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Anxiety Based School Avoidance:

How to support a young person who is struggling with ASBA


Many of our young people struggle with Anxiety Based School Avoidance or 'ABSA'. 

Paul McAvady, our wellbeing manager has put together this advice for parents to better understand how ABSA can develop and some strategies to support young people dealing with it.

ABSA can develop into a cycle which self-perpetuates (makes itself worse).

Here are some things we might do to try and make children feel better, but can actually make them more anxious:

  • Tell them there’s nothing to worry about
  • Sort out their problems
  • Do not allow them to become distressed
  • Comfort them
  • Let them decide what they can cope with
  • Ask if they are going to be OK
  • Answer all their questions
  • Spring that dreaded event at the last hour so there’s less time to worry

Doing things differently to make anxious children LESS anxious...

 1) Anxious children can’t help worrying. Telling them there’s nothing to worry about makes the worry more confusing, elusive and overwhelming.

By labelling and recognising Worry, children learn that it’s a normal response that they can talk to and control; it’s not a stop sign that has to be obeyed.

 2) When parents/guardians/professionals do all the fixing for anxious children by providing comfort, removing sources of stress or doing things for them to prevent failure, the children become more dependent, less willing to take risks and increasingly passive in their parent’s presence.

3) If we allow children to avoid everything they’re afraid of, they will never learn the difference between a real threat and an imagined threat.

4) We comfort young children when they are in pain and convey the message: ‘Stinging nettles, broken glass and fights are BAD things that you need to avoid if you want to save yourself further pain; but meanwhile, I will make you feel better’. If we cuddle and soothe children when they are afraid of insects, dogs or fireworks for example, the message is the same: ‘These are BAD things to be avoided and you should run to me for comfort’.

 So, ACKNOWLEDGE their anxiety; REASSURE; FACE the fear and PRAISE them. “Of course you’re worried, you weren’t expecting that, but it can’t hurt you. Let’s stand further back until you get used to it”. Save the cuddles for when you congratulate them for being so brave!

5) By making activities simpler or shorter, providing a distraction or phasing out support, realistic expectations can be set and children can be assured that all they need is the courage to have a go. It may also take courage for their parent to step back and let it happen...

6) Asking children if they are going to be ok leaves open the possibility that they might not be! Instead, tell them they will be OK.

 7) Differentiate between need-to-know questions that require an answer and ‘worry’ questions. Show children by your own example that it’s natural to worry about new situations but you can be brave and give it a go anyway.

8) Although working through anticipatory anxiety to prepare for a specific event takes a lot more energy and resolve, it provides the foundation for general anxiety-coping strategies when the event happens.