What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States, with Physicians estimating at least 30% of the population is afflicted by the condition. While anxiety presents differently in each person, it can generally be summarized as intense feelings of worry, stress, and fear. These mental symptoms can also take a toll on a person’s physical wellbeing, often appearing as dizziness, nausea, headaches, and rapid heartbeat.
What Triggers Anxiety in Children?
Just like adults, children experience anxiety in a variety of ways. Some of the most common triggers include:
Genetics – We may pass on our hair color, the trill of our laughter, the way that we walk, and the mental disorders that plague us, as well. If one or more of a child’s parents have anxiety, there’s a good chance the child will have it, too.
Environment – Some children have sensory issues and may be overwhelmed by loud noises, lights, and rapid movement. This can be present at the playground, trampoline park, or even school. Toxic or negative environments and experiences can cause undue stress and worry, so a child may be particularly anxious if living in an abusive situation or dealing with death, divorce, or bullying.
Separation Anxiety – This is quite common in toddlers and younger children and typically passes with time. Babies are very mommy and daddy-centric, and strangers or strange situations can cause fear. Separation anxiety is particularly difficult when a child enters a new environment, such as daycare or preschool.
What Triggers School Anxiety?
Separation anxiety and environment make up the umbrella of triggers that can affect a child’s anxiety while attending school. The loving parents are not present to be a source of familiarity and comfort. There may be loud external stimuli in the classroom and playground. The social anxiety of conforming, making academic progress, and fitting in can cause self-doubt and contribute to the fear. Additionally, the child may experience bullying or harassment from peers.
7 Tips to Avoid Anxiety in School
1. Develop a routine: Establishing a regular routine can help children feel more secure. Children thrive on structure and order, so create a system they can come to expect. This will also make your day go more smoothly. Bedtimes and waketimes should be consistent. Rules should be established and followed.
2. Stay organized: You know that feeling when it’s time to walk out the door, and you cannot find your keys? That sets a precedent for panic, which can be easily avoided if you remain organized.
Keys go in the key spot. Shoes go in the shoe spot. The French have a term called “mise en place,” or “everything in its place,” which was created to help incredible chefs thrive in a fast-paced kitchen. Encourage your child to keep their school materials, such as backpacks and binders, well organized. Have a spot for pens, paper, and pencils. This can help them feel in control and reduce stress.
3. Practice relaxation techniques: (see the 3-3-3 rule below). Take a breath. We breathe without thinking about it, but when in the middle of a panic attack, we may hyper-focus on our breath. Teach your child to wield this tool by practicing deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and other relaxation techniques to help your child manage anxiety and stay calm during stressful situations.
A common technique is the 8-4-7 breath. The child exhales deeply and loudly for 8 seconds. He then breathes deeply through his nose to the count of 4. He then holds that breath for 7 seconds. Demonstrate for him and reap the benefits, too.
4. Stay active: Movement is an excellent release of nervous energy. Regular physical activity can help reduce anxiety and improve mood. When anxiety presents, consider taking the child for a walk. Encourage your child to participate in sports, exercise regularly, or engage in other physical activities they enjoy. Just like in adults, exercise is a healthy distraction from the thoughts that bother us.
5. Talk to teachers and school staff: Don’t be afraid to discuss your child’s anxiety with his teachers. Keep lines of communication open, and advocate for your child’s needs as necessary. This can help ensure that your child has the support he needs to succeed in school. If anxiety inhibits your child’s learning ability, consider advocating and initiating an IEP.
6. Encourage positive self-talk: You are your child’s cheerleader, but teach them to cheer for themselves, too! Help your child develop positive self-talk, such as “I can handle this” or “I’ve done this before.” Lead by example and pep-talk yourself, as well. You may be surprised by the results.
7. Seek support: If your child is experiencing significant anxiety or other mental health symptoms, seek support from a healthcare provider or mental health professional. They can provide guidance and support to help your child manage their anxiety and thrive in school.
Also, know that you are not alone. There are websites and social media communities full of parents in the same situation. They may have tips and tricks for combating school-related anxiety, and it’s helpful for you to have an empathetic ear, too.
The 3-3-3 Rule for Anxiety
This technique has been around for ages, but it gained popularity after the Tik Tok influencer, Mind Bar, began promoting it. Its simplicity is perfect for children, and it’s something they can use when you are not present.
Basically, the 3-3-3 rule forces a child to stop in the middle of an anxiety attack and become grounded by creating an awareness of his surroundings. It focuses on what he sees, hears, and feels. Teach your child to take a moment and identify three physical things that he sees. Then, name three things he hears. Finally, move three parts of his body.
These simple actions redirect anxious thoughts and promote a focus on the here and now. It allows your child to become present in what is external, not internal.
In conclusion, anxiety is a very real mental health disorder affecting millions of children in the United States. These simple tools can help stop panic in the moment, but if your child continues to suffer from ongoing fear and worry, it is always advisable to discuss this with your pediatrician. Don’t forget to address your own mental health, too. We worry about our children’s worries, and it’s important to take a step back and recoup. Practice mindfulness and breathing techniques, and lead by example, so you can be the best version of yourself for the ones who matter most.