How to Support Our Nervous Kids

By: Heather O’Neill

Our kids are growing up in a very trying time. The world they are growing up in is so very different than the one we did. In their lifetime, it has been proven to be unsafe to fly on an airplane, go to the movies, shop at a mall, sit in a classroom.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that one in eight kids suffers from anxiety and if that anxiety goes untreated, those kids are more likely to perform poorly in school, distance themselves from social interactions, or engage in substance abuse. (www.adaa.org)

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While many adolescents are dealing with this swirl of emotions, I think it’s important to realize that there is a difference between being anxious and/or nervous and having anxiety.

Being nervous can be classified as “normal.” For example, it’s “normal” to be nervous about starting a new job, presenting a project, or walking into a room after everyone has been seated. Working through that nervousness is how we build resiliency. It’s how we learn to cope with obstacles, setbacks and failures. For some, that feeling of nervousness ends after we have gone through the event – we started the job, presented the project or walked into the room and took a seat. Unfortunately for others, the feelings of dread and distress remain. Some are not able to make it through or even to the event. They may avoid any and all interactions with people, isolate themselves socially, experience physical symptoms, have difficulty sleeping and their academics may slip. I’m not diagnosing anyone here, but these kids may benefit from seeing their pediatrician and/or a licensed mental health professional.

I do believe that anxiety is a mental illness that needs to be treated. Some people use therapy, some use medication, some use both. But it is an illness that needs the treatment of a professional. It is our job as parents to love and support our children as best we can.

As you may know, I work in a high school. Unfortunately I see so many students who are working through various stages of nervousness and anxiety. I have daily conversations with colleagues and parents about the appropriate accommodations and modifications students need to be successful in school. Educators walk a fine line of managing the current state of emotions for students and teaching them the skills they need to be successful once they graduate.

Often, parents are looking for ways to decrease the workload for their children. I can sympathize with them. When you see your child in pain, emotionally exhausted and distraught, you want to swoop in and save the day. You want to take the pain away and ease their minds. And ultimately, working with educators to decrease assignments seems like the appropriate thing to do. But how are educators preparing those students for college? Or a job? When these students are enrolled in a college course and find themselves too anxious to go to class, a professor is not going to waive all of the coursework and give the student credit. An employer is not going to waive going to work for the day, or week, or month because their employee is unable to come in. Sure, they will work with a student or employee on a reasonable accommodation, but the adult will be expected to perform in some way. When high schools take away all of the “stressors” students aren’t learning to be resilient. They aren’t learning to work through their nervousness, or issues with the assignment/class/school. They are learning that when times get tough, their parents will call and “make it better.” And when they are 18, they will have to navigate these situations with little to no experience in how to manage these difficult situations.

As a parent, I understand the feeling of wanting to provide everything you can for your child. I also understand that in order for our children to be successful, we sometimes need to let them fail. The lesson of seeing how their actions correlate to their success is a powerful one.

So, how can we assist our kids with getting through these extremely difficult adolescent years?  Here are three tidbits of info that may help guide us on this quest:

  1. Limit Exposure to Social Media – students who spend less time on social media are happier than those who spend more time. Click HERE for a chart detailing happy vs. sad users.
  2. Encourage Participation in Extracurricular Activities – students who are more involved in their communities remain connected to those communities and ultimately have a stronger support system. These students also exhibit better time management and overall social skills.
  3. Breathe – No one is an expert in how to handle all kids. But you are an expert in yours. You love them unconditionally. You know them inside and out. You need to take care of you so you can take care of them. Take a minute to yourself and breathe. Calm yourself. Your child will see you taking a minute and hopefully follow suit. Be the role-model for self-care that they need to know it’s ok for them to do it too.

We’re all on the same team. We want our kids to be happy, healthy and productive members of society. Working with our schools to provide students with what they need while ensuring they learn the skills they will use to navigate through stressful situations should be the goal for all students, families and educators.

How are you helping your kids through their nervousness?


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