For some children, leaving home to go to school for
the first time creates overwhelming fear. In some cases, the fear disappears after
a few hours. In others, children may need help overcoming anxieties.
"Experiencing and conquering the normal fears
of childhood are part of the development process," says Bettye Cheves, R.N.,
mental health nurse and instructor with the University of Kentucky College of
Nursing. "When children refuse to go to school, they usually don't fear school,
they fear leaving home."
If the fear persists for more than four weeks, the
child or adolescent may have separation anxiety, also known as school phobia.
Separation anxiety can occur because of a major event in a child's life such as
divorce, sickness, death, birth of a sibling, or domestic violence. It usually
occurs with children from families who are very close.
School phobia symptoms
Children with separation anxiety have three or
more of the following eight symptoms for at least four weeks:
- recurrent and excessive distress, crying, and screaming when separating
from home or a major attachment figure
- worrying excessively about something bad happening to their major attachment
- persistent and excessive worrying about something bad happening to them
- persistent reluctance to go to school
- fearful of being alone without a familiar adult
- problems with bedtime such as refusing to go to sleep or to sleep overnight
at a friend's or relative's house
- repeated nightmares with a theme of separation
- repeated complaints of physical symptoms when separation occurs or is going
These symptoms can cause problems with social, academic, and other areas of a
child's everyday life. When this occurs, a parent may need to seek help from a
mental health professional.
But first, parents can try other interventions and work with teachers and guidance
counselors, Cheves says.
Helping Your Child
Here are some tips for parents who think their child is suffering from
- Talk to your child and help him or her express feelings and worries.
- Make your child go to school unless he or she has a fever or persistent
- Give the child an object from home to take to school.
- Be businesslike-tell them you know they are scared, but they will be fine.
- Have another person take your child to school or to the bus stop if he or
she has a hard time separating from you.
- Don't argue with your child. Be factual: "You are going to school."
"The worse thing you can do is not make your child go to school," Cheves
says. "No matter what, reassure your child that he is going to be okay and
reinforce that statement by making him go to school."