I notice my 10-year-old daughter fidgeting as she memorizes her lines for summer-theater camp.
“I’m nervous, Mom. What if I can’t remember all the words?” she wonders.
My natural inclination is to comfort her and let her know everything will turn out well. Are my words helping? Every parent’s tendency is to protect their children when anxious feelings arise, but when are we doing more harm than good?
Helping kids deal with stress
Allowing kids to avoid situations that make them nervous might actually contribute to a child’s anxiety, according to Armando A. Pina, associate professor in psychology at Arizona State University. A better approach is teaching kids practical skills and techniques to deal with anxiety and stress.
Pina has spearheaded a program called Reach for Success to help kids in grades three through five do just that.
“Parents and schools realized that kids are dealing with a lot of stress and even anxiety,” says Pina, who describes the program as a school-based curriculum delivered to kids who exhibit higher-than-average anxiety levels.
Over the course of six weeks, during 20- to 30-minute lessons, kids learn relaxation strategies, skills for managing worry, social habits for making friends, assertiveness training and tools to face challenging situations.
Pina says the program is “focused on science” and uses cognitive and behavioral strategies to help kids who deal with “everyday stress and anxiety that seems to be getting a bit too high compared to other kids in the child’s age range.”
Reach for Success was rolled out to eight schools in four districts three years ago, and since then, 21 more Arizona schools have adopted the program. A study across seven schools showed children in the program demonstrated significant improvements in self-regulation, emotion expressivity and social skills.
“Kids who have learned the skills taught by Reach have been followed for up to 15 years, and they are doing great,” Pina says.
School districts with a whole-child approach — rather than an academics-only approach — tend to recognize the program’s value, he says. “If a school is focused only on academics, like math and science, only some children will learn, because those who are anxious or stressed will not learn the material and will possibly fail.”
Without intervention, children with anxiety issues are at risk for depression. As children move into high school and college, unaddressed anxiety can result in unhealthy beehaviors, such as use of illegal substances.
When to intervene
A certain amount of anxiety is normal, but when it starts to interfere with school and home life, parents and teachers should intervene.
Reach for Success targets anxious children who tend to seek reassurance more frequently from adults and peers. They may have continuous fears about their safety, refuse to go to school or experience frequent stomachaches, headaches or other physical problems.
The program is not set up to address more serious signs of anxiety, including “disgust, hoarding, repetitive behaviors, images in their mind they can’t control, et cetera,” Pina says. Parents whose children demonstrate such issues should consult a pediatrician, a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist.
Takeaways for parents
Parents play an important role in helping their kids manage stress. Fourth and fifth grade is a good window to intervene, Pina says, because homework and social anxiety tend to increase in sixth grade.
Here are ways parents can help kids combat anxiety:
• Monitor your child’s stress and anxiety levels by using a diary to chart their comments or your observations of their behavior.
• Offer positive attention when children do something brave or tackle their fears in scary situations.
• Offer high-fives and small rewards when a child confronts a fear.
• Ask the school psychologist for help.
• Ask that the school implement Reach for Success in their district.
When my daughter returned from theater camp, she said her lines went well, and she enjoyed her day. I know, though, that I have to stay vigilant as she enters fifth grade this year. I’ve learned the importance of intervening early to combat anxiety. It’s a way to protect my daughter’s future.
Learn more: Visit drarmandopina.org. Parents who want to implement the program in their children’s schools should talk to school psychologists or school administrators and ask them to contact Reach for Success.