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Signs Back-to-School Anxiety Is Something More Serious

Kids are gearing up for another year ahead. With this prep comes some common concerns: Will I have friends? Will I like my teachers? How do you know if your child's concerns are typical going-back-to-school worries or reflect signs of a deeper anxiety? Check out these tell-tale signs.

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Refusing to go to school

“School refusal” occurs when kids avoid going to school and experience distress at the thought of returning to school. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety-based school refusal impacts 2-5 percent of children. The organization indicates that the age groups most commonly symptomatic are ages 5 to 6 and 10 to 11 and it affects boys and girls equally. Times of greater transition such as middle school and high school also tend to carry more stress. Anxiety isn’t your child’s only health concern—don’t miss our back-to-school health checklist.

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Common reasons kids refuse to go to school

Negative events that happen at home or at school are the biggest factor. Children may be seeking to avoid stressful school situations, such as social dynamics or negative academic performance. Kids may not want to go to school so they can have special attention from mom, dad, or a caregiver due to separation issues, or because they experienced a trauma or loss. Take a holistic approach–think about everything going on with your child, not just what’s happening inside the walls of the school, to get to the root of the issue. If a child is struggling with ADHD, turn it into their own personal superpower. These are the things your child’s pediatrician won’t tell you.

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Asian children cute or kid girl lonely and sad with tears in the eye on food table because miss mom and dad or parents do not care with thinking somethingkornnphoto/Shutterstock

Anxiety vs. truancy

It is important to distinguish school refusal, which is a byproduct of anxiety, with being a truant, which is associated with behavioral issues and school delinquency. School anxiety is more correlated with anxiety and depression later in life, whereas truancy is associated with conduct disorder and discipline issues. If a kid is being a truant, he or she may need to be disciplined, whereas a child experiencing school refusal may be anxious and in need of emotional support, shares Psychology Today.

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“But, I’m sick…”

Physical complaints of anxiety may manifest in tummy troubles, fake fevers, and other complaints. Kids may complain in the morning to get out of going to school, or while they are in class, attempt to leave to see the nurse or try to go home in the middle of the day. It’s important to recognize that a child who complains of being physically sick and isn’t may be experiencing anxiety. Kids who have undeveloped emotional IQ may not be able to understand and explain their feelings and may not know a better way to express their struggles other than pointing to where it hurts in their bodies. It’s important to remember that anxiety can carry physical symptoms which include dizziness, shaking, muscle tension, and headaches.

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Missing you

Kids who show signs of being more clingy or are scared or concerned about separating from parents may be anxious to be in school because of fear that something will happen to their caregiver. When kids have increasing concern about being away from their caregivers, wanting to be in touch, or fearing that something will happen to their caregiver when they are apart, it indicates that the anxiety may be related to separation anxiety. Find out the 15 silent signs of anxiety in children.

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But I’m not hungry…

Look for changes in appetite, behavior, and sleep which can often accompany school refusal behaviors, advises Tiffany Frank, a clinical psychologist. It’s important to pay attention and know your child’s usual behaviors to know what to look out for and assess for any changes such as loss of appetite or overeating and not sleeping or sleeping more than usual.

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Your questions are met with silence

When it feels like you can’t ask your child about school, or that your child becomes sad or angry when it is brought up, these are signs to cue in and realize something deeper may be going on. Refusing to go to school can be a sign of generalized anxiety disorder or social phobias

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It gets worse instead of better

Over time, as your child gets more in the routine of going to school, making friends, and getting used to teachers, the expectation is that the anxiety will improve. But if your child seems to continuously be stressed or if the stress seems more severe and you’re having more battles getting him or her out the door in the morning, it may be a sign the anxiety is getting worse, not better, shares the University of Washington. These are the habits of parents of successful children.

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Fears turn into action

Some anxiety is normal. For example, when I asked one five-year-old how she felt about starting kindergarten, she said, “I’m nervous. New teachers. New school, new friends, new town. New everything.” When asked what she would do about it, she said she would go and it would be OK. Having worried feelings or thoughts alone without the accompanied action of refusing to go to school is OK, it’s when the behaviors of refusing to go or other acting out occurs, that it’s an indicator that the fears are more serious.

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Tough day at school! Sad child near the blackboard indoors. Kid is learning in class. Complex math, arithmetic and examples. Numbers written with chalk on board.Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock

How to make the worries go away

If your child is feeling stressed about returning to school, talk to him or her. Ask what he or she is feeling about teachers and friends, and develop a game plan to help him feel better. Talking to a teacher, a guidance counselor, or taking more time to transition into the school, including visiting the school prior to starting can help allay these fears. Focusing on positive extracurricular activities and things to look forward to can help the child recognize the positive elements of school instead of only focusing on the few sticky areas. Check out our 11 teacher-approved tricks to get your kids ready for the first day of school.

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Young female school psychologist having serious conversation with smart little boy at her

Develop a game plan

If you suspect your child is experiencing anxiety about returning to school that may be on a deeper level that may reflect generalized anxiety disorder, the best thing to do is to reach out to a professional to have the child evaluated. Establishing a support system, with a counselor or with friends and family that make the child feel safe can be the first step in allowing the child to open up about what is bothering him or her. Read on for 15 ways to beat back-to-school stress.

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