Anxiety

Back-to-School Anxiety

Practices for parents and children.

Posted Aug 28, 2019

“I’m the one with back-to-school anxiety,” Tamara confessed. “I worry that Jennie won’t be safe at her high school. She just started ninth grade. It’s a huge urban school with metal detectors at the doors. Given so many mass shootings these past few months, I think all of us are scared. My friends are buying bullet-proof backpacks for their kids. They are best sellers on Amazon. It’s so sad. Are they really going to help keep our kids alive? When I was in high school I worried about boys, not survival,” she said tearfully.

“How is Jennie handling high school?” I asked.

“She is worried, but she tries to hide it. She doesn’t talk about it, but she has been coming into my bed in the middle of the night. It’s hard for her to sleep. And I know she can sense my anxiety and I think that makes it worse. How do we live in this world? I worry about going to a mall, even going to worship takes courage. I feel like I’m a terrible role model being such an anxious parent, but what can I do?” she sighed.

These are concerns I hear from more and more parents. There is so much we can’t control. Our kids feel it, too. Research shows a marked increase in anxiety and depression among middle school and high school children. In a recent study by Jean Twenge and her colleagues in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, the researchers noted an increase in depression and anxiety between 2009 and 2017 of more than 60 percent among children from 14 to 17. A similar increase (47 percent) was found among children who were 12 to 13.

We have decades of research on mindfulness showing its effectiveness with anxiety and depression. I was intrigued by recent work by Professor Eli Lebowitz of Yale’s Child Study Center, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which seems to draw on and develop the basic tenets of cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness to help parents deal with a chronically anxious child. Lebowitz and his colleagues have developed SPACE (Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions). As reported in the July/August Yale Alumni Magazine, they are finding that by teaching the parents supportive skills they can relieve a child’s anxiety without the child entering treatment. Often parents have counterproductive responses to a child’s anxiety and don’t know how to help.

And as we see with Tamara, good intentions can backfire. Parents try to soothe a worried child by sleeping next to him or being overprotective, sending the message that the child is fragile, rather than teaching skills to help the child manage discomfort. The impact is that the child can become increasingly dependent, feeling that he or she needs to be rescued by the parent, establishing a vicious, downward spiral.

Inspired by Lebowitz’s research, I adapted a basic mindfulness practice of labeling and working with difficult emotions and taught it to Tamara. This is a well-researched practice. In the process of labeling our experience, we deactivate the amygdala and access the prefrontal cortex, moving out of a state of reactivity into a state in which we can establish balance and find perspective. As she learned to tolerate her own anxiety, Tamara was able to help Jennie accept her own fears and worries. Jennie tried the skill-building practice as well, gradually feeling confident that she could tolerate her worry and discomfort.  

Mindfulness for Back to School Anxiety

  • Start by sitting comfortably, eyes closed or slightly open. Know that you are sitting.
  • Take a few breaths, know that you are breathing. Feel the sensations of breathing in and breathing out.
  • Notice when you are hearing sounds, thinking, planning, feeling tightness in the body, breathing in or out.
  • If you are distracted by an emotion, note what the emotion is. Label it with warmth and compassion. For example, note “worry, worry, worry” with a kind tone. Don’t worry about getting the label exactly right.
  • See where you feel the emotion in the body. Notice it and allow it to be, rather than trying to make it go away.
  • Notice the attitude you bring to this practice. Are you chiding yourself because you are feeling worry? Are you feeling weak or inadequate? See if you can label with warmth and kindness.
  • If the emotion becomes too intense, simply return to the breath.
  • Don’t hold on to the emotion, constructing a story about it, or begin to analyze it. Let the emotion rise and fall. Label it and let it go.
  • If you feel that negative emotions don’t deserve kindness, label this as well. Be open to pleasant emotions as well.
  • Continue to alternate between labeling the emotions and grounding with your breath. When you are ready, stretch and open your eyes.
  • Try to continue to be aware of your emotional reactions as you move through your daily life.

As Tamara practiced, she felt a growing steadiness in her daily life. “My anxiety is just one of many emotions that I have during the day, and it passes. And I noticed my worry in my gut. When I felt it, I would tighten and defend against it, and turn it into a story, or wonder if it was a premonition. I realized that I was giving more power to the thought this way, rather than letting it rise and fall. This practice has helped me explore it more fully, and most importantly, let go of it.

"I feel much steadier, and I think Jennie notices it and benefits from it as well."

References

Twenge, J.A., Cooper, A.B., Joiner, T.E., et al. (2019). Age, period and cohort trends in mood indicators and suicide-related outcomes. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 128 (3), 185-199.

Lebowitz, E.K., Marin, C., Martino, A. (2019). Parent-based treatment as efficacious as CBT for Childhood Anxiety: A randomized non-conforming study of supportive parenting for anxious childhood emotions. J Am Academy Child Adolescent Psychiatry,  March 7