It starts off with stomach complaints. I feel sick. I feel like I am going to throw up. I can’t go to school. You take them to the doctor. You give them antacid medication. Nothing seems to help.
This happens every year.
My Stomach hurts. I can’t go to school.
They feel better on Saturday. They feel better on Sunday. But, then Sunday night it starts all over again. My stomach hurts. I can’t go to school.
Not again – you think! When will this stop? How can I help them?
[Click here to listen to my podcast episode on school refusal]
[Click here to listen to my podcast on anxiety and stomach pain]
Sound familiar? No, I am not stalking your family. I just hear this time and time again every school year.
I am flooded at the beginning of each new school year with a sea of children that have mysterious “week-day” stomach issues. Often – it is school anxiety.
They will tell you they love school. That they have friends. That they are not bullied – and that is all true. And yet – the same resistance to going to school happens every year. Welcome to the mysterious world of school anxiety.
Unfortunately anxiety often makes itself cozy in the pit of our stomach. Sometimes anxiety will skip the brain altogether and make a beeline to the stomach. If you find your child in this difficult predicament here is some guidance to help them:
1. Go to the doctor.
Say, what? She just got through telling us it is anxiety, why should we go to the doctor? For two reasons, 1) It is good to be over-cautious. You don’t want to second guess yourself or miss a true medical condition. 2) If the doctor can rule-out any medical origin this will help your child (and you) buy into the correlation between anxiety and stomach issues.
2. Tell your children that you understand their pain is real.
Even if it is anxiety wreaking havoc on their stomach – the pain is real. The pain is the same. So, when your children are doubled over on the toilet – they are really feeling that pain. When they say they feel like throwing up – they really feel like throwing up. Explain to your children that you know that they are hurting and you want to help them.
3. Explain how anxiety works.
Help your children understand how anxiety works. I sometimes explain it to kids this way (depending on their age):
Sometimes worries will make our stomach hurt. Sometimes we may not even know we are worried until we feel our stomach hurt. That can be really confusing.
Worries create acid in our stomach that can make us feel sick. Worries want to boss us around and want us to avoid things. When we avoid what it wants – it will grow bigger.
So, when your worries make your stomach hurt it wants you to avoid going to school. If you avoid school – guess what will happen? Your worries will grow bigger and your stomach will hurt every school day. You can’t cave and do what your worry wants – you have to shrink it by fighting back and going to school. The more you fight back, the less power it will have over you.
Now, although that is a helpful story…prepare for a long battle with your child. There will be much resistance and many tears before this issue gets better. Sorry. But hang in there.
4. Avoid the knee-jerk reaction to keep them home.
And now for the tip that makes you scream at your computer. Try, try, try to get them to school as much as possible. I know – trust me – I know that at times this will be an impossible feat. Separate from literally carrying your children into school – this may not be possible at times. I get that – and I don’t suggest carrying them in their PJs. You want to just mentally know that your ultimate goal is to get them to attend school as much as you can.
Some parents feel like they are being cold and cruel by sending their children to school when they feel sick. Remind yourself that the doctor cleared your children of any medical condition outside of anxiety. If it is purely anxiety – letting their anxiety win will only make this problem grow bigger. You are helping them – by encouraging them to go to school and by keeping them at school when possible.
Their pain is real and their worries are real. Using brute force or punitive methods won’t work.
You children need help and so do you. Get support from the school counselor as soon as possible (if you have one) or the school administration. The school can work with you to develop a plan on how to help your children work through their anxiety.
I have worked with families where the children meet with the counselor in the mornings or goes to the nurse during the day when they feel sick. The trick is to keep them at school – even if they are in the nurse’s office some of the day.
I have worked with children who are allowed to stay home or even switch to home-schooling due to their anxiety problems. Unfortunately anxiety can grow after this happens – and some children’s anxiety will make them fearful of leaving their house in general.
5. Get your children into therapy.
Ahhh spoken like a true therapist – right? Not really. I don’t think therapy is the answer to everything – even though I am a therapist. This particular issue though – can go downhill fast. It is one of the most debilitating issues I deal with in my therapy sessions. Often when I dig deep enough there is an anxiety below all that stomach pain.
The 5 most common worries I see related to this problem are:
Afraid to be away from their mom – (I only feel okay when I am with her)
Worried about their safety
Worried about their mom’s safety
Afraid they are going to throw up at school
Worried they are going to do poorly on assignments (even though most of these children are academically advanced)
I know that this can be one of the most exhausting struggles as a parent. Get support so you do not have to fight this alone!
For more support read the article Teach Your Child to Fight Anxiety.
Have some gems up your sleeve to share with other parents struggling as well? Leave your comment below. We are all in this together!
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