Anxiety can literally make you dumber.
When you are too stressed out, your IQ drops. You start overthinking and overanalyzing. Or your mind goes blank. That’s a big problem for anxious kids at school.
If you are so worried that you aren’t going to know any of the answers to the test questions that you become too stressed, then your mind may just go blank when you do see the test questions. Or if you are reviewing why Hayley was mean to you at recess, you are not thinking about history class.
And this is not the only problem anxiety can create or exacerbate.
You also can’t be very empathetic when you are stressed. If you are worrying about your own social status, there is very little room in your brain to consider how someone less socially adept may be feeling. So you may behave in a less than ideal way when someone is being bullied – for instance, by not stepping in and helping the victim. You’re too worried about yourself (“I want to fit in. I don’t want to be bullied too.”) to think about the victim’s feelings.
Anxiety and stress can come from lots of places: relationships, uncertainty, high stakes (or at least the perception of them) like on tests, transitions, and perfectionism, to name a few.
Here are a few tips to help your children deal with too much anxiety:
- Practice Being Calm
On a daily basis when your child is calm, work on self-calming techniques. This will make self-calming a habit so when your child is anxious, she can self-soothe.
Some good ideas for self-calming practices include:
- Practice yoga
- Exercise (When we work out, we use up our anxious energy, allowing us to calm back down).
- Set up a relaxation corner (Perhaps every day after school, you and your child snuggle up on the couch and relax by talking or reading a book to reset after a long school day).
- Name emotions and their intensity level (Have your child name his feeling. Labeling feelings robs them of some of their power).
- Gently Point Out Your Child’s Stress Signs
Stress does not appear out of thin air. There are signals, such as an upset stomach, headaches, clenched jaws or fists.
If you notice your child’s fists are clenched, gently point it out, “I see your fists are clenched. Are you feeling a little anxious?” Talk to your child about clues your body can give you to show that you are feeling stressed to help him start to recognize those clues.
- Get Enough Sleep
We’re not ourselves when we are tired. We are much more irritable and less able to manage our emotions.
Make sure your child is getting enough sleep so that she is not already at an emotional disadvantage when she wakes up.
- Break the Negative Thought Cycle
When we are anxious, our negative thoughts increase and become catastrophic. When your child starts having those negative thoughts, talk through them with him and question any catastrophic thinking you find.
For instance, when your child says, “I messed up a huge question on the test and now I’m going to fail and I’m never getting into college.” Ask, “Oh dear. What does huge mean? How many points was it worth?”
And start asking other questions to softly start correcting his conclusion that he’s never going to get into college “How much does this test count for?” and “What about your A in Statistics? Doesn’t that count for something to colleges?”
- Provide a Cognitive Distraction
Because of that negative, catastrophic thinking, some breaks will not work. For instance, a walk or coloring will not stop those thoughts because there is no cognitive distraction.
Sometimes a different type of break is required in order to stop the thinking.
Reading a book, doing a MadLibs, playing sudoku, or doing sports trivia are all good cognitive distractions.
- Predictably Check In
Some anxious children engage in negative attention-seeking behavior. They like to know you are paying attention to them. For instance, they are calm until you start talking to someone else and then they start yelling your name.
To help these anxious children, predictably check in on them. Set a timer for 5 minutes after they have started their homework so you can check in on them before they get distracted and start dancing around the kitchen not doing their homework looking for your attention.
- Make Transitions Easier
Transitions can be a difficult time for anxious children. It is hard mentally to switch from a fun task to a boring task. They also may be anxious to fully complete a test question or a video game level. So help make transitions easier.
Going from playing to homework is a hard transition. So add an activity in there. Go from playing to a snack to homework.
Or, if your child is playing a video game and you say “I’m going to count to 10 and then I’m turning the game off”, that can be panic-inducing. So instead of a countdown, ask your child to “Find a stopping place” in the next minute to ease that transition.
- Find more productive things to say than “It’s okay” to an upset perfectionist.
Recently I was making bracelets with a bunch of 3rd grade girls. One of them was behind the others. She could not make it perfect and she was stressing out. I desperately wanted to say, “It’s okay! It doesn’t have to be perfect!” but I had to fight myself to not say that because saying, “It’s okay” to perfectionists doesn’t work.
It makes them think that you just don’t understand and it can stress them out more. I think I may have let one “It’s okay” slip and from then on every time I wanted to say “It’s okay” to calm her down, I took a breath and it actually calmed me down. I hadn’t even realize I was getting stressed by her stress!
That breath gave me the opportunity to think, “What do I really want to say to this girl?” I want to ask her, “What part needs fixing? How would you like it to look?” “Hmm… okay. I see what you mean. What if we try this?” Or, “I have an idea. Can I show you?” We were able to fix the bracelet and make it look perfect in her eyes.
One of the most important things to remember is: we need to stay calm to help our anxious kids.
It is important to lead by example, and be the happy, calm person you want your children to be! Let them see that when life gets overwhelming, we can stay calm, cool and collected.
We should practice daily self-calming rituals too and don’t be too hard on yourself if you mess up from time-to-time.
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Written by Katherine Firestone, founder of Fireborn Institute.
About Fireborn Institute
Fireborn Institute is a non-profit that provides parents with practical and easy-to-remember strategies to help their children in school. Through our lectures, podcasts & handouts, we coach parents on topics such as helping with homework or conquering a messy backpack. Our ultimate goal is to help parents help their kids thrive at school.
About Katherine Firestone
Katherine had a hard time in school because she suffered from undiagnosed ADHD till her junior year of high school. What made her successful during this time was the support system she had around her. After college, she worked as a teacher, and saw that parents wanted to help their kids at home, but didn’t know what to do. She started the Fireborn Institute to give parents ideas on how to help because success at school is enhanced at home.
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Ginsburg, K. (2015). Building resilience: Preparing children and adolescents to THRIVE. The Learning and the Brain Conference: Boston.
Minahan, J. (2015). Between a Rock and a Calm Place. The Learning and the Brain Conference: Boston.