Published 4:27 p.m. ET Aug. 8, 2017
by Candy Grande, For the Courier-Post
The first day of school is approaching and Melissa Langford knows some families are dreading its arrival. Not because warm summer days filled with swimming and barbecues are dwindling, but because school-related anxieties begin to surface – and she can empathize.
Langford’s son, Tim, 15, and getting ready to enter ninth grade, has been struggling with his school fears since third grade.
“It is very difficult,” says Langford, director of transitional educational services at First Children Services in Cherry Hill. “My husband and I would take Tim to elementary school kicking and screaming. It was like trying to pry a frog off the wall just to get him out of the house. And then once he got to school, he would start throwing up. I’d feel like a bad parent and I was only trying to do what was best for him.”
Langford, who has two other children, Will, 26 and Austin, 21, says Tim’s anxiety became so bad she home schooled him for a year. Tim, who is on the autism spectrum, began Transitions at First Children Services eight months ago, and Langford has seen a dramatic improvement. The program, says Langford, concentrates on giving children with school
anxiety a school-like environment and helps them transition back to their local school.
“Tim is having more conversations with us, is making friends and is connecting with his teachers,” says Langford. “He even brings up transitioning back to his local high school to me, so we are going to slowly begin that this school year.”
Alison Block, a psychologist in Oceanport, Monmouth County, who works with children coping with anxiety, says there are many reasons anxiety occurs and that it can happen at any age. She has heard fears about teachers, lockers, riding a bus, Mom remembering to pick them up after school, lunch time, who to play with at recess and many more.
Block says childhood anxiety has been increasing over the years due to many factors.
“Older kids on social media post happy pictures on Instagram or Facebook and making everything look perfect and wonderful in their lives,” says Block. “Kids that don’t have perfect lives think something is wrong with them. Kids don’t have the same perception as adults.”
Sports have become more competitive and less about fun for children, and academic pressure is starting at a younger age, too, says Block.
“I have middle schoolers tell me they are worried about getting into certain colleges,” says Block.
Parents can help their children deal with their fears by listening to their kids concerns and acknowledging their feelings, says Block. By asking open-ended questions and having meaningful conversations, parents may be able to find the root of their children’s worries. If a parent feels they are not helping their child or the anxiety worsens, seek out a professional.
“School refusal is a big, red flag that a child may need to talk to a professional,” says Block. “Other signs include withdrawing from friends, grade changes and sleep patterns.”
Headaches, stomach aches and nausea also can be signs that a child is suffering from school-related anxiety, says Dr. David Rosenberg, pediatrician and founder of Pediatric Associates in Vineland. He has been practicing in Vineland for 55 years.
“Transitions are hard for children and adults,” says Rosenberg. “Going from grade school to middle school to high school is a big deal. It’s a bigger school, harder classes and new people. It’s very hard to make these changes.”
Rosenberg says encouraging activities and hobbies, whether it be dance, drum lessons, gymnastics, swimming, etc., can be beneficial when it comes to reducing a child’s worry because activities instill confidence, make kids feel good about themselves and help them to relax.