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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.
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
- 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. 🙂
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.
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:
- Try, as much as possible, to listen to your kids… don’t solve their problems, but just listen.
- Talk to your friends. See if they have gone through this with their children and how they overcame it.
- Talk to the school counselor.
- You are also welcome to sign up for my (free) parenting emails. I’ll send you a Parenting Hacks ebook, too.
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.