The Bus is Here and I Can’t Pry My Child Off My Leg! Identifying Symptoms of School Phobia

Most parents can remember the traumatic and extremely emotional “first day of school” for their children. This moment in life is difficult for everyone involved; the parent, because it means that their little baby is growing up, and the child, because they have never been away from mom and dad like this before. The child is entering an unknown world, full of strangers (and aren’t they taught to not talk to them), adults who look scary, and a new set of rules and expectations. This day is also difficult for the teachers, as they must manage an entire class of emotional and fearful children. Even the bus drivers sometimes feel pressure as dad and mom follow them all the way to school to make sure that he/she is not a driving maniac. Yes, the first day of school can be very difficult for all of us…but what if the child is 14? Or 16? Or 18? What if the first day of school becomes an issue every year?

Believe it or not, going back to school always has some fear attached to it, but for some children, the fear is excessive enough to qualify as School Phobia or Social Phobia. For some, the idea of a seventeen-year-old young man crying because he has to go back to school at the end of the summer break might be humorous. But, for teenagers dealing with these overpowering emotions, there is nothing funny about it.

School Phobia is an active member of the Anxiety Disorder family. Unfortunately, anxiety disorders seem to be growing in frequency for children of all ages. Whether life is becoming too fast and stressful, or if it is the result of a breakdown in the family system, we don’t know for sure . But the truth is that lots of children are showing more signs of anxiety than ever before. One of these anxiety disorders is called Separation Anxiety, in which a child shows an excessive fear of leaving the home or of being apart from someone they are very attached to emotionally. School Phobia is like an extension of Separation Anxiety and even Social Phobia, where a child has great feelings of fear when in a social environment. Unfortunately, schools seem to be having increased cases of truancy and absenteeism and it also seems like more students are open to dropping out of school than ever before. Of course there is more than one factor to account for this but School Phobia has to be one that is considered.

There are many symptoms of school phobia:
- Refusing to go to school
- Frequent complaints of physical ailments such as headaches or
stomach aches.
- Clingy behavior towards parents
- Depressed attitude about school
- Poor hygiene or appearing “disheveled”
- Fear of something bad happening to them or to parents
- Sleep difficulties
- A drop in grades
- Skipping class or skipping school
- Unrealistic or excessive fears of burglars, dark, or animals

This list is not exhaustive but will hopefully be a starting point for parents to identify if there is a problem. Another issue to remember is that major life stressors can lead to anxiety or school phobia. Children who are dealing with divorce, moving to a new house or school, or grieving the death of a loved one can all be vulnerable to his kind of anxiety.

One thing to remember is that almost all children have some fear about going back to school each year. Most fears are completely normal and tend to fade away after a few weeks. School phobia represents a magnified and continual fear of the school environment. So, what is a parent to do? How do mom and dad reach out and help their child who is struggling with school phobia?

1. Parental involvement is essential: All the counseling and medicine in the world will fall short if the primary caregivers are uninvolved. Here are some basic tips for parents:
A. Security: Anxiety of any kind represents a fear that one is insecure, not safe, not in control or is in danger. It is very important for a parent (or parents) to implement a schedule or a routine for the household. Regular meal times, homework times, play time, and bed times really do mean a lot for every child; but especially a child that suffers from anxiety. This advice may prove challenging for a single parent or a parent who struggles to organize themselves. However, offering security is worth making the effort. A key to this is putting the schedule on paper and following it as often as possible. If this is not an area of strength for you, seek help with it. It means a great deal to the child; it not only helps them feel secure but it also shows that you love them enough to make the effort.
B. Empower them to face their fear. As parents we want to protect our children from harm or even their fear of being harmed. However, with this level of anxiety, the child’s fears are often unrealistic. If we shelter them from fears that aren’t really threats, we are in danger of reinforcing a fear that shouldn’t be a fear at all. Thus, don’t allow them to stay home from school every time they ask. Schools have attendance policies and many students fail because they miss too many days. Parents are not doing their child any favors by excusing those days or allowing their child to miss often for questionable reasons. This only reinforces their fear, because they have not attended school regularly enough to see that the fears are needless. Now, some kids have a good reason to fear school. Perhaps they are being bullied or harassed. This is a different case and should be taken up with school administrators. But when the anxiety is unwarranted, a child must face it. Show your child much love and confidence in them. Then, every day, touch base on how that particular day went. If it was okay, encourage them in it. If the day went badly, then show empathy and encourage them that you’ll keep facing each day together.

2. Seek a counselor who works with children/adolescents. Search for a counselor who loves kids and is comfortable working with them. A counselor can help come along beside the family and face the fears together. A counselor will help to confront the fears and challenge the cognitions behind the fears. The counselor is also an objective helper who is a great support for both parents and children; a teammate who will help the family establish and reach goals in overcoming the anxiety.

3. Medication
When anxiety interferes with a child’s daily functioning, medication may be needed; at least as a bridge to get from point A (stuck in anxiety) and point B (overcoming and coping with anxiety). Ask your counselor for the name of a trusted psychiatrist, who works with children.

Above all, pray for your child and love them with all your heart. Remember to put God first in your family and teach that to your children.

School is always a bit scary (especially back when spanking was allowed) but it shouldn’t be an issue that paralyzes a child with fear. If you see signs of school phobia in your child, talk to them about their fears and reach out for help.

About the Author: Aaron Welch is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who has devoted his life to reaching out and helping people to grow and mature through difficult life situations. Whether it has been through clinical counseling, pastoral ministry, youth camps and conventions, public speaking, leadership training, educational instruction, athletic coaching or small group ministry, Aaron has over eighteen years of experience in assisting people through life struggles and personal growth. His genuine love for people and his outgoing personality combine to create a safe and caring environment for putting the pieces of life back together

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