Managing Anxiety and School Stress
Child & Adolescent Therapist, Laura McLaughlin, talks about how to identify childhood stress and three tips to help manage it.
Anxiety takes many shapes and forms in children, and can sometimes be difficult to detect due to the physiological nature in which it usually manifests. Headaches, stomach aches, and other bodily aches and pains that can not otherwise be ruled out by a physical cause can often times mean the child is feeling anxious. Children and adolescents can also become irritable, short-tempered, and generally more rigid and controlling in their behaviors when anxiety is present.
When looking at the causes of childhood anxiety, school stress and academic pressure seems to be a common cause at the top of most lists for children beginning in 1st grade and beyond. School stress sometimes starts with the separation from mom for the day and social anxiety with other peers and classmates. Anxiety can also become more evident if the classroom is chaotic, overwhelming, or has a lot of stimuli. Add to this the pressure to be at the top of the academic rankings and obtain acceptance into competitive colleges and universities, all while excelling in several after school extracurriculars- and you’ve got the perfect storm for anxiety to brew.
Helping children and adolescents learn ways to manage their anxiety is a long-term game plan. Small behaviors and techniques can act as quick fixes and help decrease anxiety in the present moment, but it is the consistency in using these techniques over time (with small successes) coupled with lots of positive encouragement, acceptance, and understanding from parents that help in the long run.
Knowing that these small behaviors add up, the following are a few techniques parents can help employ to increase their child’s coping skills and learn to effectively manage the inevitable anxiety that will occur throughout the child’s academic journey.
TIP 1: REDUCE THE STIMULI:
Classrooms are loud and chaotic, sometimes with as many as 25 students per class, or more during specials periods, lunch, recess, morning chapel time, or assemblies. It is common for children that experience anxiety to struggle the most during these more unstructured, loud, and chaotic times. One way of helping your child manage anxiety caused by overstimulation at school is to work with the classroom teacher to find small and subtle ways to reduce the stimuli throughout the day. If a child becomes anxious when other students are moving around or talking, placing that child in the front of the classroom where they physically can not see the students behind them can be helpful. Other children have success when they are placed either first or last in line, as they do not have to worry about people crowding them on both sides of their body- this technique also works well in seated positions, with the anxious child seated on the outer periphery of the classroom or carpet area so the child can easily look outside the group of students to self-regulate.
TIP 2: PROVIDE STRUCTURE AND CONSISTENCY:
All children, not just anxious ones- but anxious ones in particular, thrive when provided with structure, predictability, and consistency. If they can correctly predict what their environment will present to them, the innately feel more in control, safer, and less anxious. Morning and bedtime routines provide a great sense of structure, and helps to both set the tone for the day and reduce anxiety in the right before bedtime (when anxiety is typically the strongest). Knowing exactly the 3-4 things they will do when they first wake up gives children a boost of confidence and reassurance and helps keep anxiety at a minimum before heading to school. Try to keep these routines short and simple, as too many tasks to complete before heading out the door can become overwhelming and anxiety-provoking. A good rule of thumb is 3 activities for both morning (i.e., get dressed, eat breakfast, and pack school bag) and bedtime (shower, bathroom break, brush teeth).
TIP 3: BE PREPARED BUT TAKE MIND BREAKS:
One of the best ways to decrease anxiety around school is to help your child feel prepared. Studying and reviewing notes help students feel more confident and therefore less anxious. It also gives more of a sense of control, as they are prepared and know what to expect, and have become familiar with the material they will be tested on or have practiced for a performance.
On the flip side, it’s also important to take breaks to allow time and space for our mind to consolidate all the learning that has taken place. Encourage your child to take even just 5 minutes every hour to stretch his or her body, get a drink of water, and give their brain time to settle down, focus, and regroup. During really stressful periods, such as the end of the semester or grading period when all the big assignments are due, being more diligent about taking mind breaks can work wonders in keeping anxiety in check, preventing your child from feeling overwhelmed. When a child feels too overwhelmed, it can sometimes feel impossible to get started on a task- which in turn adds even more stress and anxiety (it’s a vicious cycle). Breaks that include self-calming activities such as deep breathing, water play, sand play, or expressive arts are not only a good distraction, but give moments for the child to feel more attuned and connected to his or her body, which helps to reduce stress.
Keeping these tips in mind will help your child grow into a resilient, confident student. Practicing these tips during calmer moments will also help it become easier to utilize the skills, such as deep breathing, when the school stress is really amped up. With enough structure and consistency, your anxious worrier will be able to stay focused on the task at hand rather than retreating in fear.