Thursday, April 28, 2016

Stress Versus Anxiety—How Do We Help Our Children Succeed?

As some of you have commented recently, this quarter feels like it’s rushing by.  First of all—so you know it’s not your imagination— this quarter is a week shorter than the typical fourth quarter since the third quarter was a week longer than usual due to the timing of Winterim, Spring Break, and Easter.  Students are doing the same amount of work this quarter as they have in other years, but there’s one week less in which to do it, and this may be creating some stress.

As we think about stress, it is important to distinguish between the kind that is externally caused and the kind that comes from an internal state of anxiety. In the same way that some stress during physical exercise can help us move to a higher level during our workout, some amount of stress related to a student’s school work can enable her to discover new academic concepts and reach a new level of performance.  This can be true for the musician learning a new piece of music, the artist grappling with an idea, the math student wrestling with a problem, or the student endeavoring to translate something into a new language.  In moderation, stress can push us out of our comfort zone and teach us that we are capable of performing at a level we never imagined.  In contrast, anxiety drains performance, self esteem, and optimism about the future.  We may be all too familiar with the adolescent who feels overly anxious in response to stress and sometimes seeks unhealthy outlets in an effort to manage his emotions.  

For a counter-example, as I type this, some of our 9th graders have gathered into a circle outside my office and are laughing uproariously as they take a study break and bat around a volleyball. It’s a wonderfully healthy sight to observe.  

So, how do students handle their stress, and how can we as the adults in their lives help them? First of all, it is important to bear in mind that, as a recent article in The New York Times suggests, boys and girls experience stress differently.  In the article, “Why Do Girls Tend to Have More Anxiety Than Boys,” Leonard Sax, MD, PhD, points out that he has observed a pattern of increased anxiety in girls:

It may start with how they feel about how they look. Some research has shown that in adolescence, girls tend to become more dissatisfied with their bodies, whereas boys tend to become more satisfied with their bodies. Another factor has to do with differences in how girls and boys use social media. A girl is much more likely than a boy to post a photo of herself wearing a swimsuit, while the boy is more likely to post a photo where the emphasis is on something he has done rather than on how he looks. If you don’t like Jake’s selfie showing off his big trophy, he may not care. But if you don’t like Sonya’s photo of herself wearing her bikini, she’s more likely to take it personally.”

All too often, young women tend to internalize their disappointment and blame themselves for their problems while young men may look to external causes and as a result, not necessarily feel that they are the cause of their problems.  This is not to say that boys don’t experience anxiety—they do—but they may do so with less frequency or less severity, on average, than girls.  Of course, generalizations may miss the mark for your child, but Dr. Sax’s comments are worth consideration.
Since it would be unfair to point out the problem without offering solutions, Sax provides some tips, which seem relevant for both genders. A major point he makes is the importance of reducing children’s private time on social media. For example, he says that parents should insist that when their children are on electronic devices at home, they do so in a public place, like the living room, rather than in the privacy of their bedroom. He also insists that parents should “fight for suppertime” and not allow phones at the table. Sax also exhorts parents to not allow earbuds in the car; parents and children could take advantage of this “forced togetherness” and talk with one another. Of course, this necessitates that parents are also willing to reduce their own use of electronic devices to prioritize family conversation!  As a final note, Sax includes the possibility that some anxiety issues may be severe enough to require professional interventions, including therapy or medication.
As we all know, getting teens to talk can sometimes be a challenge.  We need to strike a balance between creating opportunities for connecting and respecting a teen’s need for privacy.  The internal or external anxiety for teens around social media may stem more from the way they react to a message than to the posting itself.  As with mistakes, stress happens; it’s how we respond to it that determines our well-being. Acknowledging and reflecting on feelings, our children’s and our own; helping children develop the ability to see things from a variety of perspectives; modeling self-compassion, especially in the face of perceived failure—these all can help a teen learn to navigate the stressful world of adolescence.
As the adults—parents, guardians and educators—in their lives, we can help our children discover the good kind of stress that enables them to learn and grow while helping them avoid the detrimental type.