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Child starting school? Watch out for anxiety

It is normal for children to be apprehensive about new situations, such as the start of a new school year.

Most adapt quickly but others will need help to transition to a new environment or they risk feeling isolated, unloved and incompetent.

The child may be thinking: "How come everyone is okay with the new school and I am not?" said counselling psychologist Lee Kham Chuan, who goes by "Dr K. C. Lee".

School anxiety can affect a child's academic performance and relationships at school. As each child may respond differently to anxiety, here are some things to watch out for, said Dr Lee.

•Unusual behaviour or uncharacteristic responses.

An active, outspoken child may suddenly become quiet. A quiet child may be alarmed whenever the topic of school comes up.

If you are unsure, you can get a psychologist to do a comprehensive evaluation of your child. Not all children understand what anxiety is. Even fewer know how to express it in a way that adults can understand.

•Physical symptoms like headaches or diarrhoea. Many children communicate their psychological distress in the form of physical symptoms.

•Tantrums, inflexibility, separation anxiety and defiance may be symptoms, too. Parents should take a step back and question what is actually going on, rather than focus just on the physical symptoms.

•Patterns of physical symptoms. For instance, the child may complain of having a tummy ache every Monday morning when it is time to go back to school.

Dr Lee shares three things parents can do to help a child cope with back-to-school anxiety.

•Have a chat with your child about the new school or the new year ahead. Your child might be apprehensive about going to school, so do not brush aside his feelings by saying "aiyah, there's nothing to worry about" or "everyone goes to school so you must also go". Find out more about his fears and concerns. Use a caring tone and display a genuine curiosity when interacting with your child. Let him know that he can count on you - that you will be there to pick him up, for instance. Remind him that he will be learning new things and meeting new friends.

•Include familiar things in the child's new routine. Many children take comfort in familiar things, such as their favourite food or activities. Make him a cup of Milo and kaya toast at breakfast or take him to his favourite waffle place for an after-school treat on the first day of school.

•Ease your child into a school.

You can take him to the school to look around the compound before his first day there.

This will give the child a visual image and create some expectation of what school is like, so it will not be a vague - and intimidating - concept.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2015, with the headline 'Child starting school? Watch out for anxiety'. Print Edition | Subscribe