Shift Happens

Musings on the mind and the perennial capacity for change

School is Back and so is Anxiety and Bullying

Therapists, this time of year see the epidemic of anxiety and fear of bullying.

Well, school days are back and so are bullying and panic attacks. Do they go hand-in-hand? Sometimes, but independently, these are the issues that school-aged kids have brought up to me in therapy sessions in the past few weeks as they lug on their backpacks and trudge back into the classroom.

The kind of bullying I am referring to is almost subliminal. It occurs mostly with teenage girls who have long been the victim of vicious name-calling, (god-forbid you are a little chubby or haven’t straightened your hair for one day), mean-spirited and false rumors and accusations (mostly having to do with unproven sex acts with guys), and the fear that these bullies will turn others against them. Most of this is done by non-stop texting during school. One child was so panic-stricken finding her two former nemeses in all her classes that she dropped out and is now home-schooled. How schools can turn their backs on these social issues and let them happen is beyond me. In talking to a social worker at an LA area school she said “our concern is strictly education. We cannot take our time for every little issue of supposed bullying or a not nice text. That would take all our time.” Why are they allowing phones in the classroom? The school system in question is going to remain anonymous. They are from a well-heeled community and make themselves truly invisible when a problem comes up. Parents, you have to be vigilant because your school may not. If you notice your child becoming more isolated, hiding out in her room, crying, stopping extracurricular activities, not spending time with friends, you must step in and find out what the issue is. Unchecked bullying, meanness, name-calling can have a profound and every-lasting effect upon your child. My recommendation is that parents work with other parents to stop this madness. I would welcome a parent calling to tell me my child was mean-spirited so that I could help avert a crisis in another child. I honestly believe most parents would want to know if their child was the culprit. While schools may hold anti-bullying assemblies, they are useless until the parents have the knowledge and step in.

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Which leads us to panic attacks. According to the Mayo Clinic, a panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you're losing control, having a heart attack, or even dying. The fact is that it is not really known what causes panic attacks. It can be major stress (bullying) or any other number of issues. When a teen tells me she has panic attacks, they usually turn out to be a strong case of anxiety. Most prevalent when a test is coming up, some kids are just afraid of certain courses and the repercussions of poor grades with their parents. This “test” anxiety and parental fear is causing an epidemic of depressed kids. The academic pressure to get the ‘A’ is pushing kids to limits they may not have. Not everyone is an ‘A' student. You get much further by telling your child to do the best they can. The pressure parents put on their kids to get into college is the hot button. I work with one parent who started the push about college with her 8 year old. I was asked to counsel a two and a half year old who would not sit down quietly during her “class.” What two and a half year old child sits down quietly during a class? The parents were concerned that her inability to do this would keep her from attending the top pre-school, kindergarten, elementary school and so on. Clearly it is the parents who need therapy, not the child. And trust me, their anxiety will translate to this poor kid and cause emotional problems that are far more concerning than attending the top pre-school.

Our children are not all geniuses. They have their strengths and weaknesses and we must acknowledge that by helping them capitalize on what they do best. Fortunately some schools are changing and adding courses that accommodate those who may be less academically based and stronger in other areas. Seriously, we should all be lucky enough to make the salary of a plumber or electrician or be a computer geek who doesn’t want to read the Shakespeare. Following your child’s interests instead of leading her will lessen the anxiety and produce results you would otherwise not find. Working with some schools to present strengths and weaknesses will actually get results as they help your child get through the mandatory courses and guide them towards those that may be of more interest.

While that may not ward off the bullying, it will certainly help with the anxiety.

 

Susan Winston, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a television producer and writer in Los Angeles.

 

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