Mother and child touching foreheads lovingly - Anxiety Canada blog post image 2023

Author: Dr. Melanie Badali

In a previous blog post, Managing an Anxious Child – Where to Start, I wrote about symptoms of anxiety and my own experience with my daughter. Fast-forward and now we are heading back to school, or as most parents call it, the happiest time of the year. I wouldn’t necessarily call back to the school the happiest time for my house; it is, however, the most anxious time.  As August comes to an end, the complaints of stomach aches and the case of the what if’s begin: “What if my friends aren’t in my class, what if I don’t know anyone in my new class, what if I don’t like my teacher.” If you have a child who struggles with anxiety, you’ll understand how stressful the new school year can be.

When I was a child, the anticipation of new school supplies and new books to smell was all I needed to get me excited about going back to school.

It’s no surprise that not all kids feel the same way, but for kids like my daughter, the thought of returning to school is overwhelming. When my daughter started kindergarten, we expected the separation anxiety that we experienced when we dropped her off at pre-school or for that matter, pretty much whenever we tried to leave her at any activity or birthday. We did have those days – the days when she wouldn’t detach from my legs and I had to push her into the class and try to close the door without closing it on her fingers. But after a few rough months the year went well, so we thought the worst was over.

Enter grade one. Unfortunately, we weren’t aware of the chaos that happens during the first week of school from grade one onwards, and so we were not prepared for what was to come. If you have kids in elementary school, you will know what I mean – the kids are moved around during the first week while the teachers determine class sizes. Each new day is met with a new set of uncertainties about the day ahead, like what class she would be in, who would be her teacher that day, what kids would be in her class, who she would play with at lunch, and where we would pick her up after school. It was a new challenge for her, but she made it through the week like a champ, and once again, we thought the worst was behind us. The first part of the year went pretty well; however, towards the end of the year, she started to have difficulties.

It happened overnight. One day, she was excited to go to school and the next she no longer wanted to go to school. Each night as bedtime approached, she would begin to complain of stomach aches and obsess over potential events that may or may not occur the following day. Luckily, she liked to talk about what was going on, so we managed to learn that something was going on at lunchtime and that she didn’t want to be at school during lunch. The source of her stress got increasingly worse, and the dread of school turned into flat out school refusal. She didn’t want to go to school unless she went home for lunch.

I’m the first to admit that I did a lot of things wrong, and yes, I did pick her up from school and take her home for lunch on some days. I know I shouldn’t have given in, but on some days, I felt like I had no choice. Some days it was the only thing I could do to get her to let go of the side of the house or get her into the classroom.

The good news is that my daughter was lucky to have support from a counsellor who really understood her and worked with her and us to develop tools to help her cope with her worries over lunchtime. I’m happy to report that things have been going really well, and last year, she didn’t go home for lunch once – a big win for us! What’s more, today is the first day of school and this year; she didn’t complain of stomach aches leading up to this day. And last night I asked her if she was excited to go back, she said, “Yes.” I don’t know what this year will bring, but I’m happy for the small wins that we celebrate.

I know that when we started out, I had no idea of what to expect and no idea of where to begin. We listened to people who told us that it is something that she will grow out of, and we believed it, thinking that we were out of the woods after kindergarten. Although things are better, we still work on managing anxiety every day. If your child is experiencing anxiety and you don’t know where to begin, I’ve included a diagram for treatment from the Anxiety Canada website below. The diagram provides some tips on where to begin, but if you have questions, your family doctor is always a good place to start. I’ve also included links to our online self-help resources below.

Note: Before expanding nationally and becoming Anxiety Canada, our organization was called AnxietyBC.

Anxiety Canada Resources

1) It’s important to learn some background knowledge of what anxiety can look like in a child. We offer resources that explore different anxiety disorders and how to talk about anxiety with your child in the first place, which can be a hard task to navigate through. Learn more about providing your child with a compassionate, informative, and encouraging atmosphere for opening up about anxiety here.

2) We offer evidence-based tools and exercises you can work on with your child; see My Anxiety Plan (MAP), our free, online anxiety management course. The step-by-step guide for parents with anxious children was developed by Anxiety Canada and a psychologist so that parents can use the plan from home.

3) In the role of a parent, you may get so caught up in taking care of your child that you neglect taking care of yourself. In order to help your child in the best way that you can, you need to be cared for and nurtured so that you have the proper fuel to supply the same care for your child. Find information and tools to manage your anxiety here.

4) If you are finding that navigating your child’s anxiety, or your own, has become a daunting task, do not hesitate to seek help from a professional. Opening up and searching for information and resources are positive steps you can take to manage anxiety and find that you are not alone.