What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is not in itself an illness; it is an emotion that we will all feel. Anxiety is brought on when we come up against a situation and don’t know what the result will be. For example, getting exam results, meeting someone for the first time, starting a new sport or hobby. We don’t know for sure how these situations will go, so we can begin to think different outcomes and it can make us feel nervous or even worried.
Where anxiety begins to become an issue and something that we need help with is when it starts impacting our lives, when we stop socialising, exercising, or adapting our lives to avoid these unpleasant feelings. It begins to impact The Arthur Ellis Five a Day and can begin to put us on a downward, unhelpful spiral.
Anxiety in Children and Young People
It’s normal for children and young people to feel anxious about school starting up again after a break. Whether it is transitioning from Year 6 to Year 7 – starting a fresh at secondary school; changing from one school to another; new environment, new faces, new subjects; moving from one key stage to another and so on. These all bring uncertainty and therefore, can induce a level of anxiety. Any of these transitions can be stressful and disruptive for the entire family.
Anxiety in children and young people can present in different ways. In the days leading up to school starting there may have been temper tantrums, complaints of headaches, crying, feeling unwell, stomach pains, being withdrawn, pleading or bargaining not to go back to school and irritability/anger. These are all signs of anxiety and to some degree normal and completely justified.
Anxious children and young people worry about many different school-related issues, such as teachers, friends, fitting in, and/or being away from their parent and carers.
Understanding the Causes
Some common worries include:
- What will my teacher(s) be like?
- Will any of my friends, be in my class?
- Are my clothes/uniform OK?
- Will I look stupid?
- Will I be able to make new friends?
- Taking part in classroom activities.
- Who can I ask for help/asking for help in class?
- Taking part in school performances
- What if I miss the bus?
- What if the lessons are too hard for me?
- I can’t remember anything I learned last year! What if something bad happens while I am at school?
- For some students like Y11’s they are aware this is a vital year – all they have been doing for the past few years has led up to the final year/exams
What can we start doing to help?
- Listen & catch it early
Children and young people can be less likely to acknowledge that their fears are irrational, especially when they are away from the situation. We need to provide opportunities to talk about worries and anxiety provoking situations, explore them asking for descriptive words around the feelings
- Find what works
Develop coping strategies that are tailored to the individual’s need: parent/carer or child – keeping the child or young people’s needs at the heart of any intervention; using simple plain language, other communication aids like pictures, symbols, colours etc; taking into account their developmental levels, emotional maturity and cognitive capacity for example, if SEND is present
- Implement it with consistency
Help and support in implementing and practicing coping strategies and social skill training like how to ask for help, problem solving
Finding out what works
This is where our bananas and doughnuts come in.
If you haven’t read up on our bananas and doughnuts yet –
Sit down with your child or young person to really look at what are those bananas that they engage in and what doughnuts they may be engaging in as a result.
What we often see is that the impact anxiety can have on day to day activities can lead people to engage in more doughnuts, like isolating themselves, indulging in a lot of TV or social media. These doughnuts can begin to replace the banana behaviours our brain needs and keep us on that downward trajectory.
For example, children and young people now spend more time inside than maximum security prisoners…that’s not good.
If TV and social media is replacing our consistent MOVE area of well-being and we aren’t getting enough exercise, our hippocampus won’t be getting what it needs to help us regulate our emotions.
Our FOCUS area of well-being is amazing at reducing anxiety. These are activities that draw our attention and bring us into the present moment like puzzles, games, drawing. Have you ever felt anxious while you’re drawing or gardening? These are often those activities we do that we describe as ‘therapeutic’.
Skipping school will only increase your child’s fears because they never get a chance to find out if their worries are valid. Additionally, when children and teens stay home because of anxiety, they can miss a variety of valuable opportunities;
- To develop and practice social skills;
- Important chances for success;
- Being acknowledged and praised for talents;
- Fostering close friendships with classmates and learning.
- To discover who they are and build their identity
Some Helpful Tips:
- Nourish the mind and body: your child getting enough sleep, eating regular meals and healthy snacks and has daily exercise will ensure they are in a better place to learn and develop. Most schools have breakfast club if having breakfast at home is changeling. Several reason for this: time, not everyone fancy eating soon as they wake up, affordability etc. A decent breakfast puts your child in a good frame of mind ready for learning.
- Active listening: Listen to your child’s concerns and worries. Their anxieties may be insignificant to you but from your child’s perspective they are ‘big’. There may be good opportunities to simply listen to your child when you are in the car, standing in line at the store, at bath-time (younger children) or during dinner. For some children and teens this “casual” method of talking feels less intense and makes it easier for them to express themselves. For others, a private time with undivided attention feels better. Ask open questions like how was school? what’s worrying you, tell me what happened? What would you like to happen? Create an opportunity for your child to share their fears and talk about what’s on their mind.
- Be helpful: if you know what is bothering your children, collaboratively, help and support them to find and develop coping strategies. Anxious teens are often poor problem solvers and doubt their ability to cope. Addressing your child’s fear head on, by creating an active plan with concrete solutions, will significantly reduce their worries. For example, “If (the worst) happens, what could you do?” or “Let’s think of some ways you could handle that situation.” This gives you the opportunity to coach your child on how to cope with (and interpret) both real and imagined scary situations.
- Focus on the positive: redirect attention towards the positives. Having an increased understanding of your child’s concerns, helping them with a coping plan enables you and your child focus on ‘what is working’. Positives tend to get overlooked and can help get a better perspective on issues.
- Modelling: children especially young ones pick up on cues from parent/carers quickly. Therefore, it is important to be mindful how parent/carers react and deal with their own worries and that of their children. For parent/carers of younger children or children starting at a new school, it can be anxiety-provoking for parent/carers to hand over care and responsibility of their child to teachers. So, the more confidence and calm parent/carers can model, the more your child will believe they can handle this new hurdle. Be supportive.
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Social anxiety can be a challenge to recognise in an educational setting because it can be masked by presenting as behavioural issue – refusing to go to school, acting out in class to avoid having to present or read in front of the class etc.
What are these behaviour signs?