School phobia is a symptom of anxiety disorder in childhood. School anxiety is where a child persistently refuses to go to school because of anxious feelings they are experiencing when at school or away from home. A child may complain of a stomachache or headache when they have to go to school. Usually after the child is allowed to stay home, the anxiety lessens and you child will claim that they now feel better.
There can be many reasons why a child may develop school anxiety, such as separation anxiety, trauma at school such as a bullying incident, or dealing with a "mean" teacher. Even problems at home such as divorce or death of a loved one can cause school phobia. For the most part, anxiety is dealt with in everyday situations and is valuable as a learning tool. For example, feeling a little anxious before a test can often increase your performance level. But when this anxiety begins to become too overwhelming in a child, focusing on school work and functioning in school becomes extremely difficult. However, with proper treatment children can be taught how to cope with their anxious feelings efficiently so that they can function outside the home.
Children's fears are often natural, and arise at specific times in their development. Children may be afraid of the dark, strangers, thunderstorms, or animals such as dogs. However, some children will experience fear seemingly out of nowhere and for no apparent reason. Children with anxiety often feel nervous, can't sleep, experience stomach ailments, tremble, cry, or become very agitated and disruptive. As a child matures, certain fears will disappear on their own. Some develop fears from a traumatic experience (e.g. a dog attack), but for some children, there is no clear event that causes the fear to arise.
As the child matures, they will usually become less fearful of things as they grow to understand how the world works, but for some children, the fears become more intense and begin to interfere with their daily lives. If you child is experiencing any of the symptoms below, you should have the child evaluated by a physician.
- Constant thoughts and fears about safety of self or parents
- Refusing to go to school
- Frequent stomach aches and other physical complaints
- Difficulty in sleeping alone or in room by themselves
- Overly clingy
- Tantrums or panic at times of separation from parents
- Excessive or unrealistic fears of monsters, bad people, animals, etc.
- Fear of being in the dark
- Fear of crowds
- Excessive nervousness, rocking or facial tics
As with adults, the TERRAP program has been very successful in treating children with anxiety disorders. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy, has been scientifically shown to be effective in treating anxiety disorders. CBT provides the necessary skills and techniques for your child to overcome his/her fears. Your child will learn to identify and replace negative thinking patterns and behaviors with positive ones and also learn to separate realistic from unrealistic thoughts. This technique coupled with relaxation exercises proves to be extremely effective in reducing the fears and stress that often accompanies anxieties.
In more severe cases, medication may also be necessary. It is important that you discuss with your pediatrician any use of medication and to follow your doctor's advice.
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