With the new school year approaching, many children and teenagers are experiencing a rush of varied emotions. Dr. Saleem Al Nuaimi, a Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist with Hamad Medical Corporation’s (HMC) Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) says while a certain amount of school-related anxiety is normal, parents need to monitor their children’s behavior.
“The beginning of a new school year can be a challenging time for young people and can trigger severe stress and anxiety. Educational environments play a dominant role in young people’s intellectual, emotional, and social development and children with mental disorders such as anxiety can face major challenges. It’s important for parents to be vigilant and to carefully monitor their children,” said Dr. Al Nuaimi.
While school anxiety is not a psychiatric diagnosis, when the condition is severe, it may be a symptom of an anxiety disorder and could signal the need for professional intervention. Worldwide, ten to twenty percent of children and adolescents experience some form of a mental disorder before the age of 18. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14. If untreated, these conditions severely influence children’s development, their educational attainments, and their potential to live fulfilling and productive lives.
Dr. Al Nuaimi says while it can be difficult for parents to identify anxiety in children, common warning signs that a child may be distressed about returning to school include making excuses not to go and expressing worrisome thoughts.
“Some children who experience anxiety may refuse to go to school, or their anxiety may manifest in physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomachaches, nausea, or diarrhea. Other children may repeatedly ask the same questions that center around troublesome thoughts such as ‘What if I get a bad teacher?’ or ‘What if I get bullied?,” said Dr. Al Nuaimi.
Dr. Al Nuaimi says it’s normal for children to feel worried or anxious from time to time. He says anxiety is one of the most common mental health concerns for children but says, unlike normal anxiety an anxiety disorder interferes with the child’s school, home, and social life.
“If the anxiety is starting to interfere with the child’s ability to go to school and results in other symptoms such as excessive crying, aggression/temper outbursts, sleep or appetite disturbance, avoiding leaving the house, avoiding social situations, and no longer participating in activities they use to enjoy, it’s time to get assistance from a professional,” says Dr. Al Nuaimi.
Dr. Al Nuaimi says there are several things that parents can do to help reduce or stabilize school-related anxiety, including being empathetic and listening to their child’s concerns. He recommends reassuring the child that it’s normal to feel a little scared in new situations and says ensuring the young person is eating well and getting enough sleep are also important.
“Be empathetic and listen to your child’s concerns. Help them problem solve by putting things into context through posing questions like ‘What are some things that you can do if you find yourself feeling worried?,” says Dr. Al Nuaimi.
“Make sure your child is sleeping well and transitions back into a good sleep cycle at least a week or two before the start of school. Ensure they are eating balanced meals with healthy snacks. Avoid serving fast food, high sugar content foods, and artificial foods,” added Dr. Al Nuaimi. “
Dr. Al Nuaimi also recommends trying to help the child focus on the positive aspects of going back to school, such as spending time with their friends and learning new things. He also suggests parents and their children go and see the school together and meet their child’s teachers before the start of school.
He also stresses the importance of not supporting a child in avoiding school and says the more proactive parents are about investigating the source of their child’s anxiety, the better. Dr. Al Nuaimi says the longer a child is left to struggle with anxiety alone, the harder it is to achieve lasting recovery.
HMC’s CAMHS is a specialized multi-disciplinary service for children and young people up to the age of 18. Offering a broad range of services which support the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people, last year specialists at the service cared for patients during more than 6,300 outpatient appointments.