Rising Anxiety: Ways to Help Your Student

Interim Head of School, Pat Preib
In an earlier blog post, I mentioned a presentation I attended that was led by Dr. Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist and the author of the monthly “Adolescence” column for The New York Times and two books on adolescent girls, Untangled and Under Pressure.  Dr. Damour is also a contributor to CBS News and serves as the Executive Director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls.

According to Dr. Damour, 31% of girls and young women report experiencing symptoms of anxiety, and 13% of boys and young men also experience anxiety.  These statistics are worrisome to any educator or parent. And even though young women, in growing numbers, can now be found in most fields of study and careers that traditionally were closed to them and are also achieving great things in the classroom, anxiety among them is on the rise. Young men, too, are experiencing greater anxiety than in the past, even worrying about their appearance to a greater extent than before. We see our young people excelling in countless ways—in poetry contests, athletic events, college admissions, theatrical and musical performances, community service—but, for anxious girls and boys, their scholastic, athletic, and artistic achievements are not always accompanied by feelings of satisfaction and confidence.

Dr. Damour suggests a variety of ways to help our students counteract anxiety or feelings of being stressed out.  Rather than simply reassuring students (“Don’t worry, honey; everything will be all right”), it is better to validate their feelings (“Yes, that really is a bummer!”) and emphasize that they do have the ability to manage their stress or handle the situation. (“Yes, it really is a bummer, and you can handle it.  I’m here to help if you need it.”)

Other authors have suggested similar responses.  Dr. Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of the book, The Blessings of a Skinned Knee,  writes about several blessings that allow children to be themselves, while encouraging parents to recognize that children naturally grow up in “fits and starts” at a raggedy pace.  She uses lessons from the Old Testament to underpin her suggestions for the modern world. Some of her suggestions for helping to reduce anxiety in students include incorporating experiential or project-based learning models, such as those presented by our Bosque 8th graders during Inquiry Project (IP) Night in January or by our seniors in their upcoming Colloquia.  Another way Dr. Mogel suggests alleviating student anxiety is by getting students outside of the classroom and into the field, something Bosque students frequently do. This is especially helpful to those students who learn best by “doing.”

These researchers and others tell us of the small changes we can make to improve our students’ and children’s lives by reducing their levels of anxiety.  These steps teach them that we all stumble in our efforts to learn new things or in our relationships with friends and that we can all overcome those stumbles.  Sometime even just a brief interlude in their day in which an adult gives a child attention and compassion can result in a reduction of anxiety and a willingness to tackle the remainder of the school day.

It is reassuring to know that, while anxiety among this generation of students is on the rise, there are several simple steps we all can take to help strengthen their resilience in the face of life’s inevitable challenges.  For those of you interested in learning more from Drs. Damour and Mogel, links to their websites are below.