Heightened anxiety levels are common among children and young people as the new year at school begins. Most children will respond to a little calm reassurance and encouragement as they reengage with the school yard.
Anxiety, however, is one of the most common challenges that counsellors working with children and adolescents see most frequently. A recent survey of guidance counsellors across 11 schools in New Zealand showed that anxiety is one of the top three consultations that clinicians are dealing with. The question is, what can we do to support our young people to develop resilience in the face of change and stress and keep mentally healthy?
While often our first thought as New Zealanders is to have the “toughen up approach”, this will do little to empower the young person. In fact, it is not brain friendly for the young person not to be able to deal with their fears. Suppressing anxious thoughts and feelings is likely to lead to more embedded anxiety later.
There are some basic actions that we can take as teachers and parents to turn schoolyard anxiety into a positive for a young person.
Firstly, ask, listen and build a relationship. Encourage the young people to have conversations about their fears, and their experiences at school, where you listen and show empathy without drowning the young person with advice. Lots of listening and validation of the fact that school can be challenging and that the feelings are real helps the young person to deal with it.
At the same time, normalise it by sharing a story about one of your own struggles. Now is a good time to remind the young person of other times they have overcome their fears and validate them. Reassure your young person that you are on their team by walking alongside them through it, but not pushing them or rescuing them.
Now is the time to believe in your parenting and to trust that what you have given your child will be adequate to bring them through. Resist loading up your child with adult family concerns, particularly if you are going through issues; try and model the kind of response that you would like to see in your child by getting your own support if necessary.
Best is good enough
Remember, anxiety is a normal response to change and it shows that the child is serious in their commitment to school and that their brain is readying them for the challenge. Ignore some of the obsessive attention-seeking behaviours that may present over the little details e.g. having the right coloured school bag. This is the anxiety talking.
Anxiety gives us the opportunity for teachable moments with our young person to build self-esteem. Acknowledge the strength they show for pushing through and overcoming their feelings. Being open about it means that the anxiety is less likely to get out of control and they learn to view it positively.
Anxiety grows is an environment where acceptance, love and relationship is dependent on performance. A child needs to be reassured that if they are doing their best that that is enough and that they are loved and valued no matter what the result.
At the start of the year, focus on settling in on becoming happy at school rather than academic performance. If the child is relaxed and happy they will learn better. This is helped where parents and teachers work together. Making a teacher aware of the of their student’s needs will alert the teacher to any behaviours or mannerisms that the young person may have that could be misinterpreted, but are the response to heightened anxiety.
Contain and calm
If anxiety becomes a challenge, model calm positive reassurance. The student will subconsciously model their behaviour on your response. Encourage the young person to self soothe. This can include “time out” for a few minutes and use of breathing exercises with relaxation apps on smart phones.
Maintaining life balance with involvement in sport and recreation, as well as school and encouraging good sleep hygiene and a good diet, sets children up well to manage stress. Exercising discipline and boundaries over the use of technology further reduce the exposure of the young person to anxiety provoking experiences.
While it is tempting as an adult to helicopter in and rescue the young person, allow them time and space to work it out themselves. This builds confidence and resiliency.
When it gets really tough
If you are worried that anxiety is worsening and affecting day to day functioning then, approach the school and discuss with their teacher, pastoral staff and the school counsellor. All of these people are well placed to enable the student to work through the issues by providing an individualised plan for counselling support including a safe place to go when needed.
If anxiety symptoms become more severe (sleep disturbance, eating refusal, panic attacks and phobic responses) then specialist medical support is needed. The local GP, Health nurse and school counsellor can arrange a referral to children’s specialist mental health services. In some cases medication can support change with intensive therapy.
Once again, working with the school and teachers to keep them in the loop and having a plan for management at school is vital. In most cases improvement is immediate once the right support is put in place.