Excerpts for Overcoming School Anxiety : How to Help Your Child Deal With Separation, Tests, Homework, Bullies, Math Phobia, and Other Worries


What Is School Anxiety?

Everyone experiences anxiety. And many adults and chil-dren experience quite a bit of stress in their daily lives that can lead to more anxiety. There are many causes of school anxiety, and children who have it may feel stressed out and unhappy five days a week, nine months out of the year.

Chuck, a fifth grader, has severe test anxiety that has been building for days about an upcoming social studies test. As soon as he gets out of bed on the morning of the test, he begins to think about it, which causes his stomach to knot, his breathing to become shallow, and his heart to pound. By the time Chuck sits down to breakfast, his head is aching and he says he feels sick and wants to stay home.

Mika, in third grade, is being bullied and ostracized by a popular group of girls whom she would like to be part of. They are nice to her one day, but either don't talk to her or make fun of her the next. Not knowing how this group will treat her from day to day has Mika anxious almost all of the time. Every morning is a fight just to get her out of bed and to the school bus on time, leaving Mika and her parents exhausted.

Children who are stressed about school on a daily basis become anxious. They have to contend with the physical and mental manifestations of anxiety, which are uncomfortable, even distressing at times. In this chapter you will learn how and why anxiety begins, what the symptoms of anxiety are, the effects of school anxiety, and how to begin to help your child.

Is Anxiety Always a Bad Thing?

Anxiety is a normal aspect of life and of being human, and it has a positive side to it, too. In order to have a zest for life, to go after dreams, to be mentally alert, and to achieve goals, anxiety is one of the driving forces that can help. Although that adrenaline rush is necessary to reach one's personal best, anxiety needs to be channeled for positive use.

Conrad, in sixth grade, has been playing the cello since third grade. He is talented, loves to practice, and is one of the soloists in his school orchestra. Starting a day or two before each concert, his stomach tightens up whenever he thinks about playing. A few hours before the concert, he feels jumpy and is unable to relax. He rehearses his solo over and over again in his mind. Minutes before his solo, stress hormones course through his body, his breathing becomes rapid, and all his senses are heightened. But instead of causing him to fall apart with anxiety, these physical changes sharpen his abilities, and he plays his part perfectly and with intense feeling. The audience goes wild after he finishes.

Every performer, every person who wants to reach optimal performance, must learn how to take control of anxiety instead of being controlled by it, and use it in a positive way to enhance his or her life. Anxiety is also a motivator for making necessary life changes. For example, if your sixth-grade child underachieves because she doesn't feel like putting out an effort, but begins to worry about not making the grade in middle school, then her anxiety can jump-start her into becoming a good student.

Anxiety is also a normal response to life situations, such as experiencing the death of a loved one, having an illness, experiencing parental divorce, starting at a new school, taking a test, or getting the lead in the school play, which all create normal levels of anxiety and response.

Anxiety Differs from Fear

The words fear and anxiety are often used interchangeably, but they have different meanings. Fear is something external, specific, and definable. For example, if your child is waiting at the school bus stop and a car veers in her direction, her brain will instantly signal to her body, "Danger!" In a split second, her brain sends messages to her legs to jump out of the way to safety. The fear of being hurt by the car can be explained in specific terms. If you ask her, she'll say she was afraid and reacted by jumping out of the way.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is nonspecific; it's intangible in nature. There is no real bodily danger. For example, if your child is afraid to leave home to go to school, and you question why, he may not be able to give you a concrete answer, because anxious feelings are often hard to define. Maybe he fears something will happen to you when he is gone, or you will forget to pick him up at the bus stop, even though that has never happened. The "what-ifs"--the intense worry about the possibility that those things might happen--are what cause anxiety, making it very difficult for him to separate from you even for a few hours.

What Happens When Anxiety Turns Negative?

Anxiety becomes a problem when it causes emotional pain and suffering and disrupts your child's ability to function well at school and in daily life. When anxiety becomes that severe and chronic it is called a disorder. If your child has severe school anxiety, she will be limited in every area of development in her life because of the intensity of the feelings and symptoms. Anxiety disorders affect over 20 million adults, adolescents, and children in the United States, making it the number one mental health issue. Americans spend billions of dollars annually trying to alleviate anxious suffering by traditional and alternative modes of treatment.

Over 6 million school-age children suffer from school anxiety, trying to cope with physical and mental symptoms that are upsetting, even terrifying, at times.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is defined as a state of intense agitation, foreboding, tension, and dread, occurring from a real or perceived threat of impending danger. The experience of anxiety is unique for each person, but it does have general physical and emotional characteristics.

It is important to note that the physical and mental symptoms of anxiety such as rapid heartbeat, stomachaches, and headaches are also found in many other medical conditions, like heart problems. If you, your child, or anyone in your family experiences persistent physical complaints, don't assume the cause is stress related but have the person checked by your family physician immediately.

Anxiety is a mind-body reaction that occurs instantaneously, and its effects are felt physiologically, behaviorally, and psychologically all at the same time. There are dozens of symptoms of anxiety that range from mild, such as having butterflies before answering a question in class, to severe, such as blanking out or having a panic attack when called to the board to solve a problem. It is important for you to be familiar with the symptoms of anxiety so you can explain to your child what is happening to him when he gets anxious. For example, if your child understands that the intense adrenaline rush he feels when anxiety hits cannot harm him, it may prevent his anxiety from spiraling out of control into a panic attack--instead he could learn to say to himself, "I know this is just a chemical in my body that is making me feel bad, but it can't really hurt me." Physical symptoms include the following:

* Shallow breathing and hyperventilation

* Intense rush of adrenaline and other stress hormones

* Pounding heartbeat, heart palpitations, and sweating

* Shaky limbs and trembling

* Body and muscle tension

* Dry mouth

* Headaches

* Nausea, diarrhea, and/or vomiting

Other physical manifestations of anxiety include skin eruptions, hives and rashes, fatigue, and eating and sleeping problems. The mental and emotional symptoms are equally distressing and include feeling overwhelmed, loss of concentration, feeling out of control, helplessness, hopelessness, anger, and shame. Behaviors in your child to watch for include acting-out behaviors such as angry outbursts and tantrums; refusal to go to school or to do homework; crying; inability to sleep; curtailment of activities; and avoidance of social situations, places, and certain people.

What Is School Anxiety?

School anxiety is being used as a broad term in this book. It refers, in part, to the problems from home that children bring to school including having an anxiety disorder; being learning disabled; or dealing with family issues, such as divorce or childhood trauma. However, the school environment can be a problematic place, too, with its emphasis on evaluation, achievement, and testing. Other factors might include peer pressure, being bullied, or not getting along with a teacher. This book will cover the myriad causes of school anxiety.

The Short- and Long-Term Effects of School Anxiety

Children with severe school anxiety are unlikely to outgrow it. However, the ways that anxiety manifests its effects can be damaging, making intervention and treatment essential to a child's health and well-being. Short-term effects of school anxiety include the following:

* Missing out on important schoolwork if frequent absences or school refusal occur, stunting intellectual development and creating a record of poor academic performance

* Not being able to relate well to peer group reduces social growth

* Potential increase in frustration levels, stress, and tension among family members

Long-term effects of school anxiety can include chronic anxiety or the development of an anxiety disorder, chronic underachievement in school, low self-esteem, and difficulties in achieving a satisfying personal and professional adulthood.