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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 remembered having had a nervous tummy every year before school so I was highly sensitive to my son’s misgivings. Prayer works! In fact, I prayed with him every day before school and spoke a quick blessing over him before he left the car to go inside long into his school career. It was not only comforting for him to know that my heart was actively tuned in to him having a great day but God hears and answers prayer!
    Great post, Becky!

  2. My 15 year old son still has this issue! We’ve seen the doctor GI specialist and all have said he’s fine. Unfortunately, being a teenage boy, he doesn’t want to talk about his feelings or about what’s going on at school. It’s a difficult situation that my husband and I are coping with the best way we know how.

  3. While I applaud the intention of explaining belly aches related to child anxiety, it’s often not as simple as reassurances.
    Our 9 yr old daughter has lived with anxiety since she was 18mths old. My husband and I have been accused of spoiling her, not spending enough time away from her , you name it. It is exhausting, engulfing and involves and affects the entire family. When you cross over from a few tears and a belly ache, to abnormal anxiety levels, the next best step is involving a child psychologist for accurate assessments, and treatments. The reality is that anxiety doesn’t make sense. It’s the equivalent of a mean voice whispering lies to your child that only they can hear.
    It is painful and heartbreaking. Peers don’t understand it and teachers often dismiss it as clinginess or lack of maturity. It falls on the mental illness spectrum and needs to be given the respect, recognition and treatment it deserves. Tools and perseverance can make all the difference..

  4. i’m 16 this year and i know before,during or after school i can get a nervous tummy. there was a stage that i would say before the bus or before English and math that i had a sore tummy. Now i work with the school nurse and she helps me a lot with my anxiety. i have autism so this is hard for me, but i’m slowly getting over it and peacefully sleeping better with the occasional wake up at 2am with tummy aches, but i mainly stay asleep all night

  5. It’s true that at some point, there are instances where our kid’s stomach aches before school. It’s normal if its just a cause of anxiety about going to school. But for my kid, it’s been intermittent since last night, and she is going to school tomorrow. In the event that the stomach pain persists for the next 5 hours, we’ll surely visit a doctor.

  6. My adopted great granddaughter now age 7 has been in play therapy since age 3. Diagnosed with PTSD , Anxiety and Sensory issues. Play therapy saved our life’s. She goes on a needed basis now. Although at the top of her class in 2nd grade she still gets belly aches. Separation Anxiety is still there but better. I volunteer at the School daily so she sees me in the hall or somewhere most days. I also walk her in have breakfast and walk in to pick her up every afternoon. Thank you for your comments. Great appreciated and educational .

  7. This so helpful. One of my girls has tummy aches all the time. Some of your suggestions are new to me! I’m so grateful. Mornings are rough. Blessings to you and your fam.

  8. Just came across your post today and it is exactly what I needed!! I’ve been taking my girls to daycare since they were little (we’re talking 1 -year-old) and I’ve held onto so much mom guilt for working and taking them in to school at such a young age. My oldest is now 4 and will be starting kindergarten next year, but she’s been having a really hard time sleeping through the night and going to daycare lately. I had a feeling it was anxiety and dealing with the realization that she’ll be starting kindergarten next year. I love that you mentioned having lunch with them as one of your tips. My work is super close to her daycare so we started going on one-on-one lunch dates and the smile it puts on her face every time makes my heart melt.