Feb 24, 2021
A few weeks ago, we gathered an expert panel of behavioral science and education professionals to discuss the complex process of treating anxiety in students. Although many of the insights they shared were directed toward practitioners who work with students, we couldn’t help but notice how relevant some of their advice was for parents, too. In this week’s article, we’ll be exploring a few of the best tips from our panelists for helping your child manage their anxiety independently, and what red flags to look out for when professional support may be needed.
But before we dive in, let’s take a step back: What exactly is anxiety, and how does it typically present itself in students?
The term "anxiety" generally refers to the feeling that there’s an impending danger, panic, or doom around the corner (either real or perceived). This feeling derives from an evolutionary part of our brain that wants to protect us from real danger (imagine a bear about to attack), but hasn’t fully adapted to our modern world where you don't have to worry about wild animals in need of a snack.
Although worry is at the heart of anxiety, every individual reacts to these emotions differently, which means that anxiety can take on many unique forms, including disruptive behavior, defiance, difficulty accepting challenge & structure, fear of failure, and negative self-talk. These behaviors can also result in avoidance patterns, i.e. a temporary band-aid to save oneself from facing that underlying fear, which in turn usually strengthens the anxiety itself. Kids with learning differences such as ADHD, dyslexia, and ASD, also have a greater chance of experiencing anxiety.
Despite the enhanced prevalence in neurodiverse groups, anxiety is a much more universal issue than many might realize - especially among students. According to the American Psychological Association, 42% of college students and 52% of teens suffer from some sort of anxiety. The detrimental effects that this can have on a student’s life are far-reaching, impacting their ability to socialize, learn, cope with stress, and even sleep. So why are so many students today feeling so anxious?
There are a number of reasons for this trend - some are COVID-related, but many are not. Generally speaking, students today have a uniquely high demand to achieve compared to previous generations. Thanks to social media and other digital platforms, teens are also growing up and forming their sense of self with the constant comparison to the idealized version of their peers they see on Instagram, TikTok, and other social media. Our brains were not built for this level of self-scrutiny, especially at such a vulnerable age, and this, in turn, seems to have a high correlation with the rise of anxiety we see among teens.
However, living through the current COVID-crisis has introduced a whole new host of anxiety triggers for high school students. According to our panel, some of the most common include:
So how can parents help their teens navigate this time and manage this unprecedented level of anxiety? Here are our experts’ top 7 tips for parents.
Erin Fisher, a therapist at Individual & Family Connection Counseling in IL, offered this piece of advice. Rather than avoid or immediately alleviate anxiety-provoking experiences, we want children to develop skills to work through them. Each time they confront their anxiety may be scary or overwhelming, but it will also be a moment for pride and growth. They become better equipped to navigate the next occurrence and advocate for themselves in anxiety-inducing situations.
Erin also suggests encouraging conversation with your child about the emotions, thoughts, behaviors and actions that occur when they are feeling anxious. In understanding their unique experience with anxiety, they can take preemptive steps to mitigate the situation and communicate when they are in need of support or guidance. Encourage them to discover their inner resources when it comes to coping with their anxiety. If your child has an understanding of specific triggers, they can utilize their strategies before the situation becomes too overwhelming.
As anxiety can come about in various environments, Ryan Seidman, Clinical Director for The Children’s Treatment Center in FL, encourages parents to build a support network that their child can turn to regardless of the situation. This team can include, but is not limited to, family members, educators, and clinicians. Avenues for collaboration and communication among the members of the group are necessary to ensure that the child is receiving consistent and reliable support.
According to Ryan, a psychological/neuropsychological evaluation can provide tremendous insight when determining the source of a child’s challenges. A diagnosis and understanding of their strengths and weaknesses will be helpful in deciding on the right intervention to best support a child’s social, emotional, and academic needs. Using this information, strategies, goals, and a plan can be developed to set the student up for success at home and in school.
While your child may also be dealing with other learning disabilities or executive dysfunction, it is imperative that the necessary steps are taken to address the anxiety first. Mandi Croft-Petoskey, founder of Neuro Educational Specialists in IL, shared that anxiety can temporarily restrict blood supply and access to the frontal lobe of the brain, which is where our executive functions reside. Interventions aimed at overcoming learning challenges gain much better traction when a student’s anxiety is under control.
Eric Endlich, founder of Top College Consultants in MA, emphasized the importance of establishing a routine that does not disregard the simple necessities. For students especially, it can be difficult to maintain a regular sleep schedule, have adequate nutrition and hydration, exercise regularly, and spend time outdoors. However, it is important that students practice these healthy habits as it forms a foundation that can help them avoid, minimize, and navigate anxiety-provoking situations.
Lastly, Jennifer Flewelling, Executive Function coach here at Beyond BookSmart, shared the importance of approaching each child with empathy and an open mind. Withhold assumptions relating to why your child did not do something they should, such as complete an assignment. Assume your child wants to succeed and wants to pass in work on time, but their anxiety may have interfered in some way. Maybe they didn't know how to get started, for example - and students can find relief from their anxiety in this instance when they have strategies to help them initiate work.
While these tips provide a great toolkit for parents to better help their teens’ anxiety, it can also be a challenge to determine when professional support may be needed - especially when there’s resistance at play. In response to this, the panelists emphasized the importance of a proactive, rather than reactive, approach. In other words, it is better to step in early and address the anxiety your child is facing, rather than wait until both you and your child are too overwhelmed or the anxiety has become more severe. While the initial symptoms may seem minor, they can escalate to the point where not only the child’s academic performance is affected, but also their social and emotional wellbeing.
Getting an evaluation for your child can be crucial in taking the first step of a proactive approach. Once there is a better understanding of what the root issue might be - whether it's anxiety, another disorder, or a combination of both - parents, educators, and professionals can create an intervention plan together that is targeted and specific to meet your child’s needs. Don't forget to seek out feedback and input from your child as well. Encourage them to self-advocate and voice their emotions and concerns when they are starting to feel anxious. In doing so, they can receive support or talk themselves through a situation before it becomes too overwhelming while also building some solid self-advocacy and coping skills along the way.
While some children may be eager to receive support when it comes to handling their anxiety, others may be more reluctant or outright against it. As a parent, it is easy to feel overwhelmed or helpless under these circumstances, but understand that your child is probably feeling the same way. Be sure to validate their feelings and give them the opportunity and space needed to come to terms with their emotions. Making them feel heard can give them a much-needed sense of control that they are lacking in anxious situations.
Although some of the anxiety that students face today is non-academic, it’s clear that school demands can play a critical role. Specialists can help students learn how to better cope with this anxiety, but when school demands are the primary culprit, it can help to seek out expertise in Executive Functioning. For example, poor time-management, organizational abilities, or task initiation skills can often contribute to school-related anxiety, as these habits may hinder a student’s ability to meet classroom demands. In cases like these, tackling the root problem of Executive Dysfunction can play a beneficial role in mitigating the anxiety at its source. And as we’ve learned from the thousands of students we’ve coached, becoming more effective is one proven way to help reduce the anxiety students face around their academic demands. Whatever the cause of your student's anxiety, hopefully you've found some new approaches to consider here. And remember - anxiety is highly treatable with the right support and strategies.
Download our new infographic that features a visual summary of the tips from this article:
Sara Sullivan is an intern at Beyond Booksmart and an Education Studies major at Brown University where she's currently a senior. Over the past several months, Sara has enjoyed working with a number of departments at BBS where she's had the opportunity to learn from many talented and dedicated individuals.