stressed out kid

What is the key to managing stress for all of us? Recognizing and developing a sense of control. Kids especially live in world where they have little control. Just think about the many things in a typical day in the life of a child where they lack control: the school they attend, the class they are in, who their teacher is, the subjects they study, even the kids they may hang out with.

Studies show that a healthy sense of control goes hand in hand with virtually all the positive outcomes we want for children:  better physical health, less use of drugs and alcohol, a long productive life, lower anxiety and emotional well-being. So how can we as the adults in our children’s lives help them develop a sense of control? Here are a few ideas from the book, The Self-Driven Child by William Stixrud, Phd, and Ned Johnson:

  • Dialogue with kids about where they have control now and make a list: what they wear? what they eat? who their friends are?
  • Next consult with them about areas where they think they could assert more control: when or how they do their homework? when or how they practice a sport or musical instrument? what extracurricular activities they engage in? what else?
  • Create a plan for them to establish increasing control over as many areas of their lives as possible. Determine where to start and how to tell if they are successful. Identify what it looks like when someone manages their choices well. Identify and prepare for the results when bad choices are made.
  • Talk about (and mean it) how failure is the way we all learn. Expect some bad choices and be prepared to help kids learn from them.

Given that despite our best efforts, children may become stressed out over upcoming testing, what are the best ways to deal with anxiety when it rears its ugly head?

Six Tips to Conquer Anxiety

  1. First and foremost, acknowledge the feeling rather than brushing it off or providing a distraction.  Instead of, “Don’t worry.  You are so smart, you’ll do fine.”  Or “Don’t worry, we aren’t going to catch the Covid virus.” Try, “You are worried about passing the test?  Tell me about that.” Or, “You are worried about catching the virus? Tell me what you think might happen.” Help the child identify how he knows he is worried both physically (heart beating faster, shallow breathing for instance) and mentally (I keep thinking about not passing, being really sick etc.)
  2. Create a positive image of who the child wants to be going into the situation.
    1. “I want to be calm and confident.”
    2. “I want to be focused and know the answers to the test.”
    3. “I want to be healthy and feel safe.”
  3. Teach some simple breathing skills to calm down the physical symptoms, so he can begin working on the mental skills.  Point out how calming the breathe, calms the body.  An easy one is box breathing:
    1. Breathe in for 4 counts
    2. Hold for 4 counts
    3. Breathe out for 4 counts
    4. Hold for 4 counts
    5. Repeat
  4. Identify and challenge the thoughts that are creating the anxiety by providing a different thought pattern to replace the anxiety producing thoughts.  Creating a simple repeatable phrase that the child can learn and repeat when they feel the worry starting is helpful.  Instead of thinking “what if” change the thought to “what is”.  For example instead of thinking “What if I get the test and don’t know any answers?”, change the thought to “I’ve worked hard all year and I choose to be calm and confident of my ability.” Instead of “What if I catch the virus and get really sick?” change the thought to “I am healthy and I follow good health and safety practices.”
  5. Create a plan that the child can follow on his own:  “Whenever I notice I am getting stressed out, I will:
    1. Remember my positive outcome: Who I want to be.  How I want to feel.
    2. Stop and breathe
    3. Repeat my phrase
  6. Check in to make sure the plan is working and tweak the plan if it is not.  Create a positive expectation that the anxiety is something that the child can be in charge of rather than something to avoid..

All of our emotions are feelings in our body that we create based on our thoughts.  This is true of positive and negative feelings. Sometimes these thoughts are so ingrained that they are practically unconscious.  Sometimes they are either so common in society or in our minds that we accept them without question as the truth or  the  only way to believe or think.

But the good news is that with enough effort and insight we can unearth the message that is creating any feeling.  Once we understand the message or thought process we can change that process so that we can change the feeling.  I think you would agree that this is not only worth the effort, but also a much better plan than learning to live with fear or anxiety through various coping strategies or medication that numbs our feelings.

Here is how to teach kids to challenge and change feelings:

  • Become an observer— Take the time to evaluate a situation where the response is anxiety or fear.  Ask the questions:
    • What happened?  “The teacher announced a test on Friday.”
    • What did you tell yourself about the situation? “I don’t understand the material.  I always do badly on tests.  I’m not ready.  I’ll probably fail…”
    • How did you feel?  “Worried, nervous, afraid, anxious…”
  • Challenge your thoughts– argue with them, make them prove themselves, be the devils’ advocate, don’t accept thoughts as the truth
    • “I understand a lot of the material and I can learn the rest by Friday.”
    • “I don’t always do badly on tests.  I have made some really good grades on tests.”
    • “I’m not ready… yet.  I know how to study and prepare for a test and I can do it.  I have the time and the ability.”
    • “I won’t fail if I put forth enough effort.”
  • Create a plan— don’t just change your thoughts, change your actions based on your thoughts.  Plan to do what is necessary to be your best self and put forth your best effort.
    • “I’ll study 30 minutes every night”
    • “I’ll finish reading the assignment and doing the extra work.”
    • “I’ll ask for help on the things I don’t understand.”
  • Be vigilant and stay in control of your thoughts and your actions to stay in control of your feelings— It’s hard to stay anxious when we are occupied with other things.  Stay on track with the plan.  Keep working on it and reminding yourself that you are in charge of your thoughts.
  • Be patient and give yourself time–The thoughts that create anxiety have had a lot of practice and repetition.  It will take some time to replace them but eventually the new way of thinking will become the new habit.

Finally, what can we all do to decrease anxiety among children?

  • Set reasonable expectations and teach students to recognize the process of achievement.  Children need to recognize that achieving goals involves effort, struggle and often failure before there is success. Teach resources for coping with the disappointments that can arise while celebrating the wins.
  • Create an oasis of support in the school and community. Provide a safe environment where children can voice concerns. Acknowledge all feelings, positive and negative rather than brushing them off or providing a distraction. Instead teach coping techniques such as mindfulness or relaxation.
  • Share news events especially bad news with restraint and in consideration of the child’s age and ability to understand the circumstances.  Monitor their reactions and provide ways to contribute to a positive result such as collecting food or clothing or volunteering.  Teach children that they can make a difference in the world through their efforts.

Resources:

The Self-Driven Child by William Stixrud, Phd, and Ned Johnson

Calming Your Anxious Child: Words to Say and Things to Do by Kathleen Trainor

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