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Ways to help your child deal with school anxiety

As school started, Chicago Parent Managing Editor Hillary Bird talked with Jacqueline Rhew, LCPC, CADC, for our Masters in Parenting Podcast. She is a consultant and liaison with AMITA Health who works with children and adolescents and co-founded the Center for Emotional Wellness.

For parents of kids with school anxiety, some of the signs and signals are well-known. She passed along a few tips to help teach children to cope through their anxiety and how we, as parents, can impact the way kids prepare for life. You can listen to the full conversation below.

Hillary: What is the difference between clinical school anxiety and “I just don’t want to go to school today”?

Jacqueline: I think sometimes we have to look at what’s motivating the behavior. When children are anxious typically we see things like: they’re overwhelmed, they’re having a hard time managing their stress. Children, as well as adults, who have anxiety will often use phrases like “I just can’t do it,” “It’ll never get better,” “It’s always like this, it’ll never be different.” They get stuck in their thinking a lot of times and black and white patterns can exist. Children that just don’t want to go to school, a lot of times it’s an issue with motivation, and there are other things they’d rather be doing. When kids have a hard time getting to school, I often ask parents: “What would they rather do, or what are they doing when they’re not at school?” … For some kids that have school anxiety, other patterns can manifest. For instance, they have a hard time going to school, they stay home with mom or dad and during that day they get a lot of extra attention from mom or dad and watch a lot of TV and through that patterns can manifest that kids with school anxiety will develop other motivators to stay home.

H: Is it easy for a parent to recognize that type of anxiety?

J: Typically, anxiety, especially school anxiety is worse on Mondays. A lot of times kids have a hard time transitioning from the unstructured time of the weekend to the structure of the week. So if your child does have school anxiety, you’ll often notice it’s especially challenging in the mornings on Monday or any day that there’s been a break or a day off of school. Typically, I encourage parents to stay consistent, to stay calm and the key for parents is to manage their own anxiety when responding to their children.   

H: Is anxiety hereditary or do you find that it’s something that can be passed on because kids pick up on a parent’s anxiety?

J: For some of our kids and for some of us, we’re more prone to be more sensitive and we’re more prone to anxiety. Really, I think everybody has a little anxiety to some degree. I’ve actually moved away from using terms like “anxiety” and using terms more like “discomfort” or “stress.” You want to be mindful of how you respond to kids with anxiety. Three things, for instance, that do not help anxiety are reassurance, distraction and avoidance. If you’ve noticed your child has anxiety, you want to avoid a lot of excessive talking, a lot of reassurance and developing a lot of avoidance patterns.

H: It’s interesting that the words that we use as parents can help cause the anxiety.

J: Or reinforce it. I think a lot of parents will tell me “I struggle with my child, I have a really hard time when they’re unhappy. I want to go in and fix it.” For instance, I was working with a father and he recognized when his daughter, when she approached the car from school, she would look sad and he would say: “what’s wrong?” Then they would spend a lot of time on the way home talking about something that was difficult about her day. I had to work with the father to shift his way of thinking and look at the day as a day where a lot happens, and if we just focus on one of the aspects that was difficult, we’re sending a message to his daughter that “things are supposed to be great all the time and if something’s wrong, there’s a problem.” So he shifted his questioning to, when she would come to the car, even if she looked sad, he would say: “Hey! How was your day? Tell me something that was really good about today.” And he would really prompt her first to find something that was positive, and then move towards “OK, what was something that was more difficult?” When she would report something that was more difficult, he wouldn’t spend a lot of time focusing on it, he said “well, how did you deal with it,” and she would report how she dealt with it and he would then move on in the conversation.

H: If you are a parent with your own anxiety, how do you work through that so you don’t pass that along?

J: For parents, I ask them to identify what’s difficult in their parenting. What causes you to emotionally react? Is it when your child is unhappy, is it when your child is maybe playing alone without their friends, is it when your child starts to struggle? Recognize those things in your parenting that cause you to emotionally react and start to be in tune to those reactions. I often ask parents: Do you ever find it helpful to scream at your child? Do you ever find it helpful to get into a power struggle with them? When we’re in that rational mindset we can identify that’s not helpful, but when anxiety and worry takes over, what happens is that a lot of times we emotionally react. We do a lot of talking and a lot of reassurance and we want to protect our kids, but ultimately that can create reinforced patterns that aren’t healthy.

H: Is that tough, because you want to talk to your kid about it because you don’t want them to think “oh, you’re not noticing it?” but you don’t want to react too much?

J: I use the analogy of the airplane a lot: If you’re on an airplane and there’s a lot of turbulence, who are you going to look at to assess the situation? Most parents will say “I’m going to look at the flight attendant.” If you look to the flight attendant, how do you want them to appear? You don’t want them running up and down the aisle hugging you and giving you a lot of extra cookies, because you’re going to say “Oh my gosh, something’s really wrong in this environment!” You want them to be calm and cool and collected, and that gives you a sense of safety.

For a lot of my parents, I work with them on staying calm and depending on the child’s age, I will have parents say to the child “I really care about you, but I want you to be more confident, so when you are at school and having a hard time, I want you to learn that you can work with your teacher on this. So, I’m not going to keep asking you if you’re OK.”

I tend to use a more solution-focused approach, so I ask people, “tell me something that went well today, or tell me about a time that you were anxious and you really worked through it on your own and how were you able to do that” versus focusing on the time that they really struggled.

H: Does this kind of anxiety show up in grades?

J: It can. I have a lot of kids that have performance anxiety as well as social anxiety. I had one young lady I worked with, she was 8 years old, and she didn’t want to go to school on days there were math tests. She was very, very stressed and anxious about her math tests, and she was worried about not performing well. I talked to her and (her) mom, and one of the things I noticed is that Mom, several times throughout the session, said things like “Jackie, my daughter is really gifted and really bright.” And I noticed when Mom said that that the girl’s face looked down. For this 8-year-old girl it caused her a lot of fear of failure when she heard how gifted and bright she was because that created an expectation for her that she had to perform at a higher level.

H: When we put expectations on kids that they can’t control – like height and what they look like, a 12-year-old that looks 15 – do some of those expectations manifest as anxiety?

J: When kids aren’t able to create realistic expectations for themselves, they feel like a failure or they feel like they’re not measuring up. I hear that from so many kids: they just don’t feel like they’re measuring up. So we work on “What’s realistic for you? Can you manage? What’s going on in your day?” Kids really need down time, they need to learn to experience down time and be OK with it.

There’s a lot of trends with technology. Back 20 years ago, parents spent a lot of time talking with their kids. You’d go to a Starbucks and you’d see a mom talking with her child. Today a lot of times you walk into a coffee shop and the child’s on the iPad and the mom’s on the phone and why this is so important is that this is such a vital time to work on social skills, communication—many of the kids I work with struggle with communication, they’ll struggle asking for help—so making sure you just really spend time with your kids every day without any electronics, just really having some basic down time. I will hear from kids more often than not “I just don’t get a lot of that face time, everybody’s busy, everyone is on their phones.” And kids will say to me, in middle school and high school, “I just want someone to talk to.”

H: Is there a fine line between setting your child up for anxiety and setting goals?

J: One thing I’ve learned is really trying to listen to kids and ask them questions: How do you want to make that happen? What do you think is a good approach? Really get the kids thinking as opposed to being mindful of putting your wants or your desires on them. A lot of kids have a hard time making their own decisions. They’re so nervous about making the wrong decision and they’re so worried about failing that they, in turn, are trying to please others.

Listen to more episodes of our Masters in Parenting podcast.

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