Helping Children through School Anxiety
Updated: Jun 6, 2020
Anxiety can affect any child or teenager at any time, but current circumstances means it might be a bigger issue than it needs to be, with some feeling very anxious and worried. After all anxiety is about loss of control and fear of the unknown.
Anxiety is about how the brain perceives threat. When it sees a threat, the fear centre part of the brain (the amygdala) sets off the flight/fight response. Stress hormones ‘power up’ the body ready to fight or run. The fight/flight response has an important job to do, we would be dead without it. It’s there to get us out of the way of a life threating situation.
The brain does not need to be in a dangerous situation for flight/flight to kick off. Worrying thoughts will do the same. Pictures, words, and images can also do it. Think about a watching a scary movie and how the adrenaline kicks off a racing heart.
The first thing we need to do, is educate our children about the fight/flight response and how this is a natural response to the brain perceiving danger. In counselling, psychoeducation is one of the fundamental parts to helping clients manage anxiety. If they understand the psychology of why it’s happening, they have a much better chance of working with their anxiety as opposed to trying to fight it.
In my counselling sessions teenagers will often say,” ‘I want my anxiety to go away, I want you to get rid of it”. Of course, they are disappointed to hear that I cannot make it go away. It is not possible to move forward with the therapy until they have a good understanding about what anxiety is and accept that we can’t “get rid” of it.
I want them to see that anxiety can be a bully that we need to stand up to. During therapy we focus on the consequences of letting anxiety be the bully – missing out on spending times with friends, parties, education, all the fun times. I help them to recognise unhelpful thoughts and challenge negative thinking.
As a parent it’s helpful to know how anxiety can present itself. It can look like avoidance, clingy behaviour, aggression, strops, tears and meltdowns. With anxiety there is a need to control, in order to protect against the threat. This can look like any kind of control for example the morning routine. They are looking for any way to control the situation as a way of keeping safe. Try to understand what the behaviour is communicating.
Talking to children in the right way is important to manage anxiety. We don’t want them to think something is wrong with them which is why it’s important to normalise it. Give them examples of times when you’ve felt anxious, remind them everyone gets it, as sometimes the brain can be overactive as its working hard to protect you.
Sometimes it’s helpful to see the brain as external to yourself, something you need to understand and befriend. The brain doesn’t know whether is reacting to something that is real or not so dealing with it by talking about it helps make sense of it.
In my experience creative children are much more likely to struggle with anxiety. This is because they are dominantly right brained. This side of the brain is where our creative imagination comes from, so the brain is much more likely to imagine situations. A dominantly left-brain person thinks methodically and logically so is less likely to focus on the what if’s. Explain this is to your children, it really helps them to understand the brain and normalise the process.
After my clients have come to terms with the fact that ‘we can’t make anxiety go away’ I then really need them to buy into the idea that exposure to the fear situation is really the only way to overcome it. This is not easy. Why would they expose themselves to the awful feelings of anxiety when they can just avoid it. Going back to the ‘Scary movie’ idea I explain how we may use ‘safety behaviours’ to get through watching the film. For example, by looking away. It’s the same with anxiety, we adopt safety behaviours, normally through some kind of avoidance i.e, not going to school, meeting friends etc
However, if we watched the same movie repeatedly without the safety behaviours, we would train the brain that what is perceived to be dangerous is not actually life threating at all.
As a parent their distress will trigger distress in you. It’s a natural parental instinct to protect and rescue but as hard as it is the worst thing for anxiety is to support avoidance. This can be extremely difficult to do. As a parent myself I know how awful and distressing this can feel. It will not feel right to move them towards the stress, but we must lead them through if we want them to overcome their fear. They may have anxiety tummy aches and head heads, but unless legitimate we cannot buy into their story or controlling behaviour.
Humans are wired to feel safer when close to their people and by clinging to a parent they are adopting a safety behaviours. For children to leave us they need to feel strong enough to go, so we need to take leadership, be strong and consistent, they have a better chance of pushing through if they can feel the energy within us to ‘power them up’. It is really hard and it gets worse before it gets better, so keep strength in knowing that tough love is helping them grow in courage and strength.
Anxiety is driven by thoughts, mostly ‘what if’s’. ‘What if there is no one to help me’, ‘what if the teacher is mean’, ‘what if I have no one to play with at break’. It’s the ‘what if’ thoughts that then cause the unpleasant physical response that then drives the avoidance.
What we must try and avoid, is telling our children ‘you’ll be fine, don’t worry’. It’s really not helpful. What if, it’s not fine and there is no one to play with at lunchtime. Instead we need to teach our kid’s the skill of problem solving. How might they deal with the ‘what if’ IF it happens. It much easier to do this when they are in a calm state. What might they do instead, what teacher would they feel comfortable speaking to? When the amygdala is fired up and in full flow, it’s impossible to reason with, it’s called brain freeze the rational part of the brain stop working so there is no point trying to reason during the event.
Turn their worries into wonder. I wonder what games you can think of to play at lunchtime. I wonder what you will learn today.
The feelings associated with anxiety are unpleasant and we need to validate and normalise them. Use empathy – “I’m hearing how distressing this feels”, “you’re feeling like this because you’re not sure what school will look like”. “The anxiety is being a bully right now, be brave, I know you can do this”. “ It’s also ok to be genuine. If it feels difficult for you, let them know”. “I’m going to miss you too, but I’ll look forward to seeing you and hearing all about your day”.
Five key points in Summary:
1) Psychoeducation helps your children understand what anxiety is and how it operates.
2) Normalise the feelings.
3) Listen Empathically, meet them at their distress, let them hear that you know how awful these feelings are.
4) Help children to be brave and lead by example, empower them with encouragement and energy
5) Teach them to problem solve and challenge their thinking.