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Some Tips for Managing General Anxiety Disorder

A newer and common diagnosis students are receiving is General Anxiety Disorder or GAD. For many parents this may not be a surprising revelation—their child has already demonstrated separation anxiety, was a late bed wetter or has always had a reluctance to go to school. But for others whose children are carefree and uninhibited at home, this diagnosis may be more difficult to reconcile.

It is important to understand that settings impact behavior. I experience this all the time as a teacher. It is interesting to observe how a child performs one-on-one, in a group setting, on the playground, on stage, and with their families. For some, there is a constant: they remain pretty much the same in each scenario, while others display drastically different reactions.

Classroom anxiety often manifests in multiple trips to the nurse for somatic symptoms. The boy whose head or stomach hurts daily may really be masking GAD or another learning disability. Sometimes the child will disrupt or display “ADHD” type behaviors, like squirming and restlessness, because they are trying to avoid the task at hand. These children may not be paying attention. For some, anxiety comes from a desire to be perfect. These children do not want to take risks or be “wrong.” Others have phobias or other obsessive-compulsive behavior. While there is various expression GAD takes on in a learning environment, below are some strategies to manage it.

Be honest with your child. Use the proper terminology. Speak to them as though you were explaining the systems or diagnosis to an adult. You may be inclined to attempt to protect them by not being honest or using different language, but you are concealing what the child may already know about themselves. Also, we want to teach children to be self-advocates and to speak clearly about how they feel and what they need. They cannot learn this without being given the tools and language to do so.

Face it and talk about it. If we teach our child to not face their fears, we are encouraging helplessness. Instead, talk it through with your child. Pinpoint exactly what they are worried about. Do they have a presentation today in front of the class? Discuss specific fear: are they nervous about how they look, anxious about stumbling over the speech? Perhaps they are not as well prepared as they need to be. Whatever it is, have them verbally identify those fears and have a plan to address each outcome.

Once the fear is known, do not placate their feelings or empower those feelings. “You’ll be fine,” or “You have nothing to worry about,” are platitudes that can provide even more anxiety and also ones that do not validate feelings. Instead, ask them what all the outcomes might be. Are they scared of getting a shot? What might happen? Go through all the possibilities and discuss strategies or what might you do in each response. Having realistic conversations about outcomes will reduce anxiety.

Do not ask “Leading Questions.” You needn’t fuel the flames by asking, “Are you anxious about the test today?” This will only give them pause to think perhaps they should be anxious. Instead, ask “How are you feeling about the test today?” If they are anxious, go through the possibility of outcomes and discuss a plan for each.

Encourage them to tolerate their discomfort. We all want to protect our children and make their lives easier, but children need to learn grit, and experience hardship and discomfort. While my father's old adage “Toughen up, Buttercup,” is not useful, validating feelings and setting expectations is reasonable. Working through difficult challenges is the key to learning, growing, and success. It is what makes children ready for the world. When we face our stressors, the distress often minimizes. If you have ever driven a car or SCUBA dived, perhaps the first time you went you were filled with fear, but over time the fear is reduced. Try saying, “I appreciate the work it takes to do what is needed to do.”

Reduce the anticipatory period. If you know your child is anxious about going to the dentist, do not tell them about their appointment a week in advance. The moments before the event are the hardest. Instead, tell them right before going.

Model healthy habits. Spend some time reflecting on your own anxiety and reaction. We model behavior that we often see. Finding coping mechanisms can be a family focus and an opportunity to show goal setting, address anxiety, and brainstorm strategies.

Talk to the teachers. Your child spends hours daily with your learner. Make sure you and the teachers are reinforcing the same behavior and are using similar expressions, strategies, and language. Often, teachers see the behavior before parents do, and are already managing it with helpful techniques. Ask them what they have observed if they have any advice, and come up with a game plan together.

Practice mindfulness. There are tons of videos and tutorials to practice guided meditation, breathing techniques and “take a break.” Check them out to find the right match for you and your child. One year my group of 5th graders REQUESTED they learn how to do a guided meditation. I thought it was a little corny, to be honest, and they may have been trying to squirm out of a less desirable activity, but they resoundingly LOVED it. I was very surprised when at the end of the day they said thank you and exited the room with hugs.

Not all techniques will work, but give them a go and see what sticks. There is always light at the end of the tunnel!

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