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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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