"Well, I had to go pick her up again." My sister-in-law telephoned shortly after getting her 12-year-old from school.
"Stomachache so bad she was doubled over. But now she's fine. What's going on?"
My niece was experiencing performance anxiety. Our children are acutely aware of expectations?from peers, parents, teachers and themselves. They face behavior and achievement requirements, with negative consequences if these aren't met. In The Struggling Adolescent, Christian psychologist Les Parrott III describes anxiety as "worry, fear, phobia, stress and concern all rolled together and gone too far."
My niece spent hours on a book report, but was convinced that it wasn't good enough to net her an A. She turned it in, then worried that the report wasn't long enough and that the grade she knew she'd receive would disappoint her parents. A friend's son spent sleepless nights worrying about the ridicule he'd face if he were cut from the basketball team. These are legitimate concerns, but they're "rolled together and gone too far," as Parrott states.
What produces this type of anxiety? Parrott cites several causes:
- Negative self-talk. Overblown thoughts reinforce the hopelessness of a situation or exaggerate the consequences of a less-than-ideal outcome.
- Insecurity. Feelings of rejection come with great force for self-doubting adolescents.
- Inconsistency. Instability or constant change can drain an adolescent.
- Criticism. If the teen lives in an environment of criticism, anxiety can follow.
- Perfectionism. Some teens strive to meet unrealistically high standards imposed by parents, teachers or themselves.
Understanding the causes is a starting point. The next step is recognizing the symptoms. Anxiety shows itself in a variety of ways, including recurring stomachaches with no medical diagnosis; diarrhea or frequent urination; loss of appetite; dizziness or tremors; various nervous habits; and avoiding certain situations that once were pleasurable. Parents can take steps to help.
Pinpoint the problem. Ask your child: "What exactly did your coach say?" Then listen. Providing a safe outlet for your child to express anguish allows him to release fear and worry and restore emotional equilibrium.
Recognize that some stress is good. Healthy stress motivates us to complete tasks and make needed improvements.
Set reasonable expectations. My sister-in-law asked her daughter: "What kinds of grades are you expecting? Is that realistic for every assignment? Are you making assumptions about negative outcomes that may never occur?"
Promote positive self-talk. Once a child separates expectations from reality, help him replace thoughts like "I'm sure I'll fail" with "I'm good at some things, and still learning others. It's that way for everybody."
With your help, and with practice, your child will learn to replace burdensome anxieties with a growing confidence and peace.
Author, chaplain's wife and mother of two
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