Overcoming School Anxiety: An Interview with Diane Peters Mayer
Today it is my pleasure to be introducing and interviewing Diane Peters Mayer, LCSW, a seasoned psychotherapist and author of Overcoming School Anxiety: How to Help Your Child Deal With Separation, Tests, Homework, Bullies, Math Phobia, and Other Worries. She is also author of the blog Overcoming School Anxiety.
Question: As a therapist I have seen more kids and teens coming in with school anxiety than ever before. Is this your experience and if so, why is this?
Diane: Yes Elisha, I'm seeing the same thing in my practice, with the majority of students in the tween group, ages 8-13. The main problem children are coming in with is separation anxiety, which seems pervasive. These kids begin to dread going out the door to school, making mornings pretty nightmarish for the child, but the whole family suffers too. Many of the problems children and parents talk about that I believe cause or increase school anxiety include:
- Increased School Pressure -- Even kindergarten isn't playtime anymore with the proliferation of testing from K thru 12. It's tough for some kids to be judged and evaluated against their peers, and if they don't test well their self-worth generally suffers. Homework loads are heavy in many school districts creating anxiety for children who are already anxious or have trouble keeping up with the work.
- Family Stress-Parents are reporting more household stress than ever. The economy has decimated many parents' jobs and financial security. If both parents are working, there may be little time for family interaction, for example, sit down dinners. School mornings can be chaotic and anxiety filled trying to get everybody out of the house at the same time-not a great way to start the day. Some children are over-scheduled and have little time to play, think, or just be kids.
- Social Pressure-Social difficulties can start right away in kindergarten. Children who have a hard time trying to "fit in" and can't are at a high risk for school anxiety. Tweens especially, bring in this problem. Bullying is common even in elementary school and US government studies report that over 70 percent of all school children will be the victim of at least one bullying incident.
- Technology-I hear lots of, "I can't get her away from the computer or TV!" The Mayo Clinic reports that excessive computer or TV use by children can lead to obesity, sleep problems, attention problems, depression and anxiety.
Question: What are the greatest obstacles to overcoming school anxiety?
Diane: One of the obstacles to overcoming school anxiety is that children have a hard time making sense of their anxious symptoms. Most kids just know that they feel sick and nervous and the thought of going to school is dreadful for them. The symptoms of anxiety are so disturbing and frightening that trying to flee to safety is the only answer for a child.
Imagine a 3rd grader having to deal with a pounding heartbeat, a stomachache, diarrhea, nausea, headache, muscle tension, shortness of breath, dizziness, feeling overwhelmed, out of control, helpless and embarrassed. And that's only some of the symptoms-it's no wonder that anxious children initially don't believe they can get better.
Another obstacle occurs when a parent's concern, fear and anxiety is projected onto their child. Overt parental anxiety only exacerbates the child's anxiety. And some parents have a difficult time understanding that their child is not manipulating, but really suffering.
Lastly, it's what the school will do to help the child adjust and become a successful student. Most schools I deal with have wonderful programs in place for anxious kids. A few don't which makes it more difficult for the child.
Question: If you were sitting across the table from a worried parent right now who has a child struggling with school anxiety, what advice would you give them?
Diane: First, I'd say that your child can overcome school anxiety, but it's going to take work from you and your child. Here are some tips to start the process:
- Talk to your child about what is troubling her. Listen to and honor her feelings no matter how irrational they sound. Reassure your child that together you are going to solve the problem and make things better for her.
- Be aware of your own anxiety and stay calm no matter what your child says or how she behaves. Your child is feeling out of control and you must be her "rock."
- Learn relaxation and calming exercises. I teach kids and parents how to belly breathe and "stay present centered" among other techniques which help them to take control of the anxiety and build confidence.
- Contact the school immediately and problem solve with teachers and guidance counselors. If symptoms persist see your family physician and a child therapist.
- Talk to your child calmly about why she must go to school-to learn, it's the law, etc. Don't freak out when she balks.
- Reduce household stress and model good stress management and coping skills.
- Let your child know that you believe in her ability to overcome anxiety. Your belief in your child is empowering and will help her succeed.
Thank you Elisha and readers of this wonderful site.
As always, please share your thoughts, stories, and questions below. Your interactions create a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.
great help! - Price - Jun 5th 2014
I am currently a full time student (and full time employee) and am studying the school of social work. I am very interested in this article as it is in an area I would love to work with and I have experienced it personally with my own child. Anxiety can come out in very many forms from some children freezing up and not communicating to more of what we have experienced in our home with what we call "melt downs" screaming, crying, saying we don't want to attend something at the last minute and more. It has not happened for school itself as much as certain days when something is going on at school (such as friend drama) or 5 minutes before leaving for our soccer game or a friend's birthday party. For years we could not understand why until I started to piece it seemed when we were excited or nervous about things. We are still trying to find ways to communicate differently. I am glad that I have this opportunity to hopefully learn a lot on this subject for my own personal family as well as my future career!