Editorial: Anxiety in Lower School Students

Over the next few weeks, “The Talon” will be releasing a series of stories regarding depression, anxiety, obesity, nutrition, sleeping habits, and time management. Sources were given the option to remain anonymous, as the topics are incredibly personal. Please be advised, some of the published stories may be disturbing to some readers.

“Momma, my tummy hurts!” my child said to me one day last school year. But was her stomach really hurting? Was she getting sick? I took her temperature; it was normal. I sent her off to school in the hopes that whatever was ailing her disappeared sooner rather than later. As thoughts of her raced through my mind the whole day, I went against my better judgement and searched her symptoms on everyone’s favorite diagnostic tool, WebMD. Believe me when I say I’m not a hypochondriac, nor did I think my child had some terminal illness based off of a stomachache. What I was trying to find, however, were other causes for stomach pains not correlated to illness. Much to my surprise, one of the first diagnoses was anxiety.

According to a 2004 study done by John V. Campo, MD, who is now the assistant dean of behavioral health and wellness; chief behavioral wellness officer; and professor at West Virginia University’s School of Medicine, “Scores of children and adolescents – nearly one in four – have chronic stomach pain”. With no physical symptoms other than the stomachache, doctors began looking for emotional distress in the patients. Out of 80 children and adolescents, 42 of the aforementioned patients had chronic stomachaches. Dr. Campo’s findings showed that 81 percent of the patients with chronic stomachaches “had either anxiety disorders or depression”. “Primary care doctors can expect that about 80 percent of children who have chronic stomach pain will have an anxiety disorder – and that about 40 percent will also have depression,” Dr. Campo noted.

While I understand this particular study was done more than 10 years ago, I find it hard to believe the data has changed exponentially. Alea Wise, a licensed medical health counselor in Gainesville, said that anxiety in students of Lower School age occurs through fears of performance and safety. “With the increase of school shootings and A.L.I.C.E. drills, children now live with the exposure to a potential lack of safety at school,” she explained. 

According to the Child Mind Institute, some of the more common symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Refusing to go to school or having a hard time at school drop-offs
  • Difficulty participating in class and interacting with peers
  • Excessive worry about everyday things
  • Trouble answering questions when called on by the teacher
  • Disruptive behavior
  • Squirming
  • Frequent trips to the nurse (with complaints of headaches, nausea, stomachaches, or even vomiting)
  • Avoiding socializing or group work
  • Not turning in homework

As a parent, I often question myself as to how I can help my child with her anxiety, not make it worse. How can I help her get to the point where she isn’t upset to do her math homework (which includes a major emotional breakdown almost every night)? How can I reassure her of her intelligence or self-worth? “One of the biggest things parents can do is validate their child’s experience,” said Wise. She notes that children need reassurance that they are being heard and understood, “Whether that is an irrational fear or intense emotion,” Wise explained.

While I know my child isn’t the only one dealing with anxiety, and I know I’m not the only parent with a child that has a disdain for math, I think it’s important that as parents we become equipped with the tools to help our children get through elementary, middle, and high school as unscathed as possible. Now, I realize I can’t put my daughter in a bubble, or even create an outfit out of bubble wrap. Sometimes life can be incredibly unfair. We want to protect our children; not allow them to make the same mistakes we did. Without those mistakes, however, we would not be the individuals we are today. With all the technology available at our fingertips, the extracurricular activities our children participate in after school and on the weekends, and how busy our lives are, we sometimes forget to just sit and listen to what our kids have to say. 

With my child’s particular situation, we sat down after school and just talked. She told me how she was worried about scary things her classmates were telling her (like “Bloody Mary” and the “Chucky” movies). Her stomachache was related to the anxiety she was facing at school, and the fear the other students were putting into her brain. After I told her that none of those things were real, I paused for a couple of seconds and said, “But I can see how that stuff can scare you”. That was it. That was me listening and understanding her fear and helping her face the anxious feeling deep in her stomach. Now, three months into this school year, I believe her current anxiety is completely justified…math!