When Anxiety is the Real School Bully: a Therapist’s Advice on Child Anxiety

When Anxiety is the Real School Bully: a Therapist’s Advice on Child Anxiety

- in Ages & Stages, Featured, Parenting
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Kids and anxiety in OhioPhoto credit: Scott Webb via Unsplash

If your child experienced a lot of anxiety at school last year, but felt much better over summer, don’t plan to homeschool just yet. In many cases, school isn’t the problem. I feel that your child’s anxiety may be the real bully here.

It’s likely that something in the school environment made your child nervous. For the sake of explanation, let’s say eating at school made your child anxious. Your child may have been experiencing worried thoughts, full of what’s called “cognitive distortions,” that triggered an anxiety response around lunchtime every day:

  • “What will I eat for lunch?” 
  • “What if I can’t find anything I like?”
  • “What if it makes me sick?”
  • “What if I get sick in the classroom and everyone makes fun of me?”
  • “What if I can’t make it to the bathroom in time?” 

Now that it’s summer and the trigger (school lunch) is removed, your child’s anxiety may be avoided until school starts again – or until there’s another situation with uncertainty or discomfort. In other words, the anxiety is still there even if lunch isn’t. In fact, research shows that anxious kids seem to lack three skills:

  1. Ability to tolerate uncertainty
  2. Ability to solve problems independently
  3. Ability to be autonomous

Luckily, you don’t need to wait until school starts in a few weeks to begin helping your child learn these skills, beat anxiety and take back control. Start by considering:

  • Are there activities, situations, routines, chores and/or people you avoid because they may make your child anxious? 
  • Do you change routines or schedules to accommodate your child’s anxiety? 
  • Do you make excuses for why you are the only one who can do certain things for your child? (For example, you’re the only one who can put your child to bed.) 

If you answer yes to any of these questions (even if it’s “yes, but I don’t mind’), you may be part of the problem. All of these are examples of accommodation. By allowing your child to avoid situations that make him or her uncomfortable, afraid and/or nervous, you’re unintentionally fertilizing your child’s anxiety.

Rather than accommodating your child’s anxiety, it’s more effective to convey the message that “you may be uncomfortable/unhappy, but I know you can handle it” (or, as I say in my house, “it may suck, but you can do it”). This approach reinforces your child’s coping skills and gives him or her the confidence in that, while it may not be a great experience, your child can manage it. 

You see, the goal isn’t to eliminate anxiety, but to help your child manage it. And by reducing accommodation and helping your child face his/her discomfort, you are helping him or her meet real-world challenges now. And in the future.

Joanna Hardis, LISW, is a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist in Shaker Heights, Ohio, focused on helping parents with the hardest job on Earth. A mother of three herself, Joanna combines years of everyday parenting experience with expert professional training all in an effort to support, coach and empower parents of behaviorally challenging kids (which is pretty much all of them, right?). Joanna earned her undergraduate degree at Cornell University in New York  and a master’s degree from Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University. Connect with Joanna on Instagram and Facebook. Or learn more about how she can help you and your family at joannahardis.com

About the author

Joanna Hardis, LISW, is a cognitive behavioral therapist in Shaker Heights, Ohio, focused on helping parents with the hardest job on earth. A mother of three herself, Joanna combines years of everyday parenting experience with professional training in the areas of anxiety; changing family dynamics, such as divorce; and obsessive-compulsive and eating disorders all in an effort to support, coach and empower parents of behaviorally challenging kids (which is pretty much all of them, right?). Joanna earned her undergraduate degree at Cornell University in New York and a master’s degree from Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University.

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