This is the second in a three part series to support children with school anxiety. The second part deals with middle school students. At the end of the story you will find a link to the first part, which focuses on elementary school children.
School anxiety can be a challenge for students of all ages. But in middle school, when children are trying to sort out their identities and solve problems on their own, it can be especially difficult for parents and caregivers to know what to say and how to help.
Middle school students express their anxiety as anger, frustration, fear, and sometimes silence — and they don’t want to talk to the adults in their life about what’s causing it, said Dr. Brent Macdonald, Principal Psychologist, Macdonald Psychology Group.
“They go into their room and sit there and try to strategize on their own,” he said. “They are learning how to find good solutions to solve their own problems without parental involvement.
“It affects us as parents because that happy, talkative little kid we grew up is now this 14-year-old recluse living in a room.”
Macdonald said children of this age often just aren’t able to resolve the issue themselves and reach out to their parents or carers – but only if an open line of communication has already been established.
“They’re going to come and see you… as long as you’ve had that open relationship with them where it’s not… ‘Just suck it up,’ or ‘Why is that a problem?'”
When junior high school kids talk to their parents about what’s making them anxious, how adults respond and discuss the issues is critical, Macdonald said.
It can be especially difficult when the children are exploring things that the adults in their lives are uncomfortable with.
Judging just has that emotional context that makes us feel less than.– dr Brent MacDonald
“We sometimes have a hard time hiding that discomfort, and it comes across as judgmental,” he said.
If adults act judgmentally at a time when their child is trying to sort out their identity, “it’s going to cut communication,” Macdonald said. “It will make it almost impossible to have conversations and interactions and to form a relationship with your child.
“The verdict just has this emotional context that makes us feel ‘less than.'”
Obviously, when a child in this age group explores harmful things — like substance abuse or risky sexual behavior — the adults in their life need to become more involved and take a firm stand, Macdonald said.
But otherwise, if it’s not harmful – something like not choosing best friends – let them try to work it out themselves or come to you for advice.
“When you say, ‘You can’t hang out with this person.’ It won’t do anything to help them with their social relationships,” Macdonald said.
Resist the Urge to “Therapy”
It’s important for adults not to “therapy” their growing children, Macdonald said. It’s intimidating for the child and it doesn’t help.
“When I say ‘therapy,’ I mean that as parents, we don’t want to sit in the room and have these hour-long conversations about emotions, especially if it’s anxiety, because that could actually make it worse … You get a lot of attention and.” Affection for an emotion over which they are trying to learn their own sense of control.
Instead of long and heated conversations in their bedrooms, Macdonald suggests finding ways to converse in less intimidating scenarios. In particular, he suggests going for a walk together.
“You can learn a lot from kids, especially young people, if you’re driving because there’s a radio on or music is playing and they can look out the window,” Macdonald said. “Eye contact is not necessary.”
Another occasion he suggests is when you are preparing a meal and the child is hanging around.
What can I say
Once you’re in the car or in the kitchen, Macdonald said, it’s important to avoid some questions because at that age you can almost guarantee the answers:
“We have to get over the ‘How was school today?’ get over it. …Because the answer will be ‘Fine.’ ‘What have you done?’ ‘Nothing.'”
Open-ended questions are much better conversation starters.
“Say, ‘Tell me something interesting that happened at school, tell me something funny that happened at school today.'”
While parents and carers are often uncomfortable stepping back and letting the child try to sort things out on their own first, Macdonald pointed out that this is an important part of growing up.
“We try to be problem solvers, and that’s not always our job with young people.”
This is the second in a three part series to support children with school anxiety. You can find part one here. Next week, in part three, Dr. Brent Macdonald will offer advice on how to help high school students.