Teachers are back at work in many schools getting ready for students to arrive. As I was sitting in one of our professional development workshops this week, the leader said, “We are creating a society full of anxious kids.” This really bothers me—mainly because I have seen so many more children who are anxious in the last few years of teaching. They are anxious about the courses they are in, their teachers, their peers, whatever is going on at home, and just about everything you can think of.
Why are children so anxious? I do not have the answer to this question. But I do have a few ideas about possible reasons for their anxiety. First of all, adolescence is a difficult time in life. Bodies are changing, emotions are intensifying, relationships with peers are becoming more important, and school becomes more difficult and demanding. (For a more thorough description of adolescent development, read Normal Adolescent Development, published by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.) Normally, these changes do not cause severe anxiety. But if the reasoning brain cannot keep concerns and fears about the changes from becoming overwhelming, a student can become overanxious and unable to perform well in school or life.
Another stress on many students is the emphasis on standardized testing. I call these tests “high-stakes tests” because there is so much riding on their outcome. Kids must pass a certain number of them before graduation, teachers are evaluated on the outcome of their students’ testing, and schools can lose their accreditation if their students do not make progress. School, which was once a place where students could enjoy learning for the sake of learning, is now full of anxiety about test performance.
Another source of anxiety for kids is having too much going on. Children who are over-scheduled do not have enough down time for relaxation and play. See my blog on unscheduled time for more on this topic.
Finally, students need to link success to effort. If your child thinks that what happens to her is the result of good or bad luck or because of how smart she is, she will become anxious. She feels she has no control over events in her own life. In truth, however, success relates more to how hard a person works and not as much on how smart she is. Offering praise for her effort is one way you can help. There are no easy answers. As a parent, you can reduce some of the anxiety by assuring your child that you love him and will be there for him when he needs you. You can also control some of these stressors such as cutting down on extracurricular activities and making sure you praise effort rather than “smarts.” However, if reducing the stress when possible is not helping your anxious child, you should seek help from a professional. Do not hesitate to talk to your pediatrician or family doctor if you have concerns.