What Does Anxiety Feel Like For Kids? How To Prep Your Child to Start School
As you start thinking about your child going to school or nursery, you may be thinking about the practicalities – do you have name labels? Do they have fall clothing in the right size? What are the logistics of how they are going to get there?
Are you also thinking about the emotional preparation you and your child can do to have as good a start as possible?
What does anxiety feel like in young children?
- Young children may find it difficult to express their feelings with words and may instead show that they are anxious or unsettled through their behaviour.
- They may become clingier, both when you go to drop them off and at other times during your week.
- They may become more disruptive and aggressive.
- They may regress, wanting to be carried more, start wetting themselves when previously toilet-trained etc.
- Their sleep may become disrupted and they may want to sleep with their parents more.
- They may complain of anxiety physical symptoms such as stomach aches and head aches.
Separation anxiety is part of typical development. Babies usually start to become upset when separated from their primary caregiver some time between 6 and 9 months. This continues on and off throughout the early years.
Anxiety around separations is considered normal until the age of 3 or 4. It should resolve as the child gets used to the new situation over a matter of weeks.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Separation Anxiety Disorder is an excessive and age inappropriate fear of being separated from significant others. It interferes with the ability to attend school, work or socialise.
Anxiety around separations is considered normal until the age of 3 or 4. It should resolve as the child gets used to the new situation over a matter of weeks. If a child older than this suffers from significant separation anxiety or the anxiety at any age does not seem to be resolving over time, it may be helpful to meet with a child mental health professional.
How to help anxiety – what you can do to help
Strike a balance between sounding positive and letting them express any fears and concerns.
- Start early and talk to them about their new school and teachers.
- Talk about any kids they already know who are going to school with them.
- Listen out for any fears they might express and be careful to acknowledge and not dismiss or minimise them e.g. “It might be hard because you don’t know anyone to start with”, “It’s ok to feel nervous”.
- Think back to other experiences they have had when things went well e.g. “Do you remember that last year you were worried about meeting your new pre-school teachers and then you got to know them and really loved them?”
Remember that children pick up on your emotions.
- Young children take their emotional cues from their parents. Try not to let them hear about the fears you have for them starting school or nursery.
- On the big day, you may be feeling emotional but try to give them a big smile before you walk away even if you then start crying once they can no longer see you.
- If you think it is going to be hard for you, you may want to plan to call your partner, a friend or family member straight after drop-off.
Don’t try to sneak off.
- As tempting as it can be to leave quietly while your child is engaged in play, it is not thought to be helpful for their overall healthy emotional development.
- Make sure you say goodbye, tell them you love them and that you will see them later.
- Your child may begin to cry again or cling to you but in the long run this will help them trust that you will tell them the truth and always be there for them.
Help your child become familiar with the physical environment.
- Visit the school beforehand if you can.
- Play in the school playground if it is open outside school hours.
- Practice your route to school together.
- Leave plenty of time to get there on the first day so that neither of you is feeling rushed.
Read books about going to school.
- There are many great books about starting school, get some from your local library and start reading them to your child over the Summer.
- Some great examples are:
- Tom Goes to Kindergarten by Margaret Wild and David Ledge
- Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney
- I am Too Absolutely Small for School featuring Charlie and Lola by Lauren Child
- The Invisible String by Patricia Karst
- The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
Start talking about the change early.
Help your child become familiar with the school
Always say goodbye
Read books about going to school/nursery.
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Dr. Jemma Helfman is a child and adolescent clinical psychologist. She works at Kidcrew, providing assessment and interventions for children with a variety of presenting difficulties. Jemma also provides consultation and training to schools and daycares.