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Anxiety & Panic Attacks

Children who refuse to go to school - separation anxiety

Most children find going to school exciting and enjoyable. Sometimes a child may become terrified, trying every avoidance tactic in order to stay away from school. Parents should be aware that children who regularly say that they are too sick to attend school, could be doing so in order to avoid anxious feelings.

Of course most children don't want to go to school sometimes; this happens commonly at ages where children are faced with tougher school activities or exams. Some children suffer what is called 'Separation Anxiety' which is fear of leaving the safety of their parents or home. This period of a child's life is not only disturbing and scary for the child but also frustrating and worrying for the child's parents.

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Childhood anxiety can present itself in a number of ways.

  • constant thoughts and fears about safety of self and parents
  • refusing to go to school
  • frequent stomach aches and other physical complaints
  • extreme worries about sleeping away from home
  • overly clingy
  • panic or tantrums at times of separation from parents
  • trouble sleeping or nightmares

At the age of about 13, I went through a period of what my doctor called "school phobia". I became irrationally anxious, depressed and scared. I would regularly seek the assistance of the school nurse, call my mother to collect me and sit alone somewhere hiding. Feeling that way at such a young age is dreadful, it is not only scary but confusing too, the psyche of a child is very superficial until this age and the sudden realisation that life is not all about play and fun and in fact quite daunting, challenging and delicate, comes as quite a shock to children. A child will discover their mortality a varying ages but this realisation too, can cause a child immense distress if not handled correctly by parents or guardians.

It is always difficult for a child to break away from home after an extended period of being at home, such as the school holidays or time off sick. Factors such as moving to a new area, a divorce or a bereavement can cause immense stress to children and set off disturbed, anxious behaviour that results in separation anxiety.

Avoidance strategies that are used by children are usually based around feeling ill, they know this to be a successful manipulation tool as it works when they are really ill. The device used by children usually follows the pattern of being apparent at the time, disappearing during the day and reappearing the next morning. In some cases, the child may just simply refuse to leave the house.

Children with separation anxiety may display a whole range of behaviours, here are some of the most likely. They may:

  • feel unsafe staying in a room by themselves
  • display clinging behavior
  • display excessive worry and fear about parents or about harm to themselves
  • shadow the mother or father around the house
  • have difficulty going to sleep
  • have nightmares
  • have exaggerated, unrealistic fears of animals, monster, burglars
  • fear being alone in the dark
  • have severe tantrums when forced to go to school

The extended implications of separation anxiety can be far reaching. In the very long term, it can lead to anxiety and panic disorders in adulthood, but short term it could lead to social isolation, educational difficulties and communication difficulties. The conflict between parent and child about the issue of going to school could also cause a rift in that relationship. It is of the very greatest importance therefore that a child receives immediate attention.

Since the anxiety tends to be more to do with getting to school rather than actually being there, it is important that a child receives targeted exercises in order to work through their anxiety and irrational fears.

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