Feature Article: Are We Fueling the Fire of Back-To-School Anxiety?

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All around me, I hear the rumblings of a new school year heading toward us. The atmosphere changes as anticipation builds. Back-to-school rituals begin.

 

This fall, there’s one ritual I want parents, educators and school counsellors to notice and change; the need to make sure everything is ready and smooth and comfortable. I propose a more flexible stance that allows children to grow without our constant fixing. I want them to learn the process of managing the inevitable discomforts that come with transitions and beginnings.

 

I understand the motivation to prepare and fix. Parents and educators want to survive those first hectic weeks and help the transition into fall. Preparation is key, but over-preparing is problematic. We don’t want anything to go wrong. The goal? No distress. No angst. No worry. Unfortunately, this practice of smoothing the way for children is backfiring dramatically. In fact, such efforts may actually be fueling the flames of back to school anxiety. Why? Because as we move in to create certainty (using our substantial experience and skill to ease the way for students) we are preventing them from developing the skills that are critical to developing confidence, connection, resilience, and problem-solving. Too much stepping in by adults hampers the opportunity for kids and teens to practice skills that correlate with the prevention of depression and anxiety.

 

Allowing kids to “work it through” is akin to practicing an instrument. We don’t expect them to do it perfectly and active repetition is key. The trouble starts when we attempt to do the practicing for them, hoping we can somehow guarantee a flawless performance by taking over. This makes no sense when learning an instrument or a sport, but we justify it when assisting children with things like emotional management, compromise, and social navigation.

 

This shift is not one of neglect or dismissal, nor of passivity. Quite the opposite! Instead, school counsellors, teachers, and parents must actively look for opportunities to let students struggle enough to experience success on the other end of the problem, and adults must actively model doing the same. For example, a recent study looked at the development of depression in adolescent girls. The research found a correlation between how mothers talked to their daughters about problems they were having and subsequent development of depression. When mothers suggested problem solving and social connection (versus distraction or avoidance), their daughters were far less likely to ruminate. Rumination, a cognitive pattern of getting stuck in negative thoughts, has long been known as a risk factor in depression. Encouraging girls to DO more to address problems or struggles (which means moms will do less for them) is key.

 

As the school year begins, we can expect bumps. A return to old struggles may re-emerge as well. Social and academic challenges, tucked away for the summer, are cued and ready to go. Adults can help normalize these struggles, but “helping” a child by consistently alleviating or getting rid of his emotions/distress sends the message that such emotions are problematic. The message I give to the families I treat: the problem with anxiety is not its existence; the problem often lies in our attempts to eliminate it and the expectation we shouldn’t have it.

 

Kids find their own paths when we show them how to adapt and adjust. Support them, laugh with them, listen, and then model problem solving for both students and their parents. Flexibility, emotional management, and the ability to step back from one’s own thinking are skills to be taught and learned, and missteps are a valuable part of the experience.

 

 

Article by Lynn Lyons, LICSW  

Read more articles by Lynn Lyons at http://www.lynnlyonsnh.com/

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