Big Worries, Small Experiments
How Can Parents Support their Children through the Anxiety that Comes with the New School Year and Build Strength, Resilience, and Confidence?
As soon as Tina spied her daughter’s face walking toward the car after school, she knew something was wrong. Tina got out and said, “Are you okay?” but daughter Alyssa quickly shut her down. “I’m fine,” she said in an aggravated tone and a stop-looking-at-me whince. On the short car ride from school to home, despite the fact that Alyssa looked as if she were nearly crying, Tina kept quiet. When they walked in their door, Alyssa took off running to her room slamming the door shut. Tina could just barely hear her sobs and wasn’t sure whether to knock or give her time. Tina brewed some tea and allowed herself a few hot, comforting sips before she went down the hall and gently knocked on Alyssa’s door. “Come in,” Alyssa said softly. She had calmed down enough to be able to talk. “Can you tell me what’s going on?” Mom asked. The words spilled out of her mouth like a waterfall, intense and flowing. “I hate school. I hate my new math class. The work is overwhelming and I think they put me in the wrong class. I don’t know what I’m doing. I hate school!”
Whether its anxiety over a brand new teacher who is strict with his classroom rules, or brand new classes with high expectations for performance, or new extracurriculars like trying out for the few slots left on the soccer team, the beginning of the school year brings lots of opportunities for new experiences, environments, and relationships and our children and teens feel all of the fears that go along with that newness.
It can be a highly emotional time when children feel physically anxious — ready to run and move after a long day of sitting in class — but emotionally exhausted as they’ve been exercising their ability to focus their attention, listen, and manage their impulses throughout the day. School can bring out performance anxiety — “what if I don’t pass the test?”, social anxiety — “what if I don’t have a friend to sit with at lunch?”, and separation anxiety — “will I be miserably homesick on our class overnight trip?”
In fact, the Highlights Magazine survey of 2,000 children ages 6-12 simply asked, “do you worry?” And 79% of children responded “yes.”1 Worry is normal and actually increases with our children’s awakening social awareness particularly starting around the age of nine. As they work on empathizing and taking the perspective of others, they also become self-conscious. “What if I’m criticized? What if I’m rejected?” These are common concerns of the pre-teen and teen years. So then the trick becomes, how can children, tweens, and teens learn to manage that worry in healthy, constructive ways so that they can identify their feelings and use them as assets. If they do not learn healthy coping strategies, feelings can take them over and they can begin to turn to unhealthy coping strategies.
So there is a significant opportunity for parents and teachers alike to support them in learning how to manage these big worries. Check out the following ideas along with a few pitfalls to avoid along the way!
Anxiety is contagious! Manage yourself first.
When your child is upset and anxious, the first instinct of a caring parent will be to dive in and fix that problem. But in reality, if you dive in with your own stack of worries, you could (and will likely) escalate your child’s worries. That’s because your own raised heartbeat and furrowed brow can’t hide. Your child and you are deeply connected (in good times and in bad) so that they will “catch” your worry and elevate their own. Tina brewed some tea and sipped on it before she went in to talk with Alyssa. Find ways to pause, breathe, get some fresh air and a fresh perspective (“This is not the end of the world nor will it determine my child’s long term success.”), and then talk to your child.
Normalize big worries.
When you do talk, be sure and let your child know that worrying is a normal part of being human and growing up. Don’t allow him to perpetuate the myth that he’s the only one who’s sure he’s going to be left alone or ridiculed on the playground. Help him identify his feelings – “I see you are feeling really worried about going back to school tomorrow. Tell me more.” Listen to his responses while reserving your own judgment or fears. Also, talk about the roles of stress – that it can be a positive force for keeping you sharp during a test but you have to learn ways to manage it so that you are in control and it doesn’t control you.
Be sure you understand what the worry truly is concerning. So often we make assumptions about our child’s fears only to discover later that she really didn’t care about being invited to the birthday party but merely wanted to play on the playground. Actively listen and reflect back thoughts and feelings before jumping to any conclusions. Be sure that you are open to learning from your child what concerns are there so that you can be most helpful.
Empathize together and choose compassion.
When a child or teen has social anxiety, she is focusing on herself and what others think of her. If she begins to consider how others are experiencing worry or pain, if she considers how she might ease others’ challenges, then she cannot focus on her own. Help her consider: “Amanda said some hurtful words today. What do you think could be going on with her? Is her home life okay? Does she feel accepted at school?” Often these questions uncover hurt that another child is undergoing. You might follow up with, “what could you do or say to help her feel more comfortable and accepted?” These questions shift your child’s focus in a positive, healthy way.
Tackle in the smallest increments.
When your child is feeling overwhelmed by expectations or the amount of work, sit down together and break it down into the smallest pieces possible. Then, simply just focus on one at a time. How can that one issue be tackled? Then, make a plan or set a positive, specific goal together for how she’ll tackle each one of the other issues. Set a clear timeframe and be there to support her through it.
Practice healthy coping strategies.
On a sunny September day when emotions are not running high, grab a blank sheet of paper or markers and newsprint and do the “Feeling Better” challenge (yes, we all love a challenge that is entertaining and game-like). See how many healthy coping strategies you can list together. Remember: the smaller and easier, the better! You want to be able to use them anywhere, anytime you or your child is upset. Practice some deep breathing like ocean wave breathing, or making the sound of the ocean and imaging waves coming in and out with the rhythm of your breath. Discuss other ideas like walking in nature, tensing and releasing toes and fingers, or pretending to blow bubbles.
Stop rumination and find a new thought.
Rumination is worry run-amok. When you hear your child mentioning the same concern over and again, they’ve moved into rumination. And it’s never productive. Why? Because it’s a vicious hamster wheel turning the same thoughts and feelings over and over without any new thoughts changing the perspective. Share that the churning we tend to do does not prevent horrible events from occurring and in fact, only weighs a person down and prevents them from finding positive solutions. When ruminating, tell yourself, “Stop.” And coach your child to help them tell themselves “stop.” Then ask, “what’s one new way you can look at this situation that you haven’t considered?” “What can you learn from this?” Also, if you can, ruminate a bit on the positive. Are there new friends that await at a new experience? Are there kind teachers? Are there interesting exploration opportunities with new subjects? Swirl around in the goodness of all that’s to come this school year.
Create a small experiment.
In other words, if your child is really scared to go on a class overnight field trip, can you set a small goal to go the first night and then call and talk and you’ll come get her the following day if it’s too much but she’ll try and make the best of the first night? Usually kids find that they can make it all the way through but the whole event seems overwhelming so offering small checkpoints or smaller goals helps reduce anxiety. If you set a small goal to tackle a homework challenge, then decide on when and how you’ll take a break or what small piece you’ll accomplish together. Celebrate with a high five or simply reflect on how they were able to get that small piece finished. Recognize together how tackling one step at a time made – what seemed like a monumental task – manageable.
Sleep is not only critical for learning the next day but it will also offer the self-control a child needs to get through his anxieties that day. But worries can keep a child up at night. So what can you do? First, be sure and stick to a consistent routine that gets business accomplished (bath, brushing teeth) and is also connecting (reading, snuggling). Make sure that there’s a calm down period with low lighting, low noise, and no screens. Let her know that worrying at night is rumination and will not accomplish anything so it’s important to leave it behind. You might try the following:
- Have you seen the Mexican worry dolls? You tell the dolls your worries before bedtime, put them in their box, and they work on your worries while you sleep. You can do this with a favorite stuffed friend. Assign him night duty. Allow her to share her worries with you and her stuffed friend (or just with the stuffed friend) and then assign the task of taking care of her worries overnight so that she can put them away. Make sure she only says them once because repeating them turns into rumination and her stewing won’t change her thinking so rumination doesn’t get her anywhere. Teens can write worries down in a journal and then, place the journal in a safe location overnight where they won’t look at it.
- You may also want to try a guided sleep mediation for children. Check out these from New Horizon. Visualize a calming, happy memory together from your summer vacation. Or you can simply play nature sounds (I like this simple Family Mindfulness App) and listen carefully in the dark together as you take deep breaths.
Instead of catching your child’s worries and fueling them further, look at the many beginnings in the school year as an important opportunity to teach her healthy ways to manage her stress and reframe her perspectives. Those skills will be critical as she continues to face greater challenges. Your support and practice together now will become invaluable sources of strength and resilience for a lifetime.
Check out this delightful and practical picture book:
The Worry Box by Suzanne Chiew
1. C + R Research. (2018). Highlights State of the Kid Report. Honesdale, PA; Highlights for Children.