School, Anxiety and Kids

Jennifer Jencks, PhD

Children of all ages can experience anxiety. For many, school can be a source of anxiety, especially the return to school at the end of summer. Once the school year starts, the back-to-school jitters settle down, but other triggers can cause stress and angst as well. Jennifer Jencks, PhD, director of the Access Center at Bradley Hospital, answers some questions for us.

What are the typical things that can make kids anxious? 
There are several things that can act as a trigger for anxiety in kids, for example:

  • Performance or taking tests.
  • Social success: ‘Do I have the right clothes? Phone? Apps?’; ‘Will people think I am weird?’; ‘Do people like me?’; or ‘Will I embarrass myself?’
  • Teachers: mean versus nice, or difficult versus easy.
  • Safety: being exposed to ‘mean kids,’ witnessing social or physical aggression, feeling targeted by administrators or labeled as a troublemaker.

Are there other factors that can intensify school anxiety? 
Sometimes generalized anxiety gets worse without any known trigger. Kids with a predisposition for anxiety can be triggered by changes in their routine and changes in the amount of structure and expectation. For other children, practical issues like having enough food or appropriate clothes and shoes can add stress when school starts because they will be seen by peers, and teachers might single them out in an attempt to help them.

What can parents do? 
The good news is there is a lot that can be done to support children experiencing intense anxiety. Some helpful tips:

  • Start by talking with children about what anxiety is and how it can be decreased.
  • Teaching children anxiety-specific vocabulary and strategies that will help them describe their feelings better over time.
  • Give children important ideas about what they can do to regulate their emotions more effectively -- simple strategies like exercise, focused breathing and muscle relaxation strategies can help the body flush out the substances that are causing a child’s body to feel anxious. Parents can read about each of these strategies and practice them with their children at home.
  • 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 some reassurance, but not too much! Offer kids one reassurance about their worry and then encourage them to reassure themselves in their own mind. ‘Talking back’ to anxiety by saying statements like, ‘I don’t have to worry about this!’ or ‘I’m worried I won’t do well in school, but my grades have always been fine,’ is an effective strategy over time if practiced regularly.

When should a parent seek professional help? 
While introducing anxiety management strategies at home can help many kids, if a parent feels that their child needs additional help, they should contact a therapist that works with children and specializes in anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy is typically recommended, sometimes in conjunction with medication, and both have positive results for most children and adolescents. Parents can also contact a clinician to ask for more specific strategies to help their child in their unique situations.

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 or online.