Anxiety in Schools

Don’t Let Pressure Squeeze You Out”

By Aaron Welch, LMHC, NCC, CSOTS

Anxiety comes in many forms…especially in the school system. It lurks around as social phobias, it is ready to pounce in the form of test anxiety, it ambushes us in our fear that we won’t perform like we should. In this day and age, anxiety has become a harbinger of negativity to our kids, from the beginning days of elementary school all the way up to high school and beyond. Students who are charming, intelligent, funny, and totally competent somehow believe that they are ugly, boring, stupid, and incapable. Why? Why would a student who obviously has the ability to do well NOT do well? We can eliminate intellectual ability with most of the students I work with. I find that the students who struggle most with anxiety are kids whose IQ’s are above-average and even up to genius level. If it’s not intellectual functioning, what is it? More often than not, anxiety turns out to be a combination of the inability to identify and express accurate emotions combined with feeling the lifelong pressure to “live up to one’s potential”. Of course, there is also a genetic tie to a predisposition towards anxiety as well. However, the following are some common external factors I see as I treat students with anxiety of many kinds:

1. Unrealistic Parental Expectations: Now….parents BELIEVE their expectations are appropriate. They know how smart their child is and expect them to use that intelligence to the utmost. However, what many parents don’t take into account is that living up to expectations also has to do with emotional maturity. Just because your child is very smart, doesn’t automatically mean it will be easy for them to be disciplined, organized, and motivated to excel. Without these other factors, intelligent kids just become frustrated and begin to panic in any situation where they know they must perform or be verbally scourged for not performing. Many of us as parents push our kids way harder than we should. Kids mature and develop at different rates. Pushing them too hard, too fast, is counterproductive to them actually reaching their potential.

2. A Tendency to Compare Themselves to Those Around Them: These comparisons might be academically, socially, or in any other ways. Kids compare the way they dress, how funny they are, how athletic they are and how well they do in grades. Healthy competition is one thing but this trait can go way overboard and become an obsession and obsessions lead to anxiety.

3. Thinking Too Much About Things One Cannot Control: Kids worry so much about the future or about what might be on the FCAT or what might happen if they don’t do well on the FCAT . Their minds begin to race about all the “what if’s” of life and THIS is a huge factor in anxiety. Again, parents often fuel this by their own worries about the future of their children. Yes….it is good to have goals and pursue them but the idea that life revolves around these things can only lead to anxiety, frustration and anger.

4. A Build-up of Emotional Pressure: So many kids fail to develop their awareness of internal emotions, especially vulnerable emotions like fear, sadness, disappointment, etc. These kids tend to bury or suppress these emotions and the result is a volcanic-like gradual rise in pressure. These buried emotions/feelings often manifest themselves as anxiety, depression and anger.

These are a few of the causes I have seen in anxiety. The list is not exhaustive by any means but it’s a start. Let me also offer a list of suggestions as to how parents can help their children cope with and overcome anxiety:

A. LAY OFF! Okay, that was a bit harsh. But, truly, parents….more and more…..parents have pushed their children to excel and “perform” at younger ages than ever before. It’s sad when I have 1st and 2nd graders with high levels of anxiety. The trend to start pushing our children academically even at the ages of 3-4 years just astounds me. Of course, I am all for parents who work with their children at young ages to learn and grow. But that’s different than “pushing” them harder and harder and shaming them if they don’t reach those standards. Parents, let’s all strive to be not only age-appropriate in our expectations but also take into account the maturity levels and emotional development of our kids. There are early and late bloomers, and that’s okay.

B. Teach them to Relax: Again, we live in a society that encourages “busyness”. It’s great to be productive but we must learn to relax again….let our bodies recharge so we can actually be more productive in the long-term. This trend translates to our children as well. We must teach our kids to be quiet and still without filling that time with video games or work or “productivity”. It’s okay to just sit still or read a book or be quiet and watch the sunset. In fact, teaching kids certain relaxation and breathing techniques can go far in helping them to deal with test anxiety or even in sports performance anxiety.

C. Be Quick to Encourage: Try to catch your kids when they do well…at ANYTHING. Whether it be a good grade, a chore they completed well, or just a good attitude, try to lift them up so they realize you are noticing these things as well.

D. Increase Self-Awareness: Remember those buried emotions I mentioned earlier? We must free our kids to discuss negative emotions that may be eating at them from a very early age. Teach them how to identify and express them in healthy ways (talking, writing, art, etc). If kids can “get it out” then there is less pressure that builds and, consequently, less anxiety.

E. Encourage Positive Self-Talk: If you or your kids beat yourselves up often about failures or mistakes, stop it! J We talk to ourselves all the time, whether it is verbal or in our own mind. Learn to encourage yourself as much or more than you get onto your own case. I’m not advocating touchy-feely moments when you look in the mirror and say, “people LIKE me” as the "Saturday Night Live" skit used to mock. However, I am saying that most people beat themselves up far more than they encourage themselves and this can only lead to frustration, depression, and anxiety.

We all face pressure in life. Seriously….there is pressure to perform in school, at work, in relationships, and beyond. Life exerts enough pressure on us. Let’s try to stop adding even more pressure to our kids and to ourselves. Set high standards for your kids but also encourage them at high levels. Be patient with their development and be realistic about how hard you should push. There are too many ultra-talented kids who are letting pressure squeeze them out of the good things of life.

About the Author: Aaron Welch is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who has devoted his life to reaching out and helping people to grow and mature through difficult life situations. Whether it has been through clinical counseling, pastoral ministry, youth camps and conventions, public speaking, leadership training, educational instruction, athletic coaching or small group ministry, Aaron has over eighteen years of experience in assisting people through life struggles and personal growth. His genuine love for people and his outgoing personality combine to create a safe and caring environment for putting the pieces of life back together. For more information, please visit Aaron at www.legacycounselingservices.org or www.Lifeworksgroup.org.

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