Children of all ages can experience anxiety. It is an essential emotion that signals fear or danger, protecting us from harm. However, for some, the alarm is hyper-sensitive, and goes off when we don’t need it to. In this way, anxiety can be like a false alarm. When this happens, anxiety can interfere with children’s lives and day-to-day routine. It’s common for children to experience heightened anxiety related to school. 

What are the typical things that can make kids anxious at school? 

There are many things that can trigger anxiety in kids at school. These are just a few examples:

  • Performance: Doing projects, answering questions, or taking tests.
  • Social success: "Do people like me?"; "Will people think I am weird?"; "Do I fit in?"; "Will I embarrass myself?" or "Do I have the right clothes? Phone? Apps?"
  • Teachers: Mean versus nice, or difficult versus easy.
  • Safety: Being bullied, worries about COVID-19, witnessing social or physical aggression, feeling targeted by administrators or labeled as a troublemaker.

Are there other factors that can intensify school anxiety? 

Almost anything can serve to intensify anxiety. Sometimes anxiety gets worse without any clear trigger, and at other times there is known reason. For example, some kids have added stressors because of practical issues that interfere with schooling, such as food insecurity or family and financial concerns. For other children with a predisposition to anxiety, school anxiety can be intensified by separation concerns from family in addition to changes in routine, structure, and expectations.

What can parents do?

 While anxiety can be overwhelming for parents, the good news is that children experiencing intense anxiety can be supported in many ways. These include:

  • Define anxiety for children and teach them anxiety-specific vocabulary. This vocabulary and understanding of anxiety can help kids and parents troubleshoot their anxiety and talk about ways to decrease it.
  • Give children strategies to help regulate their emotions. Things like exercise, deep breathing, muscle relaxation, mindfulness, and creating a "quiet corner" can help children effectively channel their energy. It’s best for parents and children to practice these strategies together when anxiety is low, because this helps them work better when anxiety is higher.
  • Kids learn from their caregivers. Act as a model for children on how to manage anxiety. When you feel anxious, point out the situation and explain how you are trying to manage the anxiety.
  • Provide minimal reassurance. While reassurance can feel helpful in the moment, such as saying, “That’s not something you need to worry about. School is safe,” over time it feeds anxiety. Teaching kids to boss back anxiety is a helpful strategy. This would include the child saying something like: “This is making me really nervous right now, and I’m going to be brave and get through it!”

When should a parent seek professional help? 

When anxiety is interfering in daily life, it’s a good idea to consider seeking professional help. These include things like difficulty attending school, trouble leaving the house, and poor sleep. If a parent feels that their child would benefit from additional supports, they should reach out to an anxiety-focused therapist that works with children. Cognitive behavioral therapy is the recommended course of action, and sometimes is coupled with medication. While both treatments have positive results for most children, it’s important to remember that each child is unique and has their own treatment path. Parents can reach out to clinicians to ask for more specific strategies to support their child’s unique trajectory.

Bradley Hospital offers a hotline that connects parents and caregivers to children’s mental health services in Rhode Island, and helps families determine the best place to go for treatment. The hotline may be accessed at 1-855-KID LINK (1-855-543-5465) or online.

Amy Egolf, MD, and Marika Marklin

Dr. Amy Egolf is a psychiatrist with the Intensive Program for OCD and Related Disorders, part of the Pediatric Anxiety Research Center at Bradley Hospital.

Marika Marklin is a research assistant at the Pediatric Anxiety Research Center