Going to school is usually an exciting and enjoyable event for young children. However, for some it can cause intense fear or panic.
Not wanting to go to school may occur at anytime, but is most common in young children.. when they are dealing with the new challenges of school. These children may suffer from a fear of leaving the safety of their parents and home.
Refusal to go to school often begins following a period at home in which the child has become closer to the parent, such as a summer vacation, a holiday break, or a brief illness. It can also follow a stressful occurrence, such as the, mother getting back to work, or a working mother staying at home, a change in schools, birth of a sibling or a move to a new neighborhood.
The child may complain of a headache, sore throat, or stomachache shortly before it is time to leave for school. The illness subsides after the child is allowed to stay home, only to reappear the next morning before school. In some cases the child may simply refuse to leave the house. Since the panic comes from leaving home rather than being in school, frequently the child is calm once in school.
Children with an unreasonable fear of school may:
feel unsafe staying in a room by themselves
display clinging behavior
display excessive worry and fear about parents or about harm to themselves
shadow the mother or father around the house
have difficulty going to sleep
have exaggerated, unrealistic fears of animals, teachers, friends
fear being alone in the dark, or
have severe tantrums when forced to go to school
The child's panic and refusal to go to school is very difficult for parents to cope with.
Such symptoms and behavior are common among children with separation anxiety disorder. The potential long-term effects (anxiety and panic disorder as an adult) are serious for a child who has persistent separation anxiety.
The child may also develop serious educational or social problems if their fears and anxiety keep them away from school and friends for an extended period of time.
Separation anxiety disorder can get in the way of a child’s normal activities. Children with this disorder often:
Refuse to go to school. A child with separation anxiety disorder may have an unreasonable fear of school, and will do almost anything to stay home. They constantly complain about the teacher, peers and care-takers.
Display reluctance to go to sleep. Anxiety may make these children insomniacs, either because of the fear of being alone or due to nightmares about separation.
Complain of physical sickness like a headache or stomachache. At the time of separation, or before, children with this disorder often complain they feel ill.
Cling to the caregiver. Children with separation problems may shadow you around the house or cling to your arm or leg if you attempt to step out.
Your own patience and know-how can go a long way toward helping your child with separation anxiety disorder.
Keep calm during separation. If your child sees that you can stay cool, he or she is more likely to be calm, too.
Support the child's participation in activities. Encourage your child to participate in healthy social and physical activities.
Help a child who has been absent from school return as quickly as possible. Even if a shorter school day is necessary initially, children's symptoms are more likely to decrease when they discover that they can survive the separation.
Praise your child’s efforts. Use the smallest of accomplishments—going to bed without a fuss, finishing snack—as reason to give your child positive reinforcement.
But some kids with separation anxiety disorder may need professional intervention.
To decide if you need to seek help for your child, look for “red flags,” or extreme symptoms that go beyond milder warning signs.
Age-inappropriate clinginess or tantrums
Constant complaints of physical sickness
Withdrawal from friends, family, or peers
Refusing to go to school for weeks
Preoccupation with intense fear or guilt
Excessive fear of leaving the house
If your efforts to reduce these symptoms don’t work, it may be the time to find a specialist. Remember, these may also be symptoms of a trauma that your child has experienced.
If you see any of the following “red flags” and your interventions don’t seem to be enough, it may be necessary to get a professional to diagnose and help your child.