Do you remember what emotions you felt on the first day of middle school? How about something a little more recent, like your first day of work at a new job? Maybe by now the scary thoughts and fear you had then are no longer part of your memory because they were fairly normal responses to what was happening that day, but can you imagine what it would be like if those feelings were a part of you all the time, even when they do not make sense?
What if you were a young child trying to go to school every day or to a friend’s birthday party on the weekend, but fear made it difficult for you go?
Perhaps you are the parent of a child struggling with anxiety and you’re wondering exactly what is happening inside of their mind and body when they think about a social setting. It can be hard for everyone when a child in the family is experiencing anxiety symptoms, but even harder when their school teacher or their best friend doesn’t understand what is going on and they are not supportive of their emotional needs.
Teachers often do not know what is happening with the child and they can underestimate the effects of anxiety on the student and their peers. Teachers can mistake anxiety for many other things and sometimes do not have the knowledge yet on how to recognize anxiety in children, work with the parents for the best outcome, or be advocates for the child within the larger school system.
Do you ever wonder how you can better understand the needs of your child when they are faced with these types of challenging settings and are not understood or supported? In the rest of this article, I will share some information that can be helpful when trying to understand the 10 ways anxiety can affect a child’s education and their life.
Here is a list of ways that will be shared more in detail throughout the article:
- Extreme worry about themselves, their parents, or family members
- Having nightmares and lacking sleep
- Experiencing panic attacks
- Decline in education (school)
- Experiencing physical symptoms such as stomachaches and headaches
- Inability to focus and concentrate
- Increased risk of developing other anxiety disorders or depression
- Loss of social experience
- Lack of communication in social settings
- Being misunderstood
You may be wondering what the difference is between anxiety and an anxiety disorder. Are there any anxiety disorders that are specific to children? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines anxiety disorders as being different than normative fear or anxiety because they are excessive and last beyond developmentally appropriate times.
Children with anxiety disorders may overestimate the danger of a situation or avoid it completely. Separation anxiety disorder and selective mutism usually begin during childhood and continue throughout adulthood if not treated. Panic attacks can happen as a response to fear for those who have an anxiety disorder.
Separation anxiety can cause the the child to be anxious about separating from their attachment figure (parent or caregiver) in a way that is not developmentally appropriate for their age. Children who are living with separation anxiety disorder may have nightmares, be worried that something will happen to their attachment figure and be reluctant to be away from them, as well as physical symptoms of distress.
The diagnostic criteria for separation anxiety disorder includes excessive worrying events that could separate them from their attachment figure, such as being kidnapped, getting lost, having an accident, or becoming ill. The criteria also includes evidence of the child being reluctant or refusing to go out away from home to places such as school, reluctance to sleep away from home, and physical symptoms like headaches and stomach aches when they are away from their attachment figure.
If you are noticing your child is not as engaged in school as they used to be or is now having a hard time making and keeping friends because they are not interested in having play dates, maybe they are experiencing some anxiety.
Separation anxiety is the most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder in children. Is is estimated that 75% of all children who have been diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder have some disruption in their education by refusing to go to school. Children who do make it to school may still suffer because they are unable to focus on what is being taught due to their overfocus on those they are worried about at home.
Children with separation anxiety are already lacking in sleep at night because of their nightmares, but they also are kept awake at night because of some of the physical symptoms they experience. Bedtime can be challenging for the parent who doesn’t understand the fear that their child has about going to sleep in their own room.
When children do not have enough sleep, they are unable to fully engage in the classroom setting. There is often confusion around their behavior in class which can lead to a decrease in positive interactions between the child and school staff as well as between the child and their peers. Teachers and other students may not completely understand the needs of the child and that can cause frustration for them both and even cause the child to be mislabeled as being defiant.
As the parent of a child who might be experiencing some of these symptoms, you also may have your own unique response. Possibly you haven’t always understood their actions and responded in a way that reinforced their behavior. When a child is displaying negative behavior, you might have removed them from the area, causing them to react even more because their behavior was based on their anxiety to begin with.
Without fully understanding what is happening to your child in the anxious moment, you and others may struggle with how to be most helpful to them. Parents may choose to allow the child to sleep with them or stay home with them instead of going out with other family members. This can negatively impact the family system and cause stress among the other family members. Parents who are trying hard to provide what one child may need can become weary when other children in the family feel left out or neglected.
Have you noticed that you are closer to one child in the family? Maybe a bond has been formed between you and the child in your family who needs to be close to feel safe while separation has happened between you and your spouse or other children without you knowing why.
Separation anxiety disorder can affect your child now and in the future. A child’s isolation now can cause them to have social impairment in the future, increasing their risk of remaining unmarried. Also, children with separation anxiety disorder may be at a higher risk of developing other anxiety disorders and depression in adolescence and adulthood.
There are other ways anxiety affects children’s education and life that are not as obvious. What if you have a child who gets to school and completely stops talking, but as soon as you pick them up from school they begin talking again? Does your child get to church and stand in silence when the pastor says hello, but moments before in the car they were socializing with their siblings? Does it happen often in different social settings? Maybe they are suffering from another childhood anxiety disorder called selective mutism.
Selective mutism is fairly rare, but does show up in children usually before the age of 5, and is often not noticed until the child goes to school. A lot of times children will outgrow selective mutism, but is is important to be aware of some of the signs, symptoms, and effects of this disorder because it is the source of many ways anxiety affects children’s education and life.
Selective mutism has criteria that has to be met before diagnosing a child, which includes their consistent failure to speak in social settings where it is expected, such as school, the interference of their education or communication, failure to speak when it isn’t related to the child not knowing the information being spoken about, and the symptoms are not related to another communication disorder or occur at the same time as another disorder, such as autism spectrum disorder. These disturbances have to have lasted longer than one month and not be limited to the first month of school. The criteria to be met before a child is diagnosed as having selective mutism is fairly small, but there are some key factors to understanding what type of things should be present.
Children with selective mutism will often speak at home with close family members like their mom, dad, and siblings, but will not speak in social settings and sometimes may not even speak to other family members outside of the home, like their grandparents or cousins. Children will also be silent around their friends.
Can you imagine the courage it took for your child to make a friend at school? It is probably not easy for the child who suffers with selective mutism to make friends and probably even more difficult to have friends that they can not verbally communicate with.
Children with selective mutism do not usually have speech or language disorders, they just cannot move past the scared feeling that forces them to be silent when around people outside of their immediate circle. This behavior in the child usually comes from high levels of social anxiety.
Selective mutism can lead to difficulties in school, especially when the teacher is unable to interact with the child and assess their educational levels or the child is not able to interact with the teacher about their needs. Children suffer socially as well. Although children with selective mutism will sometimes find nonverbal ways to communicate, such as pointing, they may still be teased by their peers which will increase their anxiety in social settings.
Parents of children with selective mutism will often be more protective or controlling of their children. Do you find yourself being overprotective sometimes of your child who may be a little shy, clingy, or withdrawn?
Children with anxiety of any form, whether it is constant or only shows up sometimes, are affected in ways that are sometimes not clear at first to the people in their lives who care about them. Young children may not even understand what is happening in their body at first, but as children go into adolescence they are more aware and the need to feel better may become one of their priorities, but they may not know what to do. They can try things that they think might work, but it could lead them to more anxiety, confusion, guilt, or shame about their decisions.
All of the worry and fear that is present in children’s lives from separation anxiety and selective mutism can be challenging for parents, siblings, friends, and teachers, but extremely troublesome for the child who is trying to manage their symptoms. If you find yourself wondering if your child may be struggling in school or in social settings due to anxiety, there is hope, because both of these disorders have a high success rate of being managed.
Children and their families can participate in therapy together and learn ways to understand how to manage anxiety together. Children can learn how to cope with and change their thoughts about their anxiety. If you are at the stage where you are not sure if anxiety is the cause of some of the distress your child has been experiencing, scheduling an appointment with a counselor at Seattle Christian Counseling may be a first step to understanding and healing for your child and your family. Understanding your child’s anxiety can be the doorway to a new beginning for everyone.
American Psychiatric Association, (2013), Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, (5th edition) (DSM-5), Washington, DCEhrenreich, J. T., Santucci, L. C., & Weiner, C. L. (2008). SEPARATION ANXIETY DISORDER IN YOUTH: PHENOMENOLOGY, ASSESSMENT, AND TREATMENT. Psicologia Conductual, 16(3), 389–412. http://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.2008.16-389
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