This past week we were privileged to have Dr. Ethan Ehrenberg present on Worries And Stress- How To Help Our Children Manage. Dr. Ehrenberg had presented to our middle school faculty earlier in the year on anxiety in children and how we as teachers can help. The feedback was so positive that we felt we needed to bring him back to present to parents. I want to highlight a short piece of his presentation with some nuggets we can all apply in our own parenting.
We are all wired for fear which is necessary to protect ourselves from danger. Anxiety is when an object which is not dangerous triggers the same fear response.
Children with anxiety often:
- Avoid the feared stimulus (say they are sick when there is a test),
- Feel impending doom,
- Have fearful thoughts and anticipate problems
- Have a low belief in their own competence- they don’t believe they can overcome these problems.
What is the cause of this anxiety? Dr. Ehrenberg discussed a numbers of factors that contribute to anxiety. Some of it is temperament. It has been found in the research that infants that tend to get fussy when exposed to new stimuli tend to have anxiety as they grow older.
Another possibility is that somehow the fear response gets paired with stimuli that are not truly fearful. To explain this phenomenon Dr. Ehrenberg used the example of Pavlov’s dogs. Dr. Ivan Pavlov rang a bell every time he fed the dogs. After a while, simply ringing the bell stimulated the dogs’ salivating. Any person or object the dog learned to associate with food triggered the response. So, too with anxiety. Any object associated with fear somehow triggers anxiety. For example, simply seeing a test paper can trigger anxiety despite not even seeing the questions. So, the goal in that case would be extinguish the reaction. Ala Pavlov his goal would be to continue ringing the bell without giving food and eventually the salivating behavior would extinguish itself.
This research presents a truism which is counterintuitive to what many of us are inclined to do as parents. When our children are anxious about something, we do everything in our power to help them avoid the cause of their anxiety. In actuality, exposing themselves to the anxiety provoking event- to the extent that they can tolerate it- will help extinguish the anxiety when they see that nothing actually happens when they are exposed to it.
Some of us swoop in and save our children when they seem worried, not allowing them solve their own problems and tolerate discomfort. When our children express worry, it is important we that we listen and not rescue. I too often find myself in school torn between helping children feel better in the moment, and helping them overcome a source of anxiety long-term. (Please note that parents of children who suffer from true anxiety disorders should be consulting with a mental health practitioner for advice as to when to push children and when to cushion them). When we swoop in and rescue, there is a clear behavioral pattern. When there is a trigger (the test), anxiety goes up, and our child tries to avoid trigger, (fake being sick so won’t go to test). Then, we as parents rescue and give into child and allow him/her to stay home (just today). Then the child’s and parent’s anxiety go down and therein is the negative reinforcement. When we take away the negative stimuli it burns a pathway in brain which causes a reaction which is hard to extinguish.
Just to add here, Dr. Wendy Mogel, author of the book The Blessing Of A Skinned Knee, which I often quote, states that in recent years college deans have reported that growing numbers of incoming freshmen are “teacups” as they are so fragile and break down anytime things do not go their way (as reported in the article “How To Land Your Kid In Therapy” by Lori Gottleib). “Well- intentioned parents have been metabolizing their anxiety for them their entire childhoods, so they don’t know how to deal with it when they grow up.”
Dr. Ehrenberg discussed other parenting practices that tend to increase anxiety. One of which he called “intrusive guidance”- “parents who are constantly correcting their children and redirecting them. This conveys a sense of incompetence that they cannot do anything on their own. This makes them more nervous to go into the world.”
The first step as parents is to allow our children to experience anxiety provoking events and learn to tolerate the discomfort and problem solve solutions.
What else can we do as parents? Another technique Dr. Ehrenberg suggested was Cognitive Restructuring:
- Thought awareness- since the anxiety happens so quickly they not even aware they are thinking it. Help them be aware of the internal chatter. Teach them the good coach versus bad coach in their heads. The bad coach tells you the worries. You want the good coach in your head.
- Externalize the worry- That bad coach- Are you going to listen to him? This helps them control it their anxiety. There tends to be shame with anxiety. Stress that everyone has that bad coach. It’s just a question of whether you listen.
- Alternative thoughts- Cognitive distortions- is that true- do you always fail? Our instinct is to go here first. We need to be careful and hold off on this step until our child is comfortable at working at feelings, and can calm down. If we do this step too quickly, children see it as invalidating their feelings.
How does one know if a child’s stress level or worries are more than they should be? Their anxiety is getting in the way or interfering with their lives. Dr. Ehrenberg stressed the importance of notifying the school when a child’s anxiety seems too intense. Perhaps the school can help the child manage.
It says in Mishlei 12:25, “Da’agah belev ish yashchenah, vedavar tov yesamchenah” “If there is worry in a man's heart, yashchenah, and a good word will make it cheerful.” Shlomo HaMelech was the wisest man that ever lived. What does yashchenah mean? One way to understand it is to pronounce it as yesichenah- speak of it, discuss it, articulate it. Dr. Ehrenberg provided us with some basic tools to help our children speak of their fears, and tips regarding some “good words” we should say in response to help them view life with more cheer.
Sixth Grade: Students were introduced to the MyHomework app to help them organize their time and prioritize their work.
Seventh Grade- Students focused on the power of upbeat thinking in promoting resilience.Eighth Grade- Students began a unit on the temptation of cheating.