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School Anxiety and Kids’ Mental Health by Mohab Hanna

Addressing School Anxiety: A Key to Kids’ Mental Health

In today’s fast-paced and demanding world, it’s becoming increasingly critical for schools to understand and address school anxiety (or refusal), significantly affecting students’ mental health. Studies show that 5% of all school-aged children experience school refusal, with some estimates showing up to 25% of students exhibiting school-avoidant behaviors, and mental health experts all agree that the problem has gotten worse since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. We at MedPsych Associates of NJ recognize the importance of a holistic approach to tackle this growing problem. We hope to shed light on school anxiety, its impact on our children, and strategies we can adopt to support their mental well-being.

Societal Expectations for Kids – the Parenting Dilemma

Dr. Hanna, a child psychiatrist and founder of MedPsych Associates, observes that we are raising children in a culture that encourages the avoidance of discomfort and stress at all costs. In this “Age of Option,” where we customize every aspect of our lives to fit our desires, we’ve unintentionally fostered an environment where children are shielded from anything challenging or stressful. This inclination to avoid discomfort has seeped into our educational system, causing an uptick in school anxiety cases. This avoidance of discomfort is further exacerbated by the ever-growing expectations of children’s academic success from parents and society. Therefore, striking a balance between nurturing academic success and safeguarding children’s mental health becomes paramount. We must create an environment that values academic achievements and recognizes discomfort as a catalyst for personal growth and resilience.

Holistic Solutions for Complex Challenges

Addressing school anxiety is not a one-size-fits-all task; it’s a multifaceted issue that requires a comprehensive approach. Dr. Hanna emphasizes that the journey starts with parents: “Parents play a pivotal role, as they are not just spectators but the primary agents of change in their child’s education and mental health. If you have a child stuck in this pattern of school refusal, it’s tough for them to get ‘unstuck’ by us [the clinicians] saying some magic words to them. Ultimately, it’s the parents we need to equip.”

Furthermore, Dr. Hanna stresses that anxiety treatment often requires not just the parents but a diverse care team involving the family and school to disrupt the deeply rooted behaviors and systems contributing to a child’s school anxiety. He concludes by offering the following suggestions for parents and schools.

Tips for Parents

Validate, Don’t Reinforce: While it’s important to empathize and validate with your child’s school anxiety, avoid reinforcing harmful avoidant behaviors.

Set Limits and Boundaries: Encourage your child to embrace constructive discomfort by limiting comfort-seeking activities like phone usage and streaming services, especially when dealing with school-related anxiety.

Making Realistic Expectations: Acknowledge your child’s unique abilities and limitations, prioritize effort and growth over perfection, and maintain a healthy balance between academics and emotional well-being.

Tips for Schools

Acquire a Proactive Mindset: Recognize the growing school anxiety issue, educate faculty and staff, and establish a dedicated task force with ample time to support affected students.

Supporting Overwhelmed Parents: Provide counseling and referrals for students to help manage parental stress, enabling a parent to prioritize their child’s education and attendance.

Get Everyone Involved: Engage teachers, counselors, parents, and even student-peers to collaboratively address students’ school anxiety, creating a positive and supportive environment.