Coping with an anxious child

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Amanda doesn’t want to go to school – again. She says she has a stomach ache and doesn’t feel well, although her mother knew she was playing happily earlier in the morning. The other day, she had a headache. The time before, she simply curled up on the floor and flat out refused to go. What is going on? Her mother is frustrated and puzzled – she wants to help Amanda but doesn’t know where to start.

If this situation sounds familiar you’re not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety-based school refusal affects two to five per cent of school-aged children.

While the cause is different for each child, experts agree that they are likely based in feelings of anxiety or depression. These are often triggered by events such as a family crisis (divorce or death), bullying or other traumatic situations. It can lead to weeks or months of missed school.

If your child refuses to go to school, here are a few simple steps you can take to help her figure it out:

1. Rule out a medical cause
If your child has a stomach ache, a headache or complains about other physical symptoms, don’t assume he’s just making it up to avoid school. Visit your GP to be sure.

2. Talk to your child
Approach your child during a calm moment at home and get down to his level. Ask questions gently, and reassure your child that you are on his side. “Help me understand a little bit about what is happening,” is a good phrase to start with. And then, really listen. You’d be surprised at what comes up.

3. Talk to your child’s school teachers
Teachers often see a side of your child that you might not be aware of. They may be more able to figure out if your child is being bullied, or if your child might be feeling anxious about homework or social situations.

Experts note that much of this behaviour is rooted in a breakdown of trust between the child and the adults in their life (parents or teachers). From there, anxiety and worry take root. “And if they don’t feel they’re safe, they cannot learn, says Emanuel Pariser of the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in an interview with KQED News. “[Refusing to go to school] is much more often an act coming out of fear and coming out of a sense of a lack of empowerment, as opposed to a sense that you can push back on things and get what you want.”

To help your child learn how to overcome school-based anxiety, try:

1. Empathising with her fears
Validating your child’s feelings doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. You want to help her understand what she’s anxious about, encourage her to face her feelings, most importantly, let her know that you are on her side.

2. Help her find ways to cope
Some anxious kids benefit from mindfulness meditation or breathing techniques to help calm down and change negative thoughts. Encourage your child to keep a journal to better understand her emotions.

3. Think positive
Find out what your child loves about school, and focus on that. Does she have a special friend at school she looks forward to seeing? If she doesn’t, it might help to facilitate a few playdates with potential friends to help foster social connections.

4. Try counselling
A family counsellor can help you find insights, solutions and better ways to communicate – check out this list of counsellors in Singapore.

Above all, reassure your child that you are on her team. Remember your child isn’t acting out just to manipulate you – it is the result of your kid trying to communicate with you with a non-verbal way because she can’t quite say it in words. Help her find the words, and then you can begin to help her help herself.

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