FIU Childhood anxiety expert warns: Back-to-school anxiety may be a serious problem

MIAMI – The jitters children face as a new school year approaches can usually be shrugged away as end-of-summer blues.

But for as much as 18 percent of children, those jitters may actually be anxiety, a disorder characterized by persistent and excessive worry about a number of events or activities. And as the first day of school approaches, children with anxiety may start to exhibit increasingly pronounced symptoms. 

Wendy K. Silverman, a psychologist at Florida International University’s Child Anxiety and Phobia Program (CAPP), says many parents may not recognize the signs of child anxiety, or confuse them for school angst. If left untreated, she said, that anxiety may mushroom into depression, severe behavioral problems and even substance abuse later in life.

“The beginning of the school year is the perfect time for parents and teachers to take note of signs of anxiety in children,” Silverman said, who has devoted more than 20 years of her career to the study of childhood anxiety. “This disorder, one of the most common in children, can often be misdiagnosed or left unchecked.”

Silverman, along with her colleague William Kurtines, are in the midst of a $3.3 million study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health to develop state-of-the-art techniques to more quickly and effectively diagnose and treat children with anxiety.

Among the signs children with anxiety disorder may exhibit: 

  • Have trouble being away from their parents
  • Excessive worry about routine events
  • Have trouble being around other children or grown ups
  • Complain about headaches or stomach aches

 “Children will often refuse to attend class, even putting up a huge fuss about going to school,” Silverman said. “Once in school, they will be unable to stay put and often they’ll cause disruptions in the classroom.”

 “We believe we can develop quicker, more cost effective ways to treat children who suffer from anxiety,” Silverman said.

 CAPP provides comprehensive diagnostic assessments and state-of-the-art treatments for children and adolescents (7-16 years old) who are experiencing excessive fear and anxiety-related problems.

 Virginia Arce started bringing daughter Yesenia to CAPP in February after a school counselor said the 13-year-old had trouble staying through an entire class.

 “She would get very nervous,” Arce said. “She couldn’t sit still, she had shortness of breath, she wasn’t able to concentrate and she kept asking to go to the front office.”

 After about five months of treatment at CAPP, Arce says her daughter looks forward to going back to school.

“She’s definitely not getting nervous about school,” she said. “She’s actually excited.”

If parents believe their children may suffer from anxiety and have been experiencing its symptoms for at least six months, they may call CAPP at 305-348-1937.

Silverman’s tips for getting children ready for the school year: 

  • Remind them of the friends they have not seen all summer
  • Remind them of a favorite teacher they may see again
  • Get children excited over the “back to school” shopping routine, even in terms of school supplies.
  • Discuss extracurricular activities in school, such as sports or clubs, may also motivate children
  • For kids going to a school for the first time, make sure to check for open house type activities that provide an opportunity to meet teachers before the official start of the school year.

To hear more from Silverman, listen to her interview on WLRN here.

Media Contact: Jean-Paul Renaud at 305-348-2716 or


About FIU:
Florida International University was founded in 1965 and is Miami’s only public research university. With a student body of more than 38,000, its 17 colleges and schools offer more than 200 bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs in fields such as engineering, international relations and law. FIU has been classified by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as a “High Research Activity University” and now qualifies as a “Very High Research University”.  In 2006 FIU was authorized to establish a medical school, which will welcome its first class in August 2009. FIU’s College of Law received accreditation in the fastest time allowed by the American Bar Association.

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