Michael Staines
Michael Staines

16.13 14 Sep 2021


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COVID lockdowns have seen a big increase in school avoidance among children – so what should you do if your child is anxious about going to school.

On The Pat Kenny Show this morning, Clinical Psychologist Mark Smyth said sever cases of school avoidance can see children failing to attend class for years at a time.

He said lower levels of the phenomenon are “much more common than you would think” with times of transition – for instance when children go back to school after the holidays or move from primary to secondary – often the hardest.

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He said the return to school after lockdown has been particularly difficult for some children.

School avoidance: Top tips for helping your child through school anxiety

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“School avoidance is when a child gets so anxious about the prospect of going into school that they feel they only thing they can do to keep themselves safe is to avoid going,” he said.

“So, in essence, what they are doing is trying to avoid feeling anxious because the school is the trigger that precipitates this feeling of overwhelming anxiety.”

School avoidance

He said, in the early stages, it is important not to immediately take a child out of school when they are panicking.

“That can actually make it worse and maintain the problem because the child believes two things,” he said.

“One, I thought all sorts of what-if thoughts about bad catastrophic things about to happen – my body inside, my heart is pounding, I’m sweating, I have dry-mouth - all these kinds of things.

“Two, as mum or dad brings me away from school, all those symptoms start to reduce. So, they suddenly think, OK I’ve found a way to stop those things from happening.”

Ingrained

He said that can lead to a situation, “where a young person struggles to go back to school at all.”

“I have worked with some young people who have been out for a year, a year-and-a-half or two years,” he said.

“So that can become very, very difficult because the pattern has become ingrained, and this has become their safety behaviour. They believe that I am only safe when I don’t go to school.”

Anxiety

When a child does begin to show signs of anxiety or panic about going to school, Mr Smyth said the most important thing is to validate their feelings.

“Don’t tell them this most Irish of phrases, it’ll be grand,” he said.

“The young person in that situation, their heart is pounding, their stomach feels totally and utterly nauseous and none of the things they are feeling are grand.

“We always as parents go for reassurance first but they don’t feel reassured, what they need is understanding – I can see you are anxious.

“Particularly with younger children, they may not know it is anxiety. We need to give them, certainly at a young age, an emotional language. That allows them to label this feeling in my body, it is anxiety.

“But also, relate to them. Say, I get it, I get anxious about all sorts of things too. I used to get anxious about going to school.”

Coping

He said parents also need to give children the confidence that the panic will pass.

“When we get anxious and start to panic, we feel the anxiety will keep rising exponentially and it won’t stop or won’t come back down,” he said.

“But I can prove that to a child by saying, tell me about the last time you had panic attack and they can think about a moment of situation and how panicked they were. Then ask, are you at that level of panic now? And when they say no, that shows them that panic cannot stay at that high level forever.

“They need to understand that this is an understandable response because even if there isn’t a real danger, the perception of danger is enough to activate their anxiety system.”

Extreme cases

In extreme cases, Mr Smyth said it is important to ensure the child goes to school – even if it is not for the whole day.

“Avoidance is the thing you don’t want to do and it is about maybe a shortened school time,” he said.

“So, maybe an hour building up to create a graded exposure rather than to go with that thing of bringing them out to reduce their distress because that then will become a comfortable safe space for them and again, they will get that perception that they have protected themselves from danger.”

You can listen back here:

School avoidance: Top tips for helping your child through school anxiety

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