The first week of school is the worst for young children who suffer from anxiety, according to child psychology specialists.
Dr Stephen Carbone, beyondblue’s Research and Policy Leader, said this is especially true of children with separation anxiety disorder, which describes excessive distress in children when leaving home or their parents.
“Of course not many children are looking forward to starting school for the year,” Dr Carbone said. “But it’s when it’s a daily fight to even get to school that it becomes an issue.”
The Department of Health’s second survey into the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents released in August 2015 reported that five per cent of 4-11 year olds had experienced separation anxiety disorder in the past 12 months.
According to the report, separation anxiety disorder is the most common mental disorder experienced in the primary school age bracket.
It’s also the earliest mental health disorder to be diagnosed in children, according to clinical psychologist Emily Cale who helps administer Macquarie University’s Cool Kids anxiety intervention program.
“The mean age for separation anxiety to be detected is around five or six years of age,” she said. “Generalised and social anxiety is more like 10,11 and 12 years old.”
“While parents may have noticed irritable or inhibited temperament as early as they age of two, it’s not until children have to leave their family to go to school that anxiety becomes more obvious,” Ms Cale said.
According to Ms Cale the worst times of the school year for children with anxiety conditions are the exam periods for older children and the beginning of the year for younger ones.
“There are a lot of changes and uncertainties at this time of year,” she said.
“They can be anxious about being separated from their mum and dad, be worried no one’s going to pick them up from school, that they’ll get put in classes with mean teachers or make a mistake in front of other children.”
She said that it’s important to recognise that everybody experiences the feeling of anxiety, however, it’s when anxiety begins to have flow on effects like frequent absence from school, or interference in developmental milestones that it becomes problematic.
Symptoms of a childhood anxiety disorders could include trouble sleeping, going to the bathroom frequently, crying when being dropped off at school, headaches and stomach aches or being restless.
“They will tend to ask lots of questions for reassurance, like ‘what will happen if…’ or express that they can’t or don’t want to go to school,” Ms Cale said.
Sean Redmond, who authored a book on children’s anxiety, said parents should try to stay calm.
“Keep things light and try to look for ways to associate joy with going to school,” he said.
If your child is showing symptoms of an anxiety disorder, Dr Carbone said the best thing you can do is inform yourself about the condition and organise an appointment with your GP.
“Psychological treatment of anxiety at an early age is very effective,” he said. “Medication is only used in the most severe childhood anxiety cases.”
Beyondblue has also developed a free, online program called BRAVE to help children, parents and adolescents cope with symptoms of anxiety.
Childhood anxiety dos and don’ts
Childhood clinical psychologist Emily Cale says:
- Talk with your child about their worries
- Provide evidence of why their concerns might be unrealistic or unlikely to happen
- Get them to physically relax and slow their breathing
- Ask them to think about a time they successfully faced a challenge
- Break down their fear into smaller parts they can confront gradually
- Get stressed or terse in response to their anxiety
- Force them to ‘snap out of it’ or ‘just do it’
- Allow them to continue to avoid their fears
Emika’s first day of Kindergarten
Five-year-old Emika Flannery is setting out to her first day of kindergarten on Thursday with a smile on her face. Emika has been to three orientation days at her northern suburbs primary school already and has spent time talking with her parents about the changes the next chapter of her childhood will bring.
“We have just tried to be positive about it and tell her about the new friends she will make and things she will learn,” said Emika’s mother, Hiroko Flannery. “I think she is excited.”
“She loves the library at her school, so we have spoken about the books she can read and borrow there.”
Emika speaks both English and Japanese at home, which her parents are sure will assist her learning throughout life.
“It gives her a perspective I never had growing up,” said Emika’s father, Joshua Flannery. “She is very aware she has two languages in her mind and different cultures and behaviours attached to each. She likes talking about it too.”
“She is also very aware of other children who are bilingual,” said Ms Flannery. “She will say ‘Oh, that kid speaks Chinese’ or ‘that girl also speaks Japanese,” said Ms Flannery.
Ms Flannery said she was a bit concerned about how Emika will adapt to so many new faces, “as she could be a bit shy”.
“But I’m sure she’ll get used to it after a few weeks,” Ms Flannery said.
Emika’s first day at school will involve a 45 minute interview so her teachers can get to know her. Two friends from Emika’s pre-school will also join her kindergarten cohort.
This article first appeared on ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ on 22 January 2016.