Stress, Anxiety, and Your Learner
“I’m so stressed out!”
We’ve all said or heard this phrase at one point or another in our lives…sometimes on a daily basis. Stress has become as much a part of our American culture as apple pie. Despite stress becoming a societal norm for families, there remains a disconnect between stress being proclaimed and stress being worked through in a healthy way.
Stress is part of normal life - that is the truth. So why aren’t we getting better at coping with it? And how can we best support our children and teens in developing healthy coping mechanisms of their own?
Feelings Are Messy
While stress is now a modern way of life, somehow feelings still aren’t okay to talk about in modern
society. And the older a child or teen gets the less understanding and supportive society can be of their feelings. The reality is we can get uncomfortable when someone expresses unhappiness, anxiety, stress, or depression. We panic - we’re a fix it society and we don’t like to see someone upset. Therefore, what we're really concerned about in that moment is our own comfort rather than supporting and actively listening to the person who is upset. Additionally, we have the benefit of adult perspective and decades of life experience behind us, meaning the stress the kiddo is dealing with may appear to be small potatoes to us with all of our “adulting wisdom”. We can unwittingly take away a child or teen’s power to be vulnerable by dismissing feelings as “just something that happens to everyone”; to them this is HUGE.
The Science of Stress: the Amygdala vs. the Frontal Lobe
Science tells us that when the body is experiencing excessive anxiety, it can be due to a weak connection between the amygdala (the brain’s “fight or flight” region) and the prefrontal cortex (frontal lobe - the regulating part of the brain). The frontal lobe is supposed to keep the amygdala in check, but in children and teens that process is still under construction. What does this mean? That your child or teen is going to respond to stressors differently than you do and may have a harder time regulating the stress-triggering part of the brain.
What Stress Might Look Like in Your Child or Teen
There are many types of stress and sources of anxiety, which can make them tricky to spot in kids. Stress and anxiety can even be mistaken as learning disorders, because the behavior challenges that result can certainly impact a child’s ability to be successful in school. A child or teen dealing with chronic stress and anxiety may: miss school a lot, complain of stomach upset and/or visit health services frequently, have attention/focus struggles, be inattentive and/or restless, be clingy, or even be angry and disruptive.
Neuroscience also tells us that neurons that "fire together wire together.” So when we aren't helping children and teens to call their frontal lobe back to the present moment, the emotional responses of the amygdala take the driver's seat. Neurons then create a tangled web that reinforce those stress-responses of the brain, and those responses become the norm.
An article entitled Anxiety in the Classroom from the Child Mind Institute lists a variety of common types of stress/anxiety:
Social anxiety - stress related to peers and social interactions that causes extreme self-consciousness
Selective mutism - inability to communicate in certain situations
Generalized anxiety - across the board stress response to a variety of stimuli
Obsessive compulsive disorder - ritualized anxiety that is temporarily relieved by a repetitive compulsive behavior such as hand-washing
Specific phobias - profound fear of certain situations, activities, etc.
Keep in mind that stress can be expressed very differently from elementary age children to teens, and can vary wildly even between children in the same age group. For example, one child may act out in a visible and audible way, while another child may direct all of those feelings inward and could become withdrawn and inattentive. Anxiety and stress can also be harder to spot as children get older - the struggles aren’t always visible, between social media and social savvy, a teen knows how to conceal when something is going on. Keep an eye out for behavior changes, including shifts in their eating or sleep habits, or suddenly falling behind in schoolwork or changing friendships suddenly.
A Montessori Approach to Supporting Stress/Anxiety
Maria Montessori’s wealth of expertise and experience in the world of child development can offer us much in terms of how to identify and respond to childhood stress. In her groundbreaking book, The Absorbent Mind, she explains the four Planes of Development that children progress through from early childhood to early adulthood:
The First Plane: Birth to Age 6 (Early Childhood)
The Second Plane: Ages 6–12 (Childhood)
The Third Plane: Ages 12–18 (Adolescence)
The Fourth Plane: Ages 18–24 (Maturity)
When you look at the planes in the image above, you can see the horizontal line of life, which indicates the age of the child. The lines that form the triangles are the lines of progression and retrogression. Montessori asserted that development is intense at the beginning of a plane, peaks, and then tapers down to the next plane, in preparation for the beginning of a new stage of development.
Children move from plane to plane, from concrete to abstraction, through wonder and excitement, into social worlds developing and becoming more and more a part of their identity, all while working hard to discover who they are along the way; needless to say, some stress and anxiety are going to be a natural part of the journey.
As a Montessori community, we can learn from Maria’s emphasis on the role of observation, the importance of preparing the environment, and the crucial spiritual preparation of the adult to better support our children and teens at home. Many of her suggestions for Montessori guides (i.e. teachers) can apply in the household, as well. The following list is adapted from a resource created by one of our trained Montessori staff members, Katie Keller:
Prepare and maintain the environment
A home that is physically arranged to meet the needs of the family is going to be a more peaceful home. Does your child have a space to do work (in all of its many forms)? Is the home reasonably orderly and clean? (I know - this one is tricky)
Be a constant observer
Spend time observing before jumping to conclusions. Give the benefit of the doubt before stepping in and making assumptions. Use your observations to help guide your child. Additionally, be sure to observe yourself to make sure you aren’t unwittingly serving as an obstacle in your child or teen’s development by stepping in when they need to be working towards independence or by dismissing feelings during times when they need additional support.
Link the child to the environment
Involve your child or teen with maintaining the household from an early age. Work as a team whenever possible.
Be a role model
Model grace and courtesy, kindness and respect. Model ground rules and procedures for how you do things at home. Model self-care and healthy coping mechanisms.
Developing an Emotional Toolkit
Mental health is essential health, meaning we should approach the care of our feelings and minds as diligently as we approach our physical health. However, the stigma surrounding mental health struggles is so pervasive that it prevents many people from seeking support when they need it. We can model healthier habits for our children and teens by making self-care a priority.
When our child or teen is experiencing stress or anxiety, our instinct often is to jump in and try to fix it. The following list of tips is adapted from the article What to Do and NOT Do When Children Are Anxious from the Child Mind Institute.
The goal isn’t to eliminate anxiety, but to help a child manage it.
While it’s hard to watch a child or teen struggling, the best gift we can give them is to empower them to work through the stress. Encourage them to tolerate their anxiety. If the situation isn’t a safety concern, then we don’t want to remove the stress or shield them from it; we want to support them in building resilience and confidence in their own ability to navigate hard things.
Respect the feelings without empowering the feelings.
Their feelings are valid and can be overwhelming. You want to honor that and want to listen and be empathetic, help them understand what they’re anxious about, and encourage them to feel that they can face their fears. The message you want to send is, “I know you’re scared, and that’s okay, and I’m here, and I’m going to help you get through this.”
Don’t ask leading questions.
Instead, keep them open-ended. Questions like, “Aren’t you nervous about that test tomorrow” can trigger anxiety. A question like, “How are you feeling about that test tomorrow?” can encourage a variety of responses without planting fear.
Think things through with the child
Madga Gerber’s RIE method (which we use in the Community Nurtury on our campus with the infant/toddlers) utilizes what she referred to as “sportscasting” to help children to learn to talk about their feelings and express themselves effectively. Sportscasting refers to essentially narrating what your child is going through to support them in thinking about their thinking. It helps them to process and regain control when they are feeling out of control. Sportscasting helps us to:
Observe without judgment or opinion - you’re just sharing what you’re seeing (“you seem frustrated”)
Do less so our children can think and learn more - independence is empowering
Not take sides or pass judgment
Encourage children to not identify as aggressors or victims
Support kids in understanding and navigating difficult situations
Please note, there is a difference between regular day-to-day stressors and chronic anxiety disorders and/or depression. I will be exploring teen anxiety and depression in more detail in a post later in the year. If the anxiety is interfering with your child’s ability to engage in daily life, then please seek out a mental health professional in your community. Supporting your child in getting help when it is needed is a terrific way to model self-care.
Stress and anxiety may have become a way of life in modern society, but resist the habit of letting it become the way your child or teen approaches life’s challenges. Support your child in finding and trusting their voice, caring for themselves, and developing healthy coping mechanics and self-care habits as they grow.
Katie Keller, Lead Teacher Rainforest Studio, 6-12 CGMS Certified
Anxiety in the Classroom by Rachel Ehmke - Child Mind Institute
Montessori Philosophy Explained: the Planes of Development - by Anne Prowant
5 Benefits of Sportscasting Our Child’s Struggles - by Janet Lansbury