Originally created 07/31/00

Tips for beating the back-to-school butterflies

While some children will be bolting out the door with excitement about the first day of school, others may be anxious -- even if they've only been away for the summer.

School can be great fun, of course, but it also can be a bit overwhelming, so it's perfectly normal for children to show some anxiety about school. That's especially true when a child begins school or when she's just entered a different school. Other pivotal pressure times are around third grade, when most schools begin grading and comparing children academically, and seventh grade, when schoolwork demands longer homework readings and a higher level of organizational thinking and comprehension.

Sometimes a child may become overly anxious, perhaps even downright scared, about school. That fear can lead to psycosymatic illnesses -- headaches, stomachache, nausea or dizziness -- that keep them at home. These complaints usually follow a pattern, occurring on Monday mornings or following vacations. That doesn't mean that a child is not feeling real physical distress -- many of us have been nervous enough for our stomach to hurt at some point in our lives. Once it's been determined that the pain is not due to a physical problem, parents should try to find the source of the child's anxiety.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, school phobia occurs equally in boys and girls, and most often between the ages of five and seven (at the start of elementary school) and the ages of eleven and fourteen (the beginnings of junior and senior high school).

School-phobic children should be sent back to school. The longer they go without attending, the more entrenched their anxieties become and the harder it will be to return. Heaped onto their original fears will be secondary worries about missed work and the reaction of classmates and teachers.

To help children cope with back-to-school butterflies, try to ask specific questions to prompt productive discussions: "I know that sometimes kids are a little afraid of school because they're not sure where things are, or because they have problems with work, or the teacher, or a classmate. Is something like that bothering you?"

Admit that you were fearful of something at school as a child and that many people have similar concerns. Then, when she describes the problem, acknowledge her feelings and discuss strategies for changing the situation. Help her practice free throws, for instance, if classmates have been teasing her on the basketball court. Or help her learn better study skills if she is struggling with her schoolwork.

If it seems that a child can't describe what's wrong, talk to her teacher. Teachers have seen many children over the years in the same setting and can usually pinpoint a problem. If severe school refusal or anxiety persists beyond the second week of school, seek professional guidance.

Fortunately, you can usually resolve back-to-school fears by being reassuring and responsive to your child's specific troubles. Be firm about attendance and help him work at making school a good experience

-- Information by David A. Mrazek, M.D., Chairman of Psychiatry at Children's National Medical Center.


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