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School Anxiety: No Helicopter Parents Needed

Remember the Feber method, or as it is also known, “gradual extinction”? That’s the method of sleep conditioning for babies and toddlers wherein parents train a children to sleep by leaving them alone, crying, for increasing periods of time until, the theory goes, they learn and accept that no one is coming, and they fall asleep on their own.

Feber came to mind as I read last week’s New York Times story on teenage anxiety “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” The article looked at ways to address teen anxiety as well as potential sources of the increasingly prevalent disorder.

But while the article gave voice to different sides of a complex issue, it latched on to social media as a driver of teenage anxiety and downplayed the role that society’s ongoing perception of school and the design of educational experiences play in teen anxiety.

Tough love or just love?

The article appears to conclude in favor of pushing anxious teenagers to face their fears in order to move beyond them. This is fairly well summed up in comments by Lynn Lyons, a psychologist interviewed for the article, quoted in a training session with parents as saying:

In a seemingly well-meaning effort to help kids avoid what makes them anxious, administrators actually make anxiety worse. “Anxiety is all about the avoidance of uncertainty and discomfort,” Lyons explained. “When we play along, we don’t help kids learn to cope or problem-solve in the face of unexpected events.”

In the spirit of balanced reporting, the article’s author, Benoît Denizet-Lewis does include the voice of those who advocate for a gentler approach: specially-designed activities (such as later start times, modified gym classes, etc.) and classrooms just to get kids to attend school. These might be the “anti-Feber” parents in our gradual extinction analogy.

We’ve got to get them in the building. Many of our students simply don’t come to school if they have to spend all day in general-education classes. Once the students are in school, Hovey explained, staff members can help them build the confidence and skills to eventually transition to Roxbury’s regular classes — and stand a chance at navigating college or a job once they graduate.

There’s the rub. Why do we need to get them into the building? When a teen is anxious about school, is it really in her best interest to force her back? Despite the fact that this is standard psychiatric practice, we should be looking much deeper into what we think of as anxiety disorder and what could be a real issue with a traditional school environment.

Helicopter . . . children?

In an effort to flush out a cause for a disorder that has increased two-fold in the past 7 years, Denizet-Lewis notes that there may be a shift from blaming parents for their kids anxiety to blaming the kids themselves:

“Teenagers used to tell me, ‘I just need to get my parents off my back,’ ” recalls Madeline Levine, a founder of Challenge Success, a Stanford University-affiliated nonprofit that works on school reform and student well-being. “Now so many students have internalized the anxiety. The kids at this point are driving themselves crazy.”

People do believe that kids feel driven on their own accord, and I have heard quite a few parents say “He’s the one who wants to take three Advanced Placement courses” or “I told her she did not have to apply to Harvard,” but the pressure to succeed must be ingrained on kids somewhere along the way.

If one’s parents are not personally insinuating the pressure to get into a decent, good, or exemplary college from a certain age, it has to come from somewhere. In cities where competition begins in kindergarten, kids know something is going on. By the time they get to high school, the need to succeed is at fever pitch. With high schools under pressure to graduate all its students and to place them well, students clearly get the message that optimal performance is preferred.

"The kids are driving themselves crazy," is not an acceptable analysis of the situation.

The narrative around which this article is written, the story of teens placed in a $910 a day "last resort" facility may also lead readers to ignore the struggles of so many other teens who either go undiagnosed, who do not seek treatment, or whose families do not support their recovery.

Denizet-Lewis touches on social pressures and what may account for difference among socio-economic groups, but not enough to get a full picture of the real role that school is playing in our kids' rising anxiety.

Are you ready to give up your phone?

Much is made of the impact of cell phones on us all and particularly social media delivered via cell on our youth. There is no arguing with the science of it and the anecdotal observations we have all made in watching our kids react to a particular Facebook post, text, or Snapchat. The Dopamine Effect is real. But I doubt that many of us would be willing to give up our cell phones for any significant period of time, and we shouldn’t have to. Neither should our kids. Cell phones and certain social tools are great tools for learning as well.

If school is to continue to play such a vital role in our kids' lives, it needs to become part of the solution and help promote better digital citizenship from an earlier age. Technology has never been the problem; it’s how we use it, or ignore it, or ban it.

This disconnect between how our kids live and interact with friends and family, and how they engage in a school environment, can only contribute to how kids feel at school.

Just the Facts

See the graphic at the end of this post. The data comes from a study presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Society Meeting in San Francisco. While the report urges further study, and it will be highly instructive to see what the research says about “the factors contributing to these alarming trends,” the one data point about lowest occurrences should get people thinking.

The Teen Paradigm

According to the National Institutes of Health, teens need more sleep than children and adults. Although it may seem like teens are lazy, science shows that melatonin levels (or the ‘sleep hormone’ levels) in the blood naturally rise later at night and fall later in the morning than in most children and adults.” So, why do we still insist that the majority of teens start school at 8 or 9am every day?

This is just one example of how we have attempted to mold kids to fit into a setting designed for adult convenience rather than one that actually aligns to the way a teen’s brain works. No wonder they are so anxious.


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

Designs2Learn blogs were originally published on a separate site devoted solely to educational issues. 

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