By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of What to Do When You’re Scared & Worried: A Guide for Kids
During the tween years, kids have a lot on their plates. Middle school can be quite challenging with juggling multiple teachers and classes, dealing with the onset of puberty, and figuring out how to fit in with peers. The tween years are also when bullying tends to peak. Since many tweens now have cell phones, or even smartphones, the potential for online bullying poses an additional concern for kids, parents, and school administrators. Fortunately, there are things educators can do to help tweens successfully navigate these stresses.
Today’s Tween Stresses
While preadolescence has always been a stressful time, its stresses are exacerbated in today’s society. Pressure to look and act a certain way is more pronounced. Kids judge their popularity by the number of “likes” they get on pictures or updates they post. Many students have “FOMO” (fear of missing out) if they do not check their social media accounts constantly, even in the middle of the night. Posting pictures on social media sites can cause tweens to feel bad if people do not “like” their posts. School shootings are in the news so frequently that many kids no longer feel safe at school. Many tweens also feel the pressure of academics—worrying about how they will get a job and support themselves and their future families given the financial pressures many families are facing.
Transitioning from elementary school to middle school or from middle school to high school can cause anxiety for many kids, especially those who struggle with academics or with making new friends.
Anxiety often interferes with concentration, so kids who struggle with anxiety are often less focused in class. They are preoccupied with worried thoughts rather than paying attention to the teacher. This affects their abilities to learn and do well, which unfortunately causes even more anxiety.
Unhealthy Coping Strategies
Many kids faced with stress or anxiety try to avoid it. They won’t study, start a conversation with someone new, or talk about things that are bothering them. Unfortunately, avoidance only makes the problem worse. Facing your fears is the best way to overcome them.
Other kids will overeat, bury themselves in videos or video games, or even start to explore drugs or alcohol as ways to soothe their anxiety.
Identifying Problems Early
The sooner problems are identified, the easier it is to intervene. Educators are often the first to see problems arise. Kids who sit by themselves at lunch or play alone at recess (younger students) may have social anxiety and be afraid to join in with kids they don’t know. Some kids panic when taking tests, which often leads to lower test scores. Others are terrified of talking in front of the class.
Kids who miss school due to frequent headaches or stomachaches may actually be suffering from anxiety. Often, kids and parents do not connect physical pains to psychological pain, but in many people, anxiety takes the form of aches and pains. Needing to use the bathroom frequently can be another sign of anxiety. Be on the lookout for these signs.
Helping Tweens Cope
A basic principle of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is that negative thoughts or beliefs trigger negative feelings. Often, we’re not even aware of the thoughts we’re having. For example, if you tell yourself that you’re going to fail a test, you will feel anxious. Kids often think of “what-ifs.” What if I fail the test? What if someone makes fun of me? Instead, if kids tell themselves that they can do it, that they’ve passed other tests, and that they’ve studied hard, they’ll feel more confident and less anxious.
Dr. Daniel Amen, of the Amen Clinics, talks about “killing the ANTs”—which means stopping Automatic Negative Thoughts. As an educator, if you see students struggling with anxiety, ask them, “What thoughts are you having that are contributing to your anxiety?” Tweens with social anxiety often fear they will say something stupid or embarrassing. Helping them come up with helpful and encouraging self-talk is a good way to combat those ANTs. Start by asking kids, “What could you say to yourself that can make you feel better about the situation?” Examples include, “I’ve got this,” “I can do it,” “It’s no big deal,” and “All I can do is my best.”
Mindfulness is a strategy that helps people focus on the present moment (rather than on fears of the future) as a way of coping with stress. Many resources exist for tweens who are interested in trying this strategy. One is Mindfulness for Teens, which explains more about this technique and includes sample guided meditations that kids can listen to or even download. Teen Vogue has a list of apps for kids looking for self-calming strategies. Educators can help by encouraging tweens to give mindfulness a try.
Deep breathing, also called “belly breathing,” is one of the best stress-reducing activities. Even five deep breaths can be calming. Ask students if they use deep breathing, and if not, if they’d be willing to give it a try. Doing deep breathing with students can make it easier for them to try it.
A “lunch bunch” can be helpful for socially anxious kids. A teacher or school counselor can meet with a small group of kids during lunch. By facilitating social interactions, teachers or counselors can help socially anxious kids get to know their classmates, which can reduce their anxiety and improve their level of comfort at school.
Exercise is a potent stress-reliever. Unfortunately, most kids in middle school or junior high do not have recess, though most have a physical education class. Find ways to help students put more emphasis on noncompetitive activities such as walking, stretching, and yoga, which can be used by all students. If you are talking with a student about anxiety, walking down the halls or outside the building when appropriate can help the student calm down.
When More Help Is Needed
If you have students whose anxiety is interfering with their abilities to be academically and/or socially successful at school, suggest that they talk with the school counselor. A referral for outside counseling can be made if needed. For more severe cases of anxiety, medication can be very helpful.
For those diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, school accommodations can be helpful. These might include extended time on tests, presenting class reports privately to a teacher, or submitting a prerecorded presentation. Another helpful accommodation is to give students a pass they can show teachers that allows them to leave class and meet with the school counselor when they are feeling overwhelmed. Being allowed extra time to complete tests and projects can help perfectionistic kids who take longer because they have to make sure their work is completed perfectly.
Dr. James J. Crist is a psychologist specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. He is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults. Visit his website at jamesjcrist.com.
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