“A” for Anxiety

So, midterms are over, now it’s on to PSATs, SATs, ACTs, and in June, Regents and Final Exams.  Working with so many adolescents in my practice, I sometimes feel like all I hear about is the anxiety of the next big test or challenge.  For you parents, who have to actually live in the house with these teenagers, you ride the emotional roller coaster with them, worrying when they worry, and rejoicing when they rejoice. 

We all want to help these teens, we want to give them the perspective of our decades of experience, about how no one is going to remember what their exact Regents grades were, or how they will make the most of whatever colleges they end up attending.  No matter how many times we tell them that the SAT is only a few hours out of their lives and that they can take it over if they are not happy with their scores, they still act like this test is a matter of life and death.  I’ve written before about the pressures that kids in these affluent, competitive, high achieving suburbs endure, and while many parents agree it’s gotten out of hand, it’s become so much a part of the culture that it’s going to take awhile to calm down – partly because the kids don’t believe us when we say it’s going to be OK.  One highlight of my career (so far) came from the 11th grader who had started in September being anxious about all she had heard about how hard junior year would be.  Come springtime, this young lady, a bright, conscientious student, informed me that in retrospect I was right to tell her that junior year would not be so bad.  In fact, she said, “Dr. K., you are always right. I should just listen to you from the beginning.” 
Not surprisingly, I made her repeat that statement several times to bask in my genius.

All kidding aside, no matter how many decades of experience we have behind us, when we tell these teens that everything will be OK, they don’t believe it until they experience it themselves.  During this last round of midterms I had a very nervous girl in my office, only to see her after the tests were done reporting that because she was well-prepared she had scored good grades and felt relieved.  Not too long ago a young man starting at WCC expressed his relief after not even an entire week when he realized that he was looking forward to heading back to school and was putting all his time and energy into school and feeling successful.  On the other hand, a bright eighth grade boy with mediocre work habits didn’t do as well as he would have liked on his exams and learned the benefits of preparation and study.

Obviously learning from experience does have more value than simply listening to what we adults say—what do we know anyway?  The lesson learned when good study habits lead to reward and laziness leads to disappointing grades is a valuable one.  But do these poor kids have to feel so anxious on the road to learning these lessons?

Parents ask what they can do.  First of all, you can not take all this so seriously yourselves.  Obviously you should encourage good work habits and taking school seriously, but must we act like every test and every class is going to make or break their adult lives? (I speak as a high school goof-off who has done pretty well for myself; not that I encourage goofing off, in fact I tell all my young patients why goofing off is not a good idea).  We have to weigh the importance of the event against the amount of stress the child is feeling.  A little anxiety will cause the youngster to study, put in effort, be conscientious.  But too much anxiety will not only make him uncomfortable, it will get in the way of his performance in the form of freezing up on a test, forgetting what he has studied, or having a hard time focusing and remaining on-task long enough to get the work done.

One way that I work to reduce the anxiety is to put things in perspective.  How important is this test, paper, etc., in the scheme of things?  Important, of course, but important enough to get sick worrying over it?  Probably not.  And if I have a kid in my office who has hit a speed bump and didn’t do well because she didn’t prepare well enough or for some other reason, we talk about it and move on.  No sense dwelling on a midterm that could have been better, let’s just talk about what could have been done differently and try some new strategies for the next test.  I do a lot of “worst case scenario” work with both kids and adults.  “OK, if you don’t do well on the SAT this go around, will you be eaten by a lion?  Will someone die?  Will your parents ground you for 30 years?  What is the worst thing?  You will have to take it again.  You may not get into the more prestigious colleges.  You may have to go to WCC for a year or so and get good grades there and reapply to your top school.”  Most problems are solvable. Kids don’t always realize that.

I have a cute book I sometimes loan out to kids, called “A Boy and a Bear.”  It’s really a book for younger children, but it teaches deep breathing, and the pictures are so adorable, even adults can find it engaging enough to get something out of it.  Some tools are only sold to mental health professionals, but parents can purchase that book, or also purchase Tool Kits for Kids, which can be found online.  The tool kits are cards with motivational sayings, strategies, and activities for both parents and kids.  Examples might be, “I can choose not to worry,” or “I know that a perfect life is impossible.”  The goal of the kits is to decrease anxiety and build confidence and resilience.  I find it’s great to disclose information about our own experiences to teenagers in particular, as they often feel that they are going through something unique.  When I tell a young college student not to do what Dr. K. did and get a 38 on her first college exam, I am often met with both shock and relief – shock that someone who calls herself “Doctor” could have ever had a bad grade, and relief that even if that first semester of college seems hard, there is hope later on that it will get better.

We have a few months until Regents exams.  Let’s try to help the kids in our lives do well on these important tests without pulling their hair out with worry, shall we?   Remember, a little worry is good, it’s activating.  Too much worry is bad because it is paralyzing.

[blockquote class=blue]Barbara Kapetanakes, Psy.D., practices child, adult, and family psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow.[/blockquote]

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