Anxiety at School: When Talking and Doing Feels Too Big

Children and teens with anxiety have so much to offer in the classroom, but too often, anxiety can keep this hidden.  I often say that if you want to know what’s happening, ask the anxious one in the room. Because of their need for safety, children who tilt more towards anxiety might be more likely to take things in, watch, notice things that might otherwise go unnoticed, as they try to get a sense of what it all means – but they won’t always share their insight.

Too often though, that silence or lack of involvement can be misread. Sometimes silence means ‘I don’t have anything to say.’ Sometimes it means, ‘I have plenty to say but I don’t want to share it right here and right now.’ Whenever anxiety is fuelling that silence, it’s likely to mean, ‘I don’t feel safe enough – yet.’ Of course, we want to move children towards taking safe risks and finding their voice in the classroom, but the more we rush this the more unsafe school is likely to feel, and the more we lose precious opportunities to help these kids and teens discover their potential.

Anxiety doesn’t always mean, ‘I’m not safe’. Often, it means, ‘I don’t feel safe enough yet.’

Anxiety is a felt sense of threat. It’s not about what is actually safe, but about what the brain perceives. For kids and teens with anxiety, seemingly benign things might count as ‘threat’. ‘Threat’ means different things for all of us. For kids with anxiety at school, asking questions, contributing to class discussions, asking for help, or trying something new might all count as ‘threat’. It is not for us to question the rationality of their fears. We don’t need to talk them out of how they feel. We couldn’t if we wanted to. The truth is that they can feel anxious and be brave anyway – but only if they feel safe enough and held enough by the important adults beside them.

If anxiety is a felt sense of threat, the antidote to this is a felt sense of safety. For children, a felt sense of safety starts with the adult in the room, but this will take time. A child can have the safest, most loving, brilliant teacher, but until there is a felt sense of connection with that teacher (or another adult in the room), anxiety will interrupt learning, behaviour, and their capacity to show the very best of what they can do. And what they can do will often be surprising – insightful, important, beautiful things.

We have to be patient though. Relationships take time. Safety and trust take time. The teachers who take this time are the ones who will make the world feel safer for these children – all children, and change their world in important, enduring ways. This is when learning will happen. It’s when we’ll stop losing children who fly under the radar, or whose big behaviour takes them out of the classroom, or shifts the focus to the wrong things (behaviour, learning, avoidance, over relationships).

Why learning needs relationships.

The greatest way to support learning and behaviour is with safe, warm, loving relationships. It’s just how it is, and there are no shortcuts. We can pour all the resources we want into learning support or behaviour management, but until children have a felt sense of safety and connection with the adult in the room, the ‘thinking brain’ won’t be available. This is the frontal cortex, and it’s the part of the brain needed for learning, deliberate decisions, thinking through consequences, rational thinking. During anxiety, it’s sent offline. It can only ever be ‘online’ when there is a felt sense of safety.

This safety will only happen through relationship – not just any relationship, but one in which that child feels seen, held, and safe. This isn’t a child thing or an anxiety thing. It’s a human thing. We’re wired to feel safest when we’re connected to the people around us. There are a couple of reasons for this.

The first is that relational safety is an instinctive need. Babies wouldn’t survive if there wasn’t an adult to take care of them, so children are wired to feel safest with an adult they feel close to, and threatened in the felt absence of one. It’s why relationships are so key to anxiety. Parents can’t be everywhere all the time – we were never meant to do this parenting thing alone. Another adult can provide a felt sense of safety in the parent’s absence, as long as the relationship is safe, warm, and loving. Any adult in the child’s community – teacher, coach, grandparent, aunt, uncle, family friend – has a profoundly important role to play in nurturing and growing that child, and opening up their world.

The second reason relationship is so important is because it can unlock the door to that child’s world. When children feel safe, they will show us more clearly what they need, but more importantly, they will let us be the one that provides this in meaningful ways, whether it’s validation, trust, confidence in their capacity to cope or do hard things, cues of safety.

Of course, we can offer all of these things from outside their world, but it might not hold as much heft until they let us in. Only then will they grant us enough authority to guide and influence them. When they open the door to us, they will be more likely to believe us when we tell them they are safe, that they are brave enough and strong enough, and that they can do hard things.

How can we build relationships at school that build brave behaviour? 

Entry into their world only happens by invitation, and only when they’re ready. We can’t rush our way in, or force our way in, or talk our way in. It just doesn’t work that way, for any of us. It takes time, a gentle hand, and an open heart. Here are some ways we can nurture this along.

1. Be curious.

To provide children with a felt sense of safety, we first need to understand how that child sees and experiences the world. This happens by being curious, and eventually being invited into their world – not to change it, but to understand it, strengthen it, and soften it where we can. From there, we will be more able to understand what that child needs, and provide it in meaningful ways.

2. Why, ‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ doesn’t work.

It’s not enough to tell them not to worry. Think of it like this: Imagine that someone you don’t know or don’t trust enough is telling you to close your eyes and follow them across a roaring, bustling freeway, assuring you that it’s safe. Would you feel safe enough? Now, what if it was someone you felt close to, and who you knew you really mattered to. You might still feel terrified, but you’d be more likely to feel ‘okay enough’.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the environment and the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them. 

It’s also important to remember that during anxiety, we’re dealing with an amygdala (the seat of anxiety in the brain) that has registered threat, and recruited you for support. The amygdala doesn’t care for rational conversation. It just needs to know that it’s been heard, and that support it here. This is why validation is so important. Something like, ‘I know how big this is for you. I really get it,’ sends a message to the amygdala that it’s done its job, support is here, and it can rest.

3. 2 x 5 x 5

Building relationships takes time, but it doesn’t have to take a lot of time, each time. If you are a teacher or any  important adult in a child’s world, frequent small conversations will can build a connection that is at least as strong infrequent big doses. Try for 2 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for 5 weeks. The conversation can be about anything, as long as it shows interest in their world – what they’re reading, what they did on the weekend, what they had for breakfast, noticing something they’ve said or done, pets, sport, music practice – anything.

4. Find similarities.

Similarities build connection. It’s the power of sports teams, and neighbourhoods, and communities. Notice similarities whenever you can: ‘We’re both wearing blue today!’, or, ‘You have a dog! So do I!’

5. Let your face light up when you see them. 

When children walk into a room, they will be looking to the adult in the room for signs of safety. They will read nonverbals more than anything we say. Whenever you can, let your face and your voice make your intent clear. Neutral faces and monotone voices (which we often use as a ‘calm’ voice, but which isn’t always ‘calming’) can register threat in an anxious brain because the intent isn’t clear. Let your face light up when you see them, and mirror their feelings when they’re feeling, and let your voice do the same.

6. Let them see their important adults speaking with big hearts about them.

If you are a parent, ask your child’s teacher to let you know (maybe once a week) about anything significant – even if it’s just a teeny bit significant. Then, share that with your child, ‘Miss Kelly told me that you asked a really great question in class. She said she loved that you were brave enough to do that.’ Then, let your child’s teacher know little snippets that your child is happy for you to share, so it can be a point of connection between your child and the teacher.

7. Let your child see who has the baton.

For a while, some children might need to see who has the ‘caring for me’ baton. Until they feel safe enough, let them see the baton pass from the parent to the teacher. Some children will benefit from being ‘handed over’ to the same person at dropoff each day. This can be done through words, ‘Mr James is going to take you for the day now. I know he’s going to take really great care of you.’ Then, Mr James says, ‘I’m so pleased you’re here! Do you have everything you need for today? …’ For younger children, it might also involve a physical hand over where a parent takes the child’s hands from theirs, and puts it into the hand of the teacher.

8. Any loving adult can fill the void, not only the classroom teacher.

Even for teachers with big hearts, and who undertand the importance of building an attachment relationship, it can be difficult when they have to split their attention between a room full of other children who need them. This is when another adult in the school can play a really important part in filling the void – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the school counsellor, the person in the office, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings or behaviour get big during the day, and who can do little check-ins (see the 2 x 5 x 5 strategy above) along the way.

And finally …

We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety are thoughtful, observant and insightful, and their wisdom will always have the potential to add something important to the world for all of us. Until they have a felt sense of safety though, we just won’t see it.

Relationship is key – but honestly, isn’t it for everything? The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way. Even as adults, we never forget the ones from our childhood who took the time to let us know we matter. Sometimes it’s not even about having someone believe that we can, but about knowing someone will still believe in us and care about us if we can’t. A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’

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‘Brave’ doesn’t always feel like certain, or strong, or ready. In fact, it rarely does. That what makes it brave.♥️
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #parentingtips
We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting

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