Karen Casey Coaching

Anxiety in Middle School

Sometimes I can’t believe how far we have come in talking about mental health. When I was experiencing anxiety as a college student, I had no language for what I was experiencing and was left to believe something was terribly wrong with me. I had no skill set or understanding of how my thoughts were creating my anxiety. I was reminded of the progress in our culture when a 6th-grade student once asked me if she could take a walk and get some water because she was feeling anxious. My answer was “Of course” and I was impressed by her ability to name her emotions, have a plan to act when she felt anxiety rearing its head, and have the confidence to tell me. It wasn’t the first time a student shared their knowledge about the anxiety response. I once had a male student tell me how he manages his anxiety. Where did he learn the skills? At an Alateen meeting! He explained how a therapist shared ideas at a recent meeting. Ala-teen is a 12-step program for tweens/teens who are troubled by a parent’s drinking.

As far as we have come, there is still much work to be done. The latest numbers coming from the American Psychological Association (APA) are alarming as the numbers since the early days of the recent pandemic show an enormous jump in children (and adults) suffering from anxiety disorders. It is important to distinguish whether your child is experiencing anxieties that come with daily life or chronic anxiety that is interrupting their development and well-being. If in doubt, meet with your child’s pediatrician and discuss your concerns.

Why is my child anxious?

Understanding what contributes to anxiety, and what it can look like helps us address it. In my experience, children who have high emotional intelligence are vulnerable to having challenges with anxiety. We know that there are many reasons why our middle schoolers may be feeling an overload of anxiety – changes from the pandemic, family concerns, social media exposure, and the over-the-top amount of daily news coming at us. These are just a few things that can create additional anxiety in the middle school years:

  • The onset of puberty
  • Increased workloads and school demands
  • Issues with a growing sense of self-identity
  • Poor sleep and eating habits
  • Social pressures including bullying
  • Finding their “people” in middle school

Middle school is where we begin to figure out who we are and who we want to be independent of our parents and other adults in our circle. Let’s face it, a certain amount of anxiety is actually helpful. It is the signal that something needs our attention, or we need to become aware of something in our day. Developmentally, it can be useful for a growing tween/teen prompting them to get something done or learn a new skill. But too much anxiety makes us feel overwhelmed and can interrupt our learning or experience of new things.

Anxiety Symptoms

Anxiety manifests itself in as many different ways as there are people. Our tween/teen can be dealing with anxious feelings, and we are unaware because they internalize it. Talking with them and asking about how they are feeling might reveal some clues about their thoughts. Other middle schoolers may find themselves biting their nails, struggling with thoughts on repeat, and avoiding classes or situations that make them uncomfortable by showing up at the nurses’ office at school. I had many students over the years who asked to eat in our classroom because they were uncomfortable in the cafeteria where many times it was loud and overwhelming. Students can sometimes find that the way they self-regulated their behavior in elementary school is not working in the middle school setting. It isn’t uncommon for a child who academically thrived in elementary school to begin to have academic challenges they haven’t had before.

How can I help?

There are several things you as a parent can consider when your child is showing overwhelm or anxiety.

  • Improving communication and investing time to listen about how your child is feeling about school and life is extremely important. You don’t have to have answers. Listening is powerful.
  • Communication between home and school can have big payoffs. Teachers often see things that parents might not as children show different sides of themselves in different settings. If there are strategies being used in therapy or at home, good communication between home and school can help support your child to be consistent.
  • The help that can be found in a professional counselor or therapist is a wise and proactive move when anxiety becomes a constant experience in your child’s day. Getting one-on-one, focused support offers a safe place to share and learn strategies to use to manage anxiety.
  • Strategies can be learned to practice when you are with your child. A grounding exercise brings attention to the senses and can work wonders in anxious moments. The exercise asks them to name 5 things they can see, 4 things they can touch, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell, and 1 thing they can taste. It is an example of a way for a middle schooler to learn how to self-regulate while anxious.

These are just a few suggestions of many that can help. Let me encourage you to speak openly about anxiety as a family. Bringing it out into conversations normalizes the experience and allows your tween/teen to understand that anxiety is part of life and something everyone experiences in some way. Discuss ideas for mindfulness practices and the role of breathing when we are anxious. Many of these topics can be easily found in a Google search.

It isn’t called middle school for nothing! The middle school years are filled with transitions, but it is also a time to experience joys and exciting changes.

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