There are many ways anxiety can manifest in school-age children, including difficulties separating from parents, specific fears about certain subjects (e.g., math, writing), bouts of test anxiety, stigmatizing social anxiety or generalized anxiety. It is not uncommon for these children to “keep it together” all day as model students only to “melt down” and “fall apart” the moment they hop in the car or reach the safety of their home. Symptoms can range from child complaints of headaches and stomach aches to worries/fears, school refusal, loss of behavioral control, difficulty separating from parents, and mild to severe avoidance of situations. It is critical that adults in the child’s environment understand that symptoms associated with anxiety can be debilitating and that adult and peer support play a critical role in reducing symptoms and promoting more typical functioning in the face of anxiety producing triggers.
On that note, let me introduce Amanda, a charismatic teen with a dual diagnosis of ADHD and anxiety. While Amanda is an exceptionally bright and engaging young lady, it was almost painful to watch her transform from a vibrant, socially outgoing teen to a shrinking violet as she recounted the beginning of her middle school experience. Although many of us approached the transition to middle school with a balance of excitement and trepidation, we made it through without the degree of suffering and humiliation experienced by this young lady during these formative years. She claims that her life-long tendency to become distracted was further compromised in the beginning of 6th grade when she began to develop intense anxiety about math class. She candidly shared that while she agonized about going to school, her enthusiasm about her friends and the social aspects of school drove her to suppress the incredible stress and queasy stomach flutters she experienced every morning as she headed off to school. She winced as she described the fear that immobilized her when the bell rang for math class. Day after day, she “froze like a deer in headlights” during math instruction and became uncharacteristically quiet and shy until the moment she walked out of her math class. She felt stuck in a horrible cycle in that her lack of concentration and inability to think clearly resulted in missed steps and information, further compounding her ability to complete assigned work successfully. Each day, she entered the class with a desire to do better and could not understand why it was so much easier for her classmates. Her parents were aware of her math struggles though her light-hearted interactions and bigger than life smile masked her daily distress and diminishing self-esteem.
She began to crumble when classmates started to comment that she should be able to do the math or blatantly asked her if she was “stupid”. She no longer felt supported by her teacher or her peers. This exuberant young lady was losing ground-academically, socially and emotionally and began to believe that she was in fact, incapable of succeeding in math. Her mother was her saving grace-rejecting the teacher’s notion that she just needed to try harder and the school’s recommendation for special education. Amanda’s mother told her daughter she knew she was bright and capable of learning but needed an alternative approach to maximize her success. This too scared Amanda as she did not want to repeat the cycle of perceived failure in a new school. Amanda’s mother spoke with friends to identify a good-fit school that would restore her daughter’s confidence and help her to overcome her anxiety and thrive in school.
Amanda has since transitioned into Tampa Day School and as a result of the dynamics of the environment-adults who understand anxiety, small class size, a more personalized instructional approach, and an encouraging peer group-she is meeting with daily success. She hopes that her story will help others to realize that anxiety is not just something students can “push through” and that the symptoms can be truly disabling and have the potential to erode confidence and self-esteem, particularly in the school and social arenas. In a slight elaboration of her words, she hopes that teachers who read this will take the time to understand, connect with and support these students; parents will watch for symptoms and changes in self-esteem and intervene when they realize their child is struggling with anxiety; and classmates will recognize how their actions and words can impact the well-being of others.