09/07/2010 08:16 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Children and Fear of School--It's No Joke

It began in the middle of summer; the media was already blasting the screen with "back-to-school" commercials. With more than half a summer left, most kids thought the ads were funny if not ridiculous.

But for some children the commercials themselves sparked panic attacks. It wasn't that they just disliked the loss of summer freedom and the coming regimentation of classes, they literally dreaded the return to school. That dread was accompanied by a heart-pounding fear.

For these children a school building is a cage, a place where they feel trapped and vulnerable.

Some students suffer from a fear that is called school phobia, school refusal or more commonly, school-itis. In the past school-itis was seen by educators and parents as a frivolous reason for any student who simply didn't want to be in class.

"He cut class because the weather is so nice. He has school-itis."

"She went to the mall because her favorite store has a sale. She has school-itis."

It's no joke. School-itis is a powerful overwhelming fear; the student simply cannot be in the school building under regimentation. The fear that they cannot leave, that they are unable to walk out at will, creates the same reaction as any other phobia: panic.

All of us can remember a place or places where we felt so uncomfortable that we literally defined it as being trapped. We dismiss it as a brief panic attack and usually forget about it. But the child who suffers from an aversion to being in school can't forget the panic and fear.

Many adults, past and present, have had a problem with feelings of being trapped. Sigmund Freud was a victim and used visualization of the outdoors as a means of coping. Thomas Jefferson left doors in buildings slightly ajar to deal with a "penned in" feeling.

Academy Award winning actor Judi Dench said in an interview that she leaves her handbag near a doorway of any building she is in as an assurance that she can walk out at will. I leave windows open at home and seek out exits and windows in any building I enter.

But we are adults and have learned to deal with the feelings of panic in our own way, performing little mind tricks to help us cope. For a child, it is more difficult to first rationalize, and then make accommodations for their fears. Fear is fear.

How can you help your child if he or she suffers from school-itis? One way to help is to take his or her fears seriously. Don't dismiss it as something silly or tell them they will outgrow them. Discuss their fears and let them know you understand and are willing to help. Do online research together and talk about what this fear means and how your child feels about it. Discuss famous people who share this phobia and the ways in which they deal with it.

Seek professional help if you need to do so. Sometimes a child derives a feeling of safety just knowing that there is a certain place they can go to where their fears are understood.

Do let the principal, teachers and medical officer at your child's school know about the situation but make sure they know this information is in strictest confidence. Advise them that any breach of confidence on their part will not be taken lightly on yours.

Assure your child know that you, or another understanding adult, can be reached at any time during the day. It may be comforting for your child to be able to call you at lunch or recess.

With help, support and guidance your child will be able to understand and deal with his or her fear and enjoy being part of the school community.

To read more from Kristen Houghton, peruse her articles at Kristen and visit her Keys to Happiness blog.
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Copyright 2010 Kristen Houghton