Anxiety in Preschool

It might be a few months since you sent junior to school but if tears are still a daily affair, what can you do about it?

WORDS ANGEL DREWGUS

Separation anxiety seeps into children’s lives for many reasons. The origin of separation is love, so handling it should be done with care and respect. They can interfere with daily life and create a cloud over the joy of early childhood, bringing many tears from children and much frustration for parents and caregivers. This problem requires knowledge and skill to correctly interpret and adequately solve it.

What to Expect
Anita Shankar, parenting coach from Perceptive Parenting Pte Ltd says children who experience anxiety to go to preschool usually do so due to separation anxiety from their parents. This may manifest in crying, having tantrums, bed-wetting, withdrawal, poor appetite, nightmares as well as many other behaviours specific to individual children. Some children may also have physical symptoms of anxiety such as heart pounding, breathlessness, nausea or complain of headaches and stomach aches. A key feature of anxiety is avoidance and these children will try as hard as possible to avoid school.

The question is – what exactly is the cause of this anxiety? According to Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist, from Gleneagles Hospital, he believes that there may not be identifiable causes. Most of the time, says Dr Lim, the child may just have a shy personality and require more time to settle in school. At times, there may be issues in school such as bullying or teasing by other classmates.

At the more serious spectrum, when there are abnormal dynamics between a child and his parents and there are insecure attachments, the child may fear being abandoned by the parents every time they go to school, explains Dr Lim. Some children with persistent problems may have psychological issues such as autism, intellectual deficiency or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder resulting in difficult behaviours.

When to be Concerned
If the child continues to be anxious about going to school after several months, or if the child’s anxiety towards preschool starts to affect other aspects of his life, parents should look into it. If they don’t eat, lose weight, show no interest in social interactions outside of school, over a period of time it may need further investigation, explains Shankar. Also, if the anxiety symptoms become severe, parents should consider seeking professional help.

Is junior’s anxiety stopping him from doing the things he wants to do?                                     
Anxiety is normal most of the time and should not stop the child from doing things he wants to do or enjoys doing. However, says Dr Lim, when the anxiety becomes more severe, the child will avoid the activity as it brings about anxiety. If the anxiety sustains over a long period of time, then, it could start to affect other aspects of his life.

Is it interfering with his friendships, schoolwork or family life?                                              
Anxiety could be overwhelming for the child, however, this varies greatly from child to child. Some children may be afraid and fearful of social situations and may not want to talk to their classmates. This will lead to them keeping to themselves, not playing with other kids thus resulting in poor social interactions. The school work can be affected as well as they do not participate in class or simply cannot focus as they are preoccupied with their fears, explains Dr Lim. Family life is often affected as parents become frustrated because they don’t know what to do.

Helping Junior Deal
In order to prevent anxiety, explains Shankar, parents need to spend a lot of time preparing children for preschool. This would include taking them to the school before the first day, as often as permitted, getting them involved in preparing for the first day, and buying a new school bag, lunchbox, and other things he may need. Also, it is important to have some trial separation where the child stays without the mother or the primary caregiver for a period of time before school starts so that the first day of preschool does not come as a shock to the child.

Getting the teachers involved
Speak to the teacher or principal about your child’s behaviour and your concerns. You may be reassured to know that your child only cries for a few seconds after you have left and then gets on with his day happily. I have known this to be the case, explains Fiona Walker, the chief executive officer and principal of schools, from Julia Gabriel Education, oftentimes; the tears have become almost a habit. While this can be distressing for the parents, it is also comforting to know that there is no other sign of anxiety and the child is progressing well in the class, enjoying himself.
    
Often the teacher can come up with ways to help the child gain confidence and find the transition from home to school easier. It is important that the teacher also listens to your child’s concerns and does not dismiss any fears or worries that he shares. Together you can come up with a plan to help your child adjust. Sometimes, doing a drawing for Mummy or choosing a book for Daddy to read to him can help your child feel connected to his family while at school and this is reinforced if the teacher can mention Mummy and Daddy during the day at school, says Walker.
    
Arranging playdates outside of school with classmates is a great way for him to feel a stronger connection with the school environment. The teacher can help the parents by sharing with them who their child gets along well with.

Too much of a good thing
Giving some form of reassurance to the child is often needed. However, too much reassurance can become a crutch the child refuses to let go of. The child may then need the parent to be around the whole day just so that he can turn to the parent for reassurance when he is anxious, explains Dr Lim.

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