work desk with lap top and scrunched up paper

School work anxiety: It is completely normal for teens and preteens to be anxious at times. If however your child experiences a level of distress that interferes with the normal functioning of daily living (e.g. leaving the house, connecting with friends, school refusal etc.) It is important to take your child to the doctor to consider other forms of intervention outside the home too.

Supporting your teen through school work anxiety.

Let me paint you a picture. It’s a story you would be familiar with and one you may have worked your way through as well. You go to school, you work really hard, you pass the year with merit, you continue to work hard, you get into the university or college course you want to get into at the end, then you get the good job and the good pay etc. On the surface it’s a pretty simple formula. Get good grades and you get a good life that is often the story our community tells us is the ‘right way’. 

Lots of teens and preteens hold onto this illustration or formula as if it is the word of GOD! Anxiety and perfectionism creeps in. This can lead to a whole bunch of uncomfortable feelings and behaviours like them never being happy with their work, procrastinating until they are sure they are going to do very well at something or the deadline is so close it is unavoidable, won’t start work because they are worried they won’t do well, takes teacher feedback badly or preoccupied with work appearing neat and starts over many times. This is not an exhaustive list, but you get the picture.

A teen or preteen that is a perfectionist may even look like they have decided they don’t care about their academic success (or getting into the basketball team, learning how to play a piece of music or learn how to skateboard etc.) or are lazy. They are not. They are just worried and scared of failing.

So how do we give our teens a chance to break free of the anxiety/perfectionist feelings and behaviours?

How to help your teen with perfectionist thinking.

It takes time and practice to manage, reduce and learn coping strategies for perfectionist thinking.

Preteens and teens are not on their own when it comes to this thinking around ‘getting good grades equals getting a good life’. For parents’ social messages, our own educational history and our own beliefs about education can all play a part in feeling strongly about our child’s education. Yes, while there is lots of research available to show the link between education and health and wellbeing, the pressure this can put on a parent can be intense. 

Supporting a preteen and teen with school work anxiety is no easy task. So it makes sense that we first talk about how you can look after yourself while supporting a child that is anxious about school work.  

  • You first. Understanding your own beliefs where they come from, your inner fears and how they show up in your family is not easy. But, this knowledge of yourself can help you to build on your own strengths and regulate your own emotions during the tougher moments so that you can parent from a place of clarity and calm.  Accessing support to work through your own beliefs, thoughts and feelings can be pivotal in creating the supportive environment that you and your teen deserve and need. 
  • Showing your teen that you are aware of what makes you think and feel the way you do, identifying what you find anxiety provoking about your teen and school, challenging your these thoughts and displaying your own calming strategies will ultimately result in your teen building their own capacity and skills to do the same.  
  • Understand that as a parent or guardian of a young person there is nothing in the world you want more than for your teen or preteen to be comfortable. It is difficult to see your loved one distressed and it is normal to want to remove their discomfort. Keep the long term plan in mind when you are sitting with an anxious child. Removing your teens distress in the short term may actually make your child’s anxiety worse in the long term. Try and reward your young person for being brave. The reward doesn’t need to be something tangible. It can just be having a big fuss made about them attempting or completing the task.
  • It can be frustrating for you but speak with your young person with empathy and normalise anxiety around performance in the teen and preteen years. See if they themselves can identify times they become distressed with anxiety and the behaviours that are associated with it. Is there anything they can identify that they did that helped them get through a previous moment of anxiety? If they identify avoidance as a helpful technique, help them see that it actually didn’t help them attain their goal. A helpful technique is one that helps them attain the goal (e.g. study for the test, sit the test, hand in the assignment etc.). Collate a list with them.
  • In a non-anxious moment make a plan that involves a breathing technique or progressive relaxation technique to help your teen push through when your teen is experiencing an anxious moment. Introduce this and practice it in non-tense moments so that it can be utilised more easily in the tense ones (even if you are not with them). An affirmation or mantra while breathing is also good and simple. You can look some up with your teen online and they can pick one that would suit them best.
  •  A guided relaxation is a great strategy and many can be found for free on the internet. These are great for the night before a test and are a good ingredient to add after a more intense anxious moment has settled through a breathing technique.
  • Self talk is a strategy as old as the hills. It’s a great technique but often requires a bit of direction. A guide to get this working for your teen to get your teen to speak with or write to their anxiety as if they are a different part of their mind or even external to themselves. Get them to challenge the anxiety and get argumentative and smart with it! Preteens and teens might feel silly doing this and roll their eyes at you… but if you plant the seed they might give it a go in private. This will help them get control of the situation. It also allows your teen to practise being their own cheerleader. Role model your own self talk out loud remembering that kids learn through modelling.
  • Speak to and focus on the learning process being more important than the grade. Help your teen work through how they learn best and what they have learned from previous successes and failures. This might look and sound like ‘I learn better when I work with others around me’, ‘I work better when I am listening to the audiobook and the text is in front of me at the same time’ or’ I learn better when I hand write my notes instead of typing them’ etc.
  • Getting started with school work can be the hardest part. At this point they may need more intervention than normal to get things going. They may need to have someone sit next to them, not to help with the work but to just sit alongside them while they work, and at times offer encouragement. Some teens that find it hard to start may need to hear “just start, write anything”, “it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time”, “pushing through the stress by keeping going” “Get over this hump and it will put you back in the flow”.
  • Remind your teen that it is normal to feel anxious and be unable to concentrate at times, especially if they are learning a new topic. Reminding them that learning can take a little time and a few attempts and that each attempt is a step nearer. Acknowledging that they are learning and do not need to know all the answers on the first attempt of the work can reduce anxiety levels.
  • Some teens may need a clear structure and routine in their evening. Be clear about what you expect as a minimum and ask what you can do to help them meet that. Base this on what the expectations of the school are regarding homework. Be mindful that you do not put extra pressure on the completion of homework to a high standard. Completing homework to a satisfactory level is enough.
  • Be clear about the natural consequences of completing and not completing homework (both positive and negative consequences) e.g finishing a task within a time frame results in a set amount of free time to choose their activity and enjoy it for the remainder of the evening. 
  • Most teens want to complete their homework and when asked will offer ideas on what they would like you to say to them to help keep them on track.
  • When they do the right thing acknowledge and praise, they say “whatever” but secretly love it!

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