excited to see Taylor and Kaylee again?” But then your child starts to have stomach aches, and has trouble sleeping. As best as they try, you see that they start shutting down at the very idea of school.
How Can You Tell if Your Child Has Anxiety?
Here is how anxiety can show itself at home:
- A general fear and avoidance of many aspects of ordinary life.
- Headaches and stomach aches that seem to occur when they have to do something unfamiliar
- Sleep difﬁculties, including difﬁculty falling asleep, nightmares and trouble sleeping alone.
- A greater need for reassurance and emotional support
- For younger children there can be difficulty with bed wetting or accidents
- Clinginess and meltdowns when a parent or sibling is away
- Having a difficult time regulating their emotions on their own
- Shutting down in communication
Within the first weeks of school, your child may show anxiety in these ways:
- Wanting their work to be perfect in an irrational way. “It has to be perfect.”
- Reluctance to ask for help when they encounter problems.
- Children who ask too much for reassurance may also be overly anxious.
- Difﬁculty joining in class discussion or social games.
- Multiple complaints of being sick or having aches and pains. (Wanting to stay/go home)
- Fearful of tests and grades
Think of Anxiety and Anxious Thinking Like a Bully
Anxious behaviors are created by anxious thoughts. While parents may be concerned by their children’s anxious behaviors, the solutions are found in addressing their child’s thoughts.
Children can be perfectly content when parents or teachers take over for them, and this can be the case with navigating their own thoughts. Have you ever had your child talk down about themselves and beating themselves up? Do they come to you and list off all kinds of reasons why things are bad and they feel bad? Without offering solutions or any kind of positives, your child starts to slump into themselves.
This is when most parents and friends step in and offer rebuttals and arguments. We think we are helping our children see themselves positively. While it can be helpful at times to state the case for optimism and positive thinking, for children experiencing anxiety, this is actually a way of regulating their feelings through you. Instead of speaking the truth to themselves, they passively come to parents and friends hoping that someone else can help them feel better.
If you teach your child to “speak to their anxious thoughts” for themselves, then they’ll begin to change their behavior. This takes a lot of time for a child to master positive self-talk. But it is worth the work. When your child is at a place to listen, a good question to ask is, “If someone said the things you think about yourself, would you think of that person as a friend or a bully?”
What’s the Worst That Can Happen? No Really?
A child’s imagination can be a beautiful, fun, and creative place, but it can also be the place where thoughts get out of control and destructive. Without the right tools, children with anxiety can catastrophize simple problems into life threatening or life ending situations. First, they assume a negative outcome to a problem. Next, they jump to the worst possible chain of events. Then, they end up at a conclusion that is a catastrophe.
When you hear your child start the catastrophe spiral, don’t jump to correct what they say. First, stay calm and “non-reactive.” Then, wait for the energy of the moment to cool. Lastly, instead of arguing against their thoughts, be curious and ask them a couple questions:
- What do you think is the problem? (I’m afraid I’ll fail my math test.)
- What was the thought/trigger that made you feel anxious? (What if I just never get this and keep failing?)
- Tell me, what do you think is the worst that could happen? ( I suppose you could end up homeless…)
- What is the best that could happen? (You could actually pass, and everything will still be okay.)
- What do you think will most likely happen? (Didn’t you pass your test the last time you felt this way?)
- Do you think you are able to think differently about this situation? (How you would like to think about it?)
We’re Here to Help!
Our clinicians specialize in the treatment of anxiety in children at our offices in Fort Collins. We offer counseling for children as young as 9 years old. Feel free to give us a call to learn how counseling or an evaluation could be helpful or to schedule an appointment. You can reach us at (970) 889-8204 or firstname.lastname@example.org.