If your child or adolescent struggled with anxiety during the school year, now is an opportune time to address it. Take advantage of the summer break to give them the skills they need to manage stress, feel confident, regulate their emotional responses, maintain strong friendships, and—most importantly—feel better about themselves.
Not sure if your student has anxiety? Here are some common signs:
- Excessive worry about a variety of issues, such as grades, appearance, peers, family matters, performance in sports/activities, homework, and tests
- Physical symptoms such as upset stomach, vomiting, and headaches
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Changes in eating behavior
- Inability to relax even when they recognize their fears are out of proportion or unreasonable
- Treating themselves harshly and/or expecting perfection
- Fear and avoidance of social situations
- Disconnecting from friend groups
- Mood swings and/or increase in irritability
- Obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors
Trying to resolve these issues during the school year, when symptoms may be at their peak, can be challenging. Homework and tests are a constant, then add on any extracurricular commitments. There may be few opportunities for your student to decompress and learn from the last anxiety-producing experience before they happen upon the next one. Summer provides a (hopefully) more relaxed schedule to reflect on what creates anxious feelings and to practice and adopt effective ways of coping.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one form of treatment that has been found to be effective for anxiety (Otte, 2011). With the guidance of a trained counselor, CBT brings to the forefront the thoughts a person is having, the emotions that accompany those thoughts, and the behavior that results. Modification of just one of these variables can help improve the other two. Students can learn more effective ways to cope by examining faulty or irrational thoughts. For example, a young person with test anxiety may have a negative internal message that reminds them that they have no hope or confidence they can pass their tests. This negativity can spill over into areas such as homework, extracurricular activities, and friendships, leading to a prevailing sense of powerlessness, hopelessness, and failure. The resulting behavior can include the symptoms listed above.
Taking time to challenge a student’s way of thinking and replace negative narratives with more reasonable and accurate self-statements can help them feel more capable and empowered.
Taking time to challenge a student’s way of thinking and replace negative narratives with more reasonable and accurate self-statements can help them feel more capable and empowered. Confidence helps build a sense of control and possibility, and in turn leads to adopting healthy behaviors in the face of all the ups and downs that come along.
It’s important to educate your student about anxiety so they understand everyone experiences it in varying degrees, thanks to the fight-or-flight response. The human brain is hardwired to assess for dangers and react to threats in the environment, an evolutionary survival mechanism (Schab, 2008). Helping your student understand that the fight-or-flight response is there for a good reason assures them that (1) they aren’t flawed and (2) opens the door to learning ways to turn the dial down so they aren’t constantly on high alert. Chronic anxiety builds up stress hormones that can, over time, cause emotional and physical problems.
According to the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” survey conducted in 2013, “Teens report that their stress level during the school year far exceeds what they believe to be healthy (5.8 versus 3.9 on a 10-point scale) and tops adults’ average reported stress levels (5.1).” This summer, take the time to help your student better understand the anxiety that comes with all that stress, and partner with a therapist to develop strategies for building the confidence they need to manage it in the next school year.
- American Psychological Association survey shows teen stress rivals that of adults. (2014, February 11). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/02/teen-stress.aspx
- Otte, C. (2011). Cognitive behavioral therapy in anxiety disorders: Current state of the evidence. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 13(4), 413–421.
- Schab, L. (2008). The anxiety workbook for teens. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
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