Anxiety and School – Guest Blog by Meredith Blunt
I am so glad to be writing for Schoolio again. This time about something a little heavier than my last guest blog but a subject near and dear to me. I’m writing this with no expertise (not a doctor!) beyond my own experience as a parent and a human who has moved through the impacts and distortions of anxiety herself. Anxiety and mental health is a huge, personal, and potentially upsetting topic. Anxiety has a daily presence in my life. I am hoping to share some of the most insightful and effective knowledge I have gained from my own research and experience with anxiety and school, as well as from the experts I’ve met.
Emotional and Mental Health.
Feeling anxious can be a normal reaction to events in our lives that make us feel pressured, stressed or challenged. This is okay. That anxious feeling teaches us to assess our perceptions quickly, make critical decisions and bolster our convictions. However, anxiety that is overtly and constantly present moves into the realm of a disorder. It feeds negative thought patterns. It pushes us to feel constant worry and fear. In these times of growing awareness and knowledge around mental and emotional health, we are gaining a better understanding that children can be just as affected by anxiety as anyone else. We are learning about the factors in their lives that can cause anxiety disorder. Unsurprisingly, school is one of those factors, which is why talking about anxiety and school is so important.
Anxiety and school, what it can look like:
As parents we’re told to ‘trust our gut’ when it comes to our kids. This is good advice but tricky to follow. We are influenced by so much – our loved ones, social media, literature, news etc. It isn’t unusual for our internal voice, our own wisdom, to get drowned out. Parental intuition is further challenged by the role school plays in each child’s life. As the majority of their time is spent at school, it has an outsized impact on a child’s mental health. Teachers, conflicts with peers, being away from home, and expectations of family are all aspects of school that can be contributing factors to an anxiety disorder.
“It started out as stomach aches and headaches…”
I noticed the beginnings of anxious behaviour in my youngest back when he was in grade one. It first started out as stomach aches and headaches every school morning but gradually progressed to withdrawal from some interests and sleep disruption. Fearing any lasting consequences of this situation and due to the complete absence of support from our school and his teacher at the time, my husband and I withdrew him from public school and began our first foray into homeschooling.
Wisdom does come with experience, in our case we had crossed paths with school-based anxiety already and learned valuable information. Three years prior to my son’s grade one year, I didn’t have the confidence to trust what I was seeing and sensing with my eldest as anxiety disorders developed in her when she was around the same age. Everyone seemed to know better and worked to assuage my fears, so I put my trust in them. It’s hard to forgive yourself for mistakes you’ve made as a parent.
We can only do our best with the tools and knowledge we have at the time.
I didn’t know that what I was looking at was anxiety in my eldest. I would see her struggle to connect with peers and I would resort to the traditional well-meaning adages of ‘say hi!’ and ‘be friendly’. We battled over learning from mistakes, and I would feel lost when her reaction to an error or failure was immense defeat and crippling negative emotions. I’d try to get her excited about new things only to see her recoil almost in terror. The kids who sometimes can’t find the words to describe what they’re experiencing are the young people who may be susceptible to anxiety disorders. These kids can end up carrying heavy labels in school settings – difficult, shy, perfectionist, distracted, under-achiever, a weaker student. This is my daughter and not one of those labels was accurate.
This isn’t a simple or easy topic to discuss. When we talk about anxiety in our children it hurts. When we give voice to these massive concerns for our kids – ranging from sleep deprivation and disruptive emotions to self-injurious behaviour and suicidal ideation – they become part of the world. The bigger, open, judging world. This is hard, really hard. We live in times where more pressure than ever is on families to be relentlessly picture-perfect at all times. If we pull back the curtain, what will people think of us!
Here’s what people think – “Whaaaaat! That’s my kid too…that’s me too! I thought it was just us”. They really do.
So what do we do as mums and dads? We get help. Help for our kids and help for ourselves. We learn how to listen, how to respond, and how to reach out when we feel overwhelmed. We adapt our parenting skills to the needs of our kids.
Here’s some favourites from my range of resources:
(I have no professional affiliation with these links they are just ones I like a lot).
- The Anxiety Survival Guide for Teens is wonderful for at-home work and gaining a good understanding of anxiety disorders as well as helpful processes that can be adapted for children of any age – not just our teens.
- Emotional Intelligence: Managing My Emotions by Schoolio
Helpful Apps that my family loves:
It can be a wonderful, positive surprise, how generous and loving groups like Schoolio Families can be!
- Cognitive-behavioural therapy has been reliably successful in my experience.
Learning the skills for when anxiety shows up:
I don’t know about you but I’m feeling a little worked up thinking and writing about anxiety and school so I’m going to regain some calm. This is the first suggestion I always make when talking to friends and other parents about anxiety in our families. Our kids need to know they are fully capable of being in control of their emotions. They are eager to learn the confidence and skills needed for anxiety when it shows up. Where those skills begin is awareness of the most basic of bodily functions – breathing.
As anxiety builds, the more shallow and rapid we breathe. This is a prehistoric response from our brain, telling our body “There’s danger! Time to flood everything with oxygen and get the adrenaline going so we can get the heck outta here!”. There’s no sabretoothed cat stalking us but our body’s response is sufficient for us to cope as though there were. When we learn to identify this behaviour, the next step is to take control of the perceived threat by controlling our breath.
Check your breathing.
Sometimes known as Paced Breathing, you inhale through your nose for 4-6 seconds, hold for 2-4 seconds, then a controlled exhale through your mouth for 6-8 seconds. It is totally cool if you can’t breathe for those exact seconds yet. The calming key is that longer exhale. With it you are releasing the excess oxygen and adrenaline which gives you control of the situation and yourself.
Another great one, especially for our little littles, is Box Breathing. Hold the image of a square in your mind. Each side of the square is equivalent to four seconds. We breath around the square. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold our lungs full for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, hold our lungs empty for 4 seconds.
Putting in the practice of identifying the moments when we need to take that pause and breathe is worth it, whether you’re a kid or a grown up.
It’s important to foster our mental well-being as caregivers because there are challenging emotions that come when your child is embattled with anxiety or any differences from the neurotypical. Guilt, doubt, resignation, disbelief, avoidance, anger, sadness to name a few. Those difficult feelings are valid and deserve reflection.
A personal favourite expression regarding this is you have to put your own oxygen mask on before helping another. This doesn’t mean if a family member is in crisis you hold up a finger and say “Just a sec! I need 20 minutes for some *me* time then we’ll get to working on what’s happening with you ok?” …none of us would do that – it’s ridiculous.
What it does mean is that every day we take space and time for ourselves.
What that space and time look like is dependent on you! For myself, my go-tos are walking and re-learning to run. The activity gives me the space and time to enjoy my own progress, and focus on it. Exercise isn’t the only activity that works, I encourage you to find the right activity for you that allows you to restock your emotional stores so you are better prepared to cope with whatever challenges the day brings. The singular purpose is to fill your happiness quotient. It’s also good behaviour to model, demonstrating that you find contentment and success in just being you and doing something for just you.
I hope I have done some service to the impactful and encompassing topic of anxiety and school -age children. I would genuinely love to generate a supportive on-going discussion centred around advice, patience, familiarity, education and humour. Whether you and/or your child are experiencing what you suspect is anxiety or you are interested in mental wellness, remember we are not alone.
*I fully acknowledge that financially viable and timely access to therapy is critically lacking in Canada. If you have the means, please consider advocating and supporting improved access to mental health professionals and programs in your region. Getting help should not be as difficult as it is.