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Too anxious to attend school?

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

Going to school can be difficult for anyone. Some young people love education and are delighted to be there, but some can dread it. When it comes to changing school or moving on a stage some will be looking forward to the changes and the new opportunities to make friends. Others, however, will be finding it hard to see anything positive to look forward to. If your son or daughter seems to be struggling to get through it, don’t panic, there are things that can be done to support them.

1. Talk to them

Find out what the difficulties or worries are and try to problem solve any of them with your child. If it is hard for your child to articulate or explain what their worries are, you could try using the ‘worry box’ technique (found in my post 5 Steps for Tackling Anxiety). Take worries seriously, normalize worries, but also make it clear that there are ways through difficulties. Never dismiss worries as just “Oh everyone feels like that” or “It will pass”. That would only make them feel as if their worries don’t matter, or prevent them sharing their worries with you in the future.

2. Talk to the school.

Flag it up early if you think there is going to be an issue and talk to school or college as soon as you can. Schools are very familiar with the issue and may have great strategies for helping. If the class teacher or form tutor doesn’t have any ideas, ask to speak to the special needs coordinator (SENCo).

3. Talk to others

Talk to friends, family members and those who have young people going through the same thing. Sometimes it can help to normalize it for you and for your son/daughter if others are feeling similar things or have found good strategies for getting through it. It may also be that there is something specific going on, like a new teacher who is a bit more shouty than they are used to, and if that is the case, it can be helpful to talk to one of the senior teachers discreetly.

4. Talk to professionals

If you feel the problem is getting worse, you don’t know how to manage it or you feel you need more support, ask for it. SENCo's, school nurses, GPs, or health visitors if your child is only just starting school will be familiar with the concerns and may have good suggestions or resources for support.

5. Try to get them through the door

Something that starts as small worries about school can very easily build up into huge barriers. The more we avoid the worry and stay away, the bigger the worry is likely to feel. Try not to get into a cycle of your child panicking, having to stay away and then your child feeling like a failure for not having done it. If they really can’t manage, make back up plans and try to get them in the door at some point, even if they don’t stay for the whole day. Go in just for registration, or skip registration and just do one lesson, go in at break or lunch. Whatever gets around the biggest problem but allows your child to have some experience of being in school. Tell the school what you are planning and keep communication with them open.

6. Use staff they trust

Getting a member of staff involved, particularly someone they really trust or someone more senior (who doesn’t terrify them!) can really help. Everyone will perform at their worst for their parents. That's how it is meant to be. So get someone else involved who can give a different perspective.

Make a plan and try to stick to it. Have a member of staff meet them and explain what is going to happen. For younger children, the staff member can hold their hand, encourage them to come and do a job with them, take them into the building. Your child doesn’t have to get over the initial ‘hump’ of anxiety on their own and you don’t have to feel like you are just abandoning them and walking away. For older kids having someone come and speak to them can be reassuring and makes the transition easier by changing the focus.

7. Build up in small steps

If attending school feels too scary, break it down into smaller steps and tackle one step at a time. Build up slowly and increase their confidence that they can cope.

8. When you need something more

I have a lot of experience with young people who are very anxious and finding it almost impossible to go to school. It isn’t easy, but we do get there. Everyone I have worked with has been back in school at full or almost full timetable by the end of our programme. It takes a term, so it is a big commitment, but together we can do it. The biggest step is building their confidence that they can handle difficulties. This happens both with school attendance, but also with other aspects of their life. If your child is one of the estimated 1-2% of children who is too anxious to attend school, professionals like me, a Clinical Psychologist, can help.

(Please note that this post is for young people who are finding themselves too anxious to attend school and need support. We recognise that not every school is right for every child and that sometimes particular needs can be met with alternative provision).

Best wishes, Helen

Dr Helen Care, Clinical Psychologist

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