Less Anxiety; More Success

 

In a recent radio interview I was asked how students were different from when I began teaching over 30 years ago. One major change I’ve observed is that students suffer more anxiety today. It impacts their learning if they miss school, and when they are in class they struggle to focus. For those with serious anxiety disorders, professional help is a must, but for many students some changes at home can make a big difference. Here are four strategies to help your teen or preteen reduce anxiety and increase learning this year.

More reading. We live in a visual world, where we turn to YouTube for instructions instead of reading the manual, and we video chat instead of writing letters. But there are still benefits to reading words on a page, whether in an ebook or on paper. As readers create images in their brains, imagination and visualization skills increase. Mentally visiting other worlds, both make-believe and real, can reduce anxiety by providing a distraction and a chance to forget one’s problems for a while. Reading also builds vocabulary and writing skills. Non-fiction increases knowledge and can make one an expert on a favorite topic (“Did you know. . .?”). In my classroom I turn on soft instrumental music and turn down the lights, and the atmosphere becomes calm and peaceful. Students actually sigh with pleasure as they settle in to read.

More sleep. Because they’re still growing, teens need 8-10 hours of sleep a night, which they rarely get. But sleep is important for more than just growth. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “Mental health is both impacted by and impacts how well a person sleeps.” Teens who don’t get enough sleep are more prone to anxiety and depression. Not surprisingly, the biggest robber of adequate sleep is technology. Teens who take their phones to bed with them can be up past midnight using Snapchat to text–or sext–their friends, or they’re watching videos and playing games. Phones should be handed over to parents or parked in a designated spot at bedtime. Getting enough sleep also helps with focus, learning, and appearance. The latter might be enough to convince self-conscious teens to go to bed earlier, as a lack of sleep affects skin and hair quality. Because of changes in their circadian rhythm, teens may not fall asleep until 11:00 or later, but bedtimes should still be earlier, as even resting in a dark room has benefits.

Less social media. There’s growing evidence that more time spent on social media means more unhappiness for teens (check out an article from Child Mind Institute), often caused by feelings of insecurity and inadequacy when comparing one’s life to others’. Young teens also absorb information from Tumblr or Reddit without the experience or maturity to filter fact from sensationalism. It’s an interesting paradox that while social media keeps them more connected to one another, it also increases feelings of rejection if their posts are ignored or don’t get as many likes as their friends’ posts. Stalking and trolling (leaving mean comments) can also lead to hurt feelings. All of these emotions and relationship issues carry over into the classroom, making focusing on classwork difficult.

Less conflict. What are your battles? Homework? Chores? Appropriate clothing? Arguing and anger produce stress, which causes physical changes, including a rise in cortisol. Among other things, too much cortisol can interfere with learning and memory. Yelling and threatening will never result in a teen saying, “You’re right. I’ll change.” Okay, nothing makes them reply that way, but staying calm while holding firm to your values will get you further. Refrain from sarcasm and statements like “What are you thinking? You’re hopeless! I’m done with you!” that only cause defensiveness. Making your point is more important than issuing consequences or angering your teen, and stiffer penalties can lead to rebellion rather than compliance. Begin with clear expectations and don’t overreact to their responses. Expect respect, but if your teen glares at you or walks away muttering, just let it go. Regardless of how it appears, assume you’ve been heard. When you have to ground him or take away her phone, do it calmly and with few words. As Cynthia Tobias says, “Issue more tickets and give fewer lectures.” Years ago I compiled a “No-No List” of common mistakes parents make in trying to communicate; you can find it here.

 

Anxiety affects students regardless of their capabilities. Anything we can do both at home and in the classroom to ease their way can have a lifelong impact. But if you’re going to make changes, be sure to do so with the cooperation of your teen or preteen. Instead of demanding they read more, go to bed earlier, and spend less time on their phones, involve them in a discussion and invite their input. Problem-solve together and come up with a plan. That way, you’ll also have less conflict–and more success!

Sue currently teaches middle school at Concordia Lutheran School in Tacoma, Washington; she and Cynthia Tobias are co-authors of  Middle School, the Inside Story: What Kids Tell Us But Don’t Tell You, available online and in bookstores.

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10 Tips for Parents of Anxious Teens

I was approached recently by parents who were worried about their daughter’s anxiety level.  She’s a 5th grader playing soccer with the junior high team, and even though she loves it (and the girls are nice to her), she’s in tears before every practice.  Parents and teachers alike are finding themselves faced with anxious teens.  Anxiety not only makes its sufferers miserable, it also affects their performance, attendance, and self
-esteem.

While some teens with anxiety need to be seen professionally, there are things all parents can do when faced with an anxious teen:

  1. Alert the teacher.  It’s helpful to know so I can provide a little more assurance and be on the alert for stressors.  Sometimes a reassuring hand on the shoulder or a comment like, “Let me know if you need some down time” from the teacher will make it possible to get through the day.
  2. Validate their feelings. Don’t say “There’s nothing to worry about” or “We go through this every day.”  Say “You’re worrying again, aren’t you?” or “It’s your old friend Anxiety creeping up on you again.”
  3. Encouraging deep breathing.  Try triangle (inhale-hold-exhale) or square (inhale-hold-exhale-hold) breathing.  Doing it together helps you both relax.
  4. Keep moving.  Even if he’s crying, gather up his things and keep nudging him toward the car. Talk about your day ahead to give him something else to focus on besides his feelings.
  5. Know your limitations. Don’t feel like you have to eliminate her anxiety, because chances are you can’t do so anyway.  Trying to get her to stop being fearful only keeps the focus on her worries and might frustrate both of you.
  6. Create a metaphor. Anxiety can be seen as a curtain that has to be pushed through, or a fuzzy monkey that just keeps hanging on.  Or it can be the baseball that gets stuck in your stomach.  Some teens can find ways to deal with anxiety with a helpful visualization.
  7. Focus their thoughts beyond the next few minutes.  Help them to find something to look forward to by reminding them of what’s on the schedule:  “You have art this afternoon, right?”
  8. Find a balance. Avoid getting sucked in and making it worse–“Oh, you poor thing; you should stay home today”– or issuing ultimatums–“Either stop crying and get to school or I’m pulling you out of everything!”  You need to be the calm anchor in this storm.
  9. Speak calm and encouraging words.  “You can do this.” “I’m right here with you.”  “Your teacher understands what you’re going through.”
  10. Pray together.  Or if not together, let your teen hear you praying for peace and courage to face what’s ahead.

I suggested that the parents of the 5th grader keep their reactions low-key, saying something like, “Oh, there are those soccer tears again.  Need a Kleenex to use on your way to practice?”  They can validate her anxiety that way but also help her see that it need not keep her from doing what she loves.

Sometimes anxious parents need reassurance, too.