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At one point or another doing their elementary school years, each of our children went through a time when they had an upset stomach before school.  Usually, the stomach ache would start the night before a school day. When I would finish tucking them in, and they lie in bed, they’d start thinking (and worrying) about school in the morning.   They think about it so much that they start to get scared to go to school… and these worries would show up as a ‘belly ache.’

I know they don’t realize it and would never admit it, but it boiled down to anxiety about school.

A girl sitting on a couch.

This post was first published several years ago, and as a new school year begins, I wanted to share it again.

Every year starts the same… the kids are ready to go, and they are excited!   

Soon after, it begins: the bellyaches. The anxiety about school. The teary eyes when they realize that they will miss me during the day. The fear of being away from the house for so many hours.   It all weighs on them.  In fact, one of our children had separation anxiety for months after beginning school.   

These tips work.  They aren’t magic, but they do work.  

What are the signs of anxiety in a child?

When our kids are nervous about school, it causes their little tummies to hurt.   They have the same feelings as adults when beginning something new: a new job, a new gym, giving a presentation to a new group of people, etc… 

Here are some signs of anxiety in children: 

  • Unable to fall asleep or stay asleep
  • Exhaustion, fatigue
  • Irritable
  • Sort-Tempered
  • Unable to focus
  • Muscle Tension

Although not common, some children even have panic attacks, including sweating, shaking, palpitations, shortness of breath, chills, or dizziness. 

What causes anxiety in a child?

While most babies and young children have some feelings of separation anxiety, it usually goes away.   Likewise, if a child has separation anxiety as an older child, it usually doesn’t last very long. 

So, what causes this anxiety?    There can be so many issues, and it can also be very simple.  Anxiety can even be considered a learned behavior.  If a parent worries, a child is more likely to worry, as well.   
Rule out the obvious things (how are they being treated?  Is someone or something bothering them?  Do they worry about getting in trouble with their teacher for something?)

Personally speaking, our children have all liked their teachers.  In all of the years that they’ve been in school, we’ve never had a teacher that they didn’t like, so I knew that it wasn’t an issue about the teacher.  They liked their friends, so I knew that it wasn’t their classmates, either. 

Sometimes, our kids just miss us.   The thought of being away from us for that long is hard for them.  Separation anxiety can be as simple as that. 

Sometimes, our kids just need us. 

I remember crying so much in first grade that my teacher would hold me on her lap daily.   (I am still close with that teacher to this day… 30 years later.)   I can also remember feeling uneasy at sleepover parties, wishing that I had just stayed home.    

Did it have a major impact on my life?  No.   
Did I have a normal, social childhood?  Yes.   🙂 

Sometimes, our kids just need us. 

I can remember when my cousin (10 years younger than me) would cry before school.   My mom told her the story about how I did the same thing when I was in elementary school.   

What is the best treatment for separation anxiety?

Even knowing all of this, when our first son was having stomach aches before Kindergarten for days at a time, I worried.   
I took him to the doctor and asked him to help me figure out why he was getting tummy aches, just in case it was something more serious.

They told us to add fiber to his diet via a drink supplement because many children tend to have belly aches from too much feces in their intestines.  They also checked everything else and ruled out any medical issues.   

Once we ruled out any physical medical issues, as well as other things, we knew that it was separation anxiety.

When our children get belly aches before school, here is what we do:

1- Talk about something fun that we are going to do after school.  
This is a distraction, but it works.  It brings a positive light to “tomorrow after school”.  Maybe you can go to the playground or out for ice cream tomorrow after school?  Maybe a bike ride or a walk with the dog tomorrow after school?

2- Talk about the funny kids in his/her class.  
“Did ____ do anything that made you laugh today?  She’s always making everyone laugh!”

3- Talk about stressful situations (tests)
Ask about any tests that will happen that week (maybe that is the reason for the stress) and how being prepared can minimize that stress.

4- Ask if anyone in the class is being unkind (another cause of stress).  
Several years ago, our son was so upset for a week, with belly aches every morning and every night before bed.  Finally, he told me that two of his friends were being mean to him at school.   Once we told him how to handle it, and he did, the stomachaches went away. 

5- Pray with and for your child.  
I have found that teaching our kids to lean on God instead of placing all of the pressure on themselves is so helpful.   “Let someone else handle it today.”

6- Ask them, “What is the worst that could happen?”  
If they are worried about a test- what’s the worst that can happen?  Will they miss a question?  That’s OK.   We have one son who used to be so worried that he might forget to stay quiet during class.  He worried about this for months! 

I used to remind him of this: “First off, you are always a good listener, so I don’t think that you will forget to listen when the teacher is talking, but if you do forget, what is the worst that can happen?  Would your teacher ask you to stop?  Maybe you would even get your name on the board?   

I don’t think those are things that you can’t handle.

I think that if your teacher asks you to stop talking, you will. If your name goes on the board, you will just be reminded that you need to be quiet when you look at it.  Both things are OK.  You will be OK.  It’s not a big deal.”

7- Send a picture of your family for your child to keep in their pocket.   
TIP: Try to find a photo of a fun memory, like a vacation or a fun activity you did as a family. 

vacation with our family - hilton head island

8- Write a note & stick it in his lunchbox.

9- Volunteer as a classroom reader.

10- Find out if you can have lunch with the class.  
The middle-of-the-day visit might be enough to get them through the rest of the day. (Be sure that your child can handle this before you go.  I have a friend whose daughter asks her not to come because it makes her too sad when her mom has to leave again.) 

11- Pick your child up as a car rider.  
This always helps our kids
because they get to see me about 45 minutes sooner.

A few tips to remember: 

The good news is that it should eventually stop.  Yes, it lasted longer with one of our kids, but the following year (and years after that) were so much better.    Another one of our children went through phases of bellyaches one day & feeling good the next day.  It really depended on what was going on at school. 

What if the separation anxiety doesn’t seem to get better? 

This can happen.  Sometimes, even older children can have separation anxiety that lasts longer.  It can last for many months.  When it begins to interfere with their normal life, including playdates, friendships, etc… it may be a sign of Separation Anxiety Disorder. 
As a child development therapist (Play Therapist), I have seen this in several children I’ve met.  I would suggest seeking professional help for those more severe cases. 

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Hi there!

I’m Becky, a former elementary school teacher turned certified child development therapist and blogger. I work at home with my husband and together we are raising (and partially homeschooling) our four children in the Carolinas. I love diet coke, ice cream, and spending time with my family.

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  1. I love your list! And it’s so true. I guess it’s one of the good things about our crazy Spanish school day of morning school and afternoon school. The kids only go for a maximum of 4 hours and then they’re back home again. In the afternoon it’s only 2 hours. Hardly enough time to notice that their parents aren’t there! I had never thought of that before. Thank you. 🙂

  2. Oh my God. Why did I just see this now??! I’m crying right now because I didn’t know that my daughter had anxiety in tge past months-or half a year! She would always tell me tgat she has tummy ache but when I tell her to go to the cr nothing happens, so I brought her to her pedia several times and she didn’t see anything wrong. I feel so guitly and ashamed right now for not researching deeply…

    1. You did nothing wrong. I did this for a year before I realized it, too. You are such a great mom… I can tell even without knowing you. Hugging you from NC.

  3. My youngest does this and I have actually done some of the things on your list.

  4. Thank you for this! My daughter started doing this mid year. She cries and tries to cling to me every morning. Her teachers and the Vice Principal have been wonderful at helping me out and giving her a space to calm down after I leave. We do everything on the list, hopefully it will pass soon.

  5. Tummy aches are also an early symptom of asthma! If they start showing up with any kind of respiratory symptoms within a week, that’s something to look into.

  6. I’m a newly willow and have only the one granddaughter, who has belly issues, and after school, I’m their to greet her along with their DAD’s dog until one of the parent arrives home, usually the DAD … she has started to tell me, to leave when her Daddy gets home, she goes with a snack to her home, to watch the TV program, where girls our in Dancing programs and the Mother’s our usually in a fuss over what is or isn’t going on … How can I make my granddaughter, feel better, about her grandpa dieath and me being their for her after school ..?

  7. Hi,
    Thanks for your suggestions. I do a lot of these already, however my son has an acquired brain injury from a fall at 15 months old. He is now 14 years old. He experiences the regular anxiety type that you spoke of and a much deeper level of it…to the point that he often explodes usually from something so small. I know it’s a snowball effect, that it builds until he can’t handle it anymore. He is taking medication and I continue to monitor, ask questions and bring up decisions that might help him work through it but he continues to avoid thinking about what is bothering him..until he explodes. He just wants to be like other kids in everything he does however he know he isn’t therefore this causes him more anxiety right before school..and unless the whole family is doing something together he won’t participate even going out to his favorite restaurant if his brother or father cannot attend too. I find this so hard and frustrating because he would rather stay home than go any where including a water park or for food. I often feel like we are not doing enough or any fun summer activities now that he’s older. Any suggestions?

  8. I am kind of the opposite of this article. I assumed it was nerves but after months the teacher said she complained at lunch too, so we saw a specialist and it turns out it was acid reflux. Talk about feeling like a horrible mom. 🙁 poor kiddo. The acid from laying at night was causing her issues in the morning. Once we got on medicine stomach aches went away. She still is super nervous though, just shows it differently than a stomach ache. 🙂

    1. I agree though- you should always rule those things out first. Thanks for sharing!

  9. My youngest (5) gets a tummy ache every school morning – i don’t understand, or I didn’t understand! She fine, happy and awesome at school, thriving and has a crazy circle of friends so I didn’t believe it could be anxiety…. However, I think differently now, it’s not because anything is bad at school, it’s just because mummy isn’t at school with her.
    I sympathise more now, and look forward to huggles after school xx

  10. Every morning before I leave him in kindergarten he says to me “my belly aches” and i say ” I love you, it will go away” and I feel it’s because he doesn’t want to stay there. Thank you for your suggestions and I will try to do things from the list. I like the idea of volunteering as a classroom reader and starting our day with a prayer.

  11. We didn’t always have public schools. They have only been around less than 300 years. I realize that not all parents can home school their child but when we see that this is literally making them feel sick it makes me wonder if this is the right thing for them. We scream socialization but everything seemed fine before we ever had public schools. With the way schools are becoming more dangerous I would get a stomach ache before school too.

  12. On the other hand, this was so ME as a child. We moved to a different state when I was 9 years old. And for at least the first 6 months or more of starting my new school, I had stomach aches. I’m still very shy and hate change. I did not know anyone at school (and was too shy to initiate making friends in class). Sometimes I would make the stomach aches worse just to stay home (my mom was a stay at home mom). I don’t think she ever realized the amount of anxiety I felt, or maybe she felt helpless. But since I know what it feels and looks like, I can easily recognize it in my 5-yr old son.
    Moms, taking some quiet one-on-one time (like before bedtime) with that child who is showing anxiety and just sit there listening to whatever they want to talk about; it will do wonders. The child might not even be able to put into words what’s causing their tummy aches, but if you probe a little and take these suggestions here and use them, I’m sure it will help your child immensely.

  13. After my ten grandkids (and their father) moved in with me and my husband, I had at least two or three little ones with stomachaches, headaches, and meltdowns every single morning for nearly the entire school year. Of course, there were other underlying causes but the results were just as worrisome. So, I would sit most mornings with at least two little ones in my lap. Those were the “good” mornings because I could hold two but not three. Now, we are about to begin the third school year since they came to live with us. There is still an occasional stomachache, but our mornings are mostly filled with the hectic chatter of trying to find the other sock, lost homework, wanting just 5 more minutes in bed, no empty bathroom, “The bus is outside!!!”, etc. I look forward to this new year and the continued growth in my grandchildren’s self-confidence. It has been a long road that includes ongoing therapy for everyone in our home. While I would love to think that there was nothing “wrong” with me or my husband, we had to learn to grandparent (vs parent) ten children and help them (and their dad) thrive after surviving.

  14. Thank you for sharing. This is my daughter and we not only began morning devotions during her breakfast, but I mixed up some oils for her to keep and put on when she is feeling nervous.