When School Is Scary: Helping Anxious Children Through the Back-to-School Transition

[photo caption: The author on her first day of kindergarten. Yes, it was the eighties.]

When I think back to my childhood, I can remember one particular poor little fellow in my grade 1 class that had a terrible time adjusting to being away from his mum. Every morning would begin with a spectacle of sobbing, abundant tears and a running nose, anxious hiccupping, and tugging at his mother’s sleeve to get her to stay.

After she finally left, he would spend much of the morning sniffling, while clutching at a picture of his mum that always lived in his breast pocket.

I myself was a very sensitive child, and remember various parts of school being anxiety provoking. Take, for example, riding the school bus instead of getting a drive from my mum. Who was this unfamiliar person entrusted to get me to school? What if I wanted to get off the bus all of a sudden? What if someone was mean to me and I couldn’t escape? What if I missed my stop?When I think back to my childhood, I can remember one particular poor little fellow in my grade 1 class that had a terrible time adjusting to being away from his mum. Every morning would begin with a spectacle of sobbing, abundant tears and a running nose, anxious hiccupping, and tugging at his mother’s sleeve to get her to stay. After she finally left, he would spend much of the morning sniffling, while clutching at a picture of his mum that always lived in his breast pocket.

Like every animal on the planet, children come in different shapes and sizes, and different personalities and temperaments. Some are literally kept on a leash for fear that they will jubilantly flee their parents’ side the first chance they get. They are confident and relish in their independence. And some are only seen peering cautiously around their parents’ legs, weeping freely when separation occurs.

To a certain extent, we must allow our children the space to work out their own development, at their own pace. While gentle encouragement is vital, you can’t force a child to be less fearful or more outgoing. Shy and cautious children can still grow into happy and successful adults.

Anxious phases are normal and many children grow out of them. Through experience, children eventually learn that there is no real danger in the things they fear. However, if anxiety appears to be chronic or debilitating, psychological counseling and supportive natural remedies can be helpful. In general, children thrive in stable home environments, with plenty of sleep preferably with roughly consistent bedtime and wake time schedules, and a whole foods diet. Excess sugar, caffeine, artificial colours, flavours, and preservatives can all be triggers of anxiety and have no place in a child’s diet.

In addition to those good lifestyle factors, below are some supplement strategies that may be experimented with to soothe an anxious child.

Vitamins & Minerals

When it comes to stress and nutritional deficiencies, we can run into a “chicken or the egg” dilemma. Deficiencies in specific nutrients can both precipitate negative psychological symptoms, as well as be depleted by a chronically stressed physiology. Although many vitamins and minerals are at play in keeping mood stable, two major players come to mind: the B vitamins and magnesium.

The B vitamins are a metabolically active group of vitamins that play a big role in nervous system health. The body burns through the B’s during times of stress, causing depletion. Low stores of B vitamins, particularly of niacin, inositol, and pantothenic acid are linked to higher rates of panic, low mood, and higher stress hormones. For children, a liquid B complex is most appropriate, because it is easy to customize the dose. I often recommend adult formulas, just at half to a quarter of the adult dose.

Magnesium is the relaxant of the minerals. Children who are tense, twitchy, tic-y, and fidgety may benefit from this nutrient. By relaxing the muscles of the body, magnesium induces a feeling of calm, and for that reason, even though it’s not a sedative, it is ideally taken before bed because it can help to induce sleep. Magnesium may be taken orally in a capsule, powder, or a liquid, or it can be taken via absorption through the skin in a soothing Epsom salts (which are magnesium salts) bath.

Fish Oil

Fish oil is brain food. The two main fatty acids in fish oil mirror the two main fatty acids in the brain:docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

DHA is essential for the healthy development of the structure of the brain and nervous system. Low levels of DHA are linked to poor learning and nerve signal transmission, as well as lower IQ scores and more behavioural problems. Although the best time to supplement with DHA is during pregnancy and early childhood, deficiencies can be corrected later on too, improving test performance and behaviour.

EPA is the primary anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid for the brain. The brain is extremely sensitive to inflammation and it is thought that both depression and anxiety, as well as many other mental health disorders, are linked to cellular inflammation in the brain. High doses of EPA have been shown to reduce inflammatory markers as well as improve mood and reduce anxiety.

Herbal Remedies

Although research is scanty on herbal medicine use in children, herbs have been used across homes and cultures across the ages to treat childhood nervousness.

Some of my favourite herbs that are safe and effective for children are catnip, chamomile, and lemon balm. Catnip makes cats kooky but is actually a fabulous nervine. Catnip is even safe to use for babies and is often included in colic formulas to help soothe upset tummies.  Chamomile, which also has digestive calming properties, is probably one of the most famous anti-anxiety herbs. It has a mild, pleasant taste and can be chilled and sweetened with a splash of apple juice to be packed in a water bottle for a child to take to school. As part of the mint family, lemon balm is also pleasant tasting and has antidepressant and sedative qualities. Lemon balm has been described by some herbalists as “trophorestorative” for the nervous system, meaning that it can correct a deficiency or weakness not simply through temporary stimulation but via the vital nourishment and strengthening of the nervous system.

As a rule, teas are one of the best types of herbal preparations for kids because they are so gentle. However, more supplement companies are recognizing this gap in the market and are coming out with products marketed for children that are effective and approved by Health Canada.

Flower Remedies & Homeopathics

Energetic remedies like flower remedies and homeopathic remedies are highly diluted preparations of a given substance. The theory behind this method of preparation is that although the final product often lacks even a single molecule of the original substance, it contains the energy or “vital force” of the substance, which triggers the body’s own healing powers.

These remedies are ideal for sensitive beings like children and animals and although there is a lack of convincing clinical evidence, I have witnessed and heard countless positive anecdotal reports in support of energy medicine. It’s worth a try! Hyland’s Calms Forte, Bach Flower Rescue Remedy, and Unda #22 are great calming energetic remedies to start with.

I should mention at this point that I still know that aforementioned little fellow in my grade 1 class, who is now a man. He is indeed today successful, kind, social, and well-adjusted. I also fearlessly ride buses on a regular basis.

If you would like to learn more about any of the supplement options mentioned, pop into the Wholistic Dispensary and speak to one of our certified health professionals.


Alex Picot-Annand, BA (Psych), Registered Holistic Nutritionist & Certified Life Coach

www.alexpicotannand.com