The beginning of a school year can bring mixed feelings, from excitement about seeing friends and encountering new opportunities, to anxiety about changes and challenges.
As a parent, speaker, educator, podcaster, and bestselling author on anxiety, Dr Jodi Richardson is all too familiar with navigating the stresses and uncertainties of going (back) to school – but is determined to help families to live and thrive with anxiety.
She’s told 96five’s Jess Drummond, there are many causes of anxiety around attending school, particularly when starting term one.
“One of the big things is that uncertainty around change and transition drives anxiety; it sounds the alarm in a child’s brain” Dr Richardson said.
There can be general anxiety around the change and uncertainty of a new teacher and new classmates. There can be for some – and often younger children – separation anxiety, so the brain’s alarm sounds when the separation is about to happen or when the child starts to think about saying goodbye to Mum or Dad at the school gates.
“Other issues which are challenging for kids are around friendships; sometimes for kids, school doesn’t feel like a really safe place. There might be some kids who are not being very kind, or even more troubling issues like bullying. Some kids really struggle with their schoolwork so it feels really tricky for them, and that can drive anxiety as well.”
Dr Richardson says while some signs of anxiety can be obvious, such as the child becoming clingy or teary amid separation anxiety, others are harder to identify. She advises parents to pay attention their child’s physical symptoms.
“Whilst [anxiety] starts in the brain, it very much shows in the body. Kids might talk about a racing heart or they might feel like they can’t catch their breath. They might feel sick in the tummy [or] complain of a headache. Sometimes with a headache, for example, a parent might think, ‘Oh, maybe it’s your eyesight that’s in need of some extra help.’ It’s good if you’re not sure to see the GP [and] … start to tease out, ‘What’s the cause of this? Is it glasses? Is it something wrong with the gut or is it actually anxiety?’ Over time with more understanding, we get to know exactly what’s happening.”
Dr Richardson suggests drawing on the child’s past successes to overcome anxiety and achieve important tasks.
“Talk to your kids about times when they’ve felt uncomfortable or a little bit fearful, and needed to get a little bit of brave on, a little bit of courage to do something important. Hopefully all families can find an example to talk about. When it comes to anxiety, that’s the kind of ethos we really want to live with in a family – that sometimes it might feel scary, it might feel a little bit hard and the brain will say, ‘Don’t do it – stop!’ but the fact that we can draw on a little bit of courage, a little bit of bravery, with supportive parents helps anxious kids still do what’s important, because the minute they stop doing something that feels hard, it makes it so much harder to get them back, particularly going to school.”
Dr Richardson explores anxiety further in her podcast, “Well, Hello Anxiety”, and delves into the specifics of school anxiety in the episode titled, “Well, Hello School Anxiety”.
For more information, visit Dr Jodi Richardson’s website.
Listen to the full interview in the player above.