School Phobia and Child Abuse

by Darlene Barriere - Webmaster
(Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada)

Anxiety in children about going to school is very common, especially in children who are about to start school for the first time. A child may fear the unknown about the whole concept of school, teachers and being cast among hundreds of other students; it can all be very overwhelming. The child may fear being away from home, or may be fearful that his/her daily routine will change.

The term "school phobia," referred to by professionals as "school refusal," is an extreme form of anxiety about going to school. It is not a fear of a particular school.

Children who suffer from school phobia may experience symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, nausea, fatigue, trembling, heart pounding and/or heart racing, fainting, and the need to visit the toilet often. In young children up to age 8, separation anxiety is often apparent; they have difficulty accepting being away from their parent or primary caregiver. In children over the age of 8, children are more likely to experience anxieties about their performance in school, such as with verbally answering questions in class and being called upon to read in class out loud. It is not uncommon for school phobic children to suffer a panic attack when they are forced to go to school, which results in the continually escalating fear that they are going to experience yet another panic attack.

What can prompt the onset of school phobia? The child is:

  1. starting school for the first time.
  2. new to the area and starting a new school.
  3. being bullied by peers and/or teachers.
  4. going back to school after a long illness or holiday.
  5. dealing with abuse at home or at school: emotional abuse, physical abuse and/or sexual abuse.
  6. dealing with neglect at home.
  7. witnessing the abuse of a family member.
  8. dealing with his/her parents' arguments, separation or divorce.
  9. dealing with the illness of a family member.
  10. feeling threatened by the arrival, or upcoming arrival, of a new baby in the family.
  11. grieving the loss of a person or pet.
  12. dealing with a traumatic experience (such as rape) or event (such as the loss of a family home).
  13. without friends, or has few friends.
  14. unpopular with schoolmates and/or teachers.
  15. experiencing an academic failure.
  16. afraid of experiencing a panic attack either on the way to or in school.
If parents don't readily get some form of treatment and provide support for their school phobic child, the anxieties and symptoms can—and do—worsen.

At home, parents should:
  • keep the routine and activities normal.
  • encourage their child and be supportive.
  • ensure that home is a "soft place" for their child to land.
  • tell their child that he/she is brave for going to school.
  • teach their child relaxation techniques: proper breathing, for example.
  • in a positive way, help their child understand that his/her fears are brought about because of untrue thoughts, and that his/her reaction to those thoughts is extreme.
If your child is severely affected with school phobia, a paediatrician and/or a mental health professional should be consulted.

Teachers, principals, school administrators, teacher's aides, and adults who monitor and/or supervise children in school must recognize that school phobia is a problem that needs to be addressed, not scoffed at or ignored as a passing phase.

Children who are abused at home are at great risk. Regardless of whether or not school phobia is apparent, when child abuse is either known about or suspected, there is a moral, and in many states/countries, a legal obligation to make a report to the appropriate child protective agency.

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