The homework load, the social pressures, standardized testing, all of these and more can cause your child to experience anxiety in school. While some stressors can be helpful (meeting deadlines, learning organization, understanding teamwork), too much stress will backfire and produce levels of anxiety that can be harmful. Suddenly the thought of a bad grade can produce outright terror of failing in life. Read on for practical info and solutions for school anxiety.
How is School Anxiety Different?
The school day as most children experience it is a microcosm of several societal environments crammed into one thing we call “school.” There is daily work, developing relationships and friendships, time management, intense learning, understanding authority, and navigating personality changes. All of these monumental and critical areas of life we navigate throughout our lives all occur simultaneously at school. Your child has to remember her Chemistry test while figuring out where to sit at lunch, who to sit with, and how she is going to have time for English homework after basketball practice. All of this happens in the mind of a 14-year-old middle schooler.
Perhaps you have experienced this with your children: You’re driving home from school and she’s dead quiet. When you ask how was school, or how was her day, you get a frustrated sigh and then she releases all of this information and panic all at once. It might sound like this:
“I think I failed my test. Ms. Beckett says the test counts for 40% of the total grade. I got a C- last week, and if I get an F this week, I might fail English. If I don’t pass English this year, I’ll have to retake it next year and then I’ll be behind. I haven’t even started on my report, and I don’t see the point if I’m going to screw it up like everything else. I’m going to flunk 9th grade! I won’t get into college! And my life will be over!”
While this might be a bit extreme, this line of thought is common in children experiencing school anxiety. This is “catastrophizing.” It starts with a belief of a negative outcome, and from that negative outcome, every other possible negative outcome follows until they arrive at a catastrophe based in a false negative reality. One negative line of thought results in a belief that says, “My life will be over!”
Finding A New Perspective
The biggest challenge to overcoming catastrophizing is finding ways to bring in good, true, and helpful perspectives to your child. The trick is finding the right time and place to do it. When your child is anxious, her brain is NOT in a place to be rational. You wouldn’t try to reason with an animal caught in a trap, right? That’s basically your kid in the middle of a school freakout. This is where it is helpful to just be present, not judge or react, and ask gentle questions rather than convince your child she’s fine.
A hug can go a long way. Or just sitting with your child and listening. A simple,”That sounds super stressful” can be helpful. Once she’s somewhat calm, questions like: “What do you think can help you right now?” and “What do you think is most likely to happen?” can help your child slow down more and think clearly. When emotions are high and the anxiety is strong, negative thoughts fly fast. But if your child has an opportunity to come down from all that energy and think, the catastrophes tend to become manageable.
If your child is struggling with anxiety and tends to catastrophize, it can be helpful to teach her to ask herself these three questions:
- What’s the worst that could happen?
- What’s the best case scenario?
- What is most realistic?
Now, don’t try to have her answer those questions in the moment of her anxiety; give her some space, wait for things to calm down, and then ask her these questions. Eventually, your child will be able to think through the situation, have clarity of mind to see things differently, and then have a more reasonable outlook on school or whatever is causing this kind of anxiety.
Oftentimes, the anxiety and stress of school can be overwhelming for our students and in turn for our entire families. Sometimes it helps to discover new ways to navigate and understand anxiety. Counseling can be a simple conversation with someone on your side, who’s there to listen and understand, and provide support. We offer counseling services for students experiencing stress in school at our offices in Fort Collins. Call our offices today or email us to schedule an appointment for you or your child. (970) 889-8204; firstname.lastname@example.org
- Martin Seligman Ph.D., The Optimistic Child: http://amzn.to/2gkylbr