My two teenagers are very different from each other. Not only are they different genders, but they also have completely different personalities. I’ll bet you can relate.
When it comes to academics, my son makes everything look easy. He has always gotten good grades, never needs micromanaging on my part to get his homework done, and (for the most part) is well liked by his teachers.
My daughter is similar in this respect – she also gets good grades, is pretty responsible, and is very well liked by her teachers and peers – but there is one major area where my two kids really differ in terms of academic life.
Belle, my daughter, gets a lot more anxious about school than my son ever did. She worries more than my son about getting her work done “just right” and impressing her teachers. My personality is a lot more laid back than Belle’s so it has been hard for me to relate to what she is going through.
My kids saw me attend and complete graduate school while they were growing up, so I like to think that my behavior during this time modeled successful academic habits; however, my attitude about my academic life was always about doing my personal best and believing that this was enough to pass my courses and earn my doctorate. While this mindset worked for me (I did end up graduating and soon went on to become a licensed child psychologist), it obviously did not resonate with Belle.
Flash forward to this morning in the car on the way to dropping Belle off for her high school Freshman orientation. Similar to previous years, Belle described to me about being somewhat nervous about starting school. She told me about being unsure of how to complete the summer assignments because she did not know what high school teachers expected of her and how she had a dream where she did not know where any of her classes were located.
While this scene is similar to the beginning of previous school years, it is different in the fact that I think I have finally found my “groove” in successfully helping my anxious child. Now, I didn’t take away her fears, but I think I was successful in helping her create a new mindset that enabled her to feel more in control of her school worries. Instead of thinking, “I’m so scared that these bad things will happen” to “If these bad things happen, I can handle them.”
This is how you can do it too.
Don’t overreact to what your child is anxious about
This is so much easier said than done! As a parent, we just want to take away our kids fears for them, right? But if we do that, then they’ll never learn the skills to handle these problems on their own.
If you feel yourself starting to get emotional, take a few breaths before responding to your child. Try to remind yourself that your child can handle this situation and that you are there to help if they need it.
Remember that if you feed into your child’s fears, it validates to them that they have something to worry about. If you project confidence in your child, then your child starts to slowly feel that confidence too.
Don’t tell your child that their fears won’t happen
Our kids really are smarter than we think they are. They know when we lie to them.
Of course they might not be able to find one of their classrooms. That could happen. They probably will get a bad grade on a test at some point in their lives (it happens to all of us), so acknowledging that this is a possibility ends the non-actionable conversation about whether this can happen and opens to door to the more actionable conversation about how to handle that situation if it does occur.
I’m a pragmatic person when it comes to being a mom and a psychologist, so I have found that focusing on situations where we can influence the outcome is way more effective than spinning our wheels worrying about situations that we can’t control.
Remind your child about a previous time where one of their anxieties came true and they were able to handle it successfully
People of all ages gain confidence after experiencing several successes. As your child gets older and their same fears resurface, calmly remind your child about how they successfully handled similar situations in the past.
Of course your child will probably respond with “that time was different,” or “that didn’t help,” or something similar, but they need to be reminded of past successes.
My experience with my own daughter has taught me that when I remind her of her past successful problem-solving abilities, she protests less and less every time. This tells me that she is probably starting to believe in herself and gaining more confidence.
Talk through a plan of action for a new fear, but don’t expect for your child to immediately agree with you and feel better
When your child brings up an anxious fear, first acknowledge that this would be scary/uncomfortable/embarrassing (whatever the appropriate emotion) and then challenge them to problem solve a possible plan of action. If they can’t think of one, then you can come up with one. I think it is best to try to come up with several different scenarios, just in case the first one doesn’t work.
Anticipate that your child will want to focus on the fear instead of how to solve the fear. This is natural so don’t worry. I have found that as long as you calmly discuss a plan of action for the feared situation, your child will attempt to follow through with it during the situation – even if they complained the whole time you discussed it. I can’t tell you how many times my kids said something wouldn’t work or that I didn’t know that I was talking about, and then went ahead with what I suggested anyway!
Be calm – this takes time
Finally, remember that this is a learning experience for your anxious child. It takes a lot of hard work and experience for a child who was genetically predisposed to anxiety to change their ways.
As a parent, our dream is to implement a parenting strategy and then magically have that strategy work overnight. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case. If you want to inspire true change in your anxious child, then you will need to calmly go through these steps over and over until your child gains enough positive experiences to be motivated to change.
Take Home Message
The important message here is that you can assist your child in managing their anxious emotions – it just takes some time (sometimes several years). Always remember to stay calm and don’t get caught up in their protests. Let your child experience life, but rehearse a plan of action with them for their particular worries so that they are prepared to handle their anxieties instead of let those anxieties rule their lives.
Remember that it is about teaching your child how to handle the anxious situation instead of focusing on eliminating the worrisome situation altogether.