My eight-year old-boy is very anxious about school. He’s in second class and has always been a little anxious, but I feel like it has escalated recently.
His school is quite supportive. He has a good teacher, but it’s a big class and I’m aware she’s under pressure. He often refuses to go in altogether, saying he’s worried that he won’t do his schoolwork well and people will think he’s stupid. He never sleeps on Sunday nights. He does seem calmer when he isn’t in school but is still a little worrier and always has been.
I’m embarrassed to admit that occasionally when he’s very distressed and tired, I’ve let him stay home but I know that’s not the answer.
Whilst all you might see is your child hurting and scared, what I see is a wonderful, highly emotionally intelligent child. As a result of his emotional intelligence, he is able to see the world using eyes and understanding far beyond his years.
Unfortunately, whilst he can see the world of a 13-year-old, developmentally he can only process the world of an eight year old. This is a bit like seeing a jigsaw suitable for 13-year-olds, but at his age, he can’t put it together in a way that makes sense to him.
Our job is to show him how to understand the world he is in
Remember, when we see something that we don’t understand, we do exactly what we are designed to do, we get anxious. The problem is getting worse because the more aware he becomes of the world around him, the less his mind is able to process what he sees. Your son sees the world as it actually is, not the ideological world we try to paint for him. In the real world, we do get our homework wrong and people do laugh at us. Your son sees this and accepts it. His problem is that he doesn’t know how to respond to it. He needs a solution and giving him a solution is our job. He is in a world that he can’t understand because of his age. Similarly, since his carers don’t understand the problem either, they don’t have a solution that makes sense to him.
Our job is to show him how to understand the world he is in, what’s happening to him and how to solve it for himself.
By using language like “still a little worrier and always has been”. We are making a small problem into a major problem. This comes out in your reactions to him. He sees that his carers are gradually viewing him as different to the rest.
We need to normalise his anxiety for him by opening the conversation at home and at school
He doesn’t see anyone else getting as anxious as him. As a result, he tries harder and harder not to be anxious in order to be like everyone else. He views any help given as an attempt to make him “normal” like everyone else. Unfortunately, the more normal he tries to become, the more abnormal he feels and this keeps going around in circles.
We need to normalise his anxiety for him by opening the conversation at home and at school. Get everyone in his life to give him examples of where they feel anxious and regularly don’t know how to get rid of it. Show him that we are all little (and big) worriers.
The library will have thousands of books on how to understand and overcome anxiety. But remember, no book or technique will work until we recognise anxiety as a normal part of life.
Enda Murphy is a cognitive behavioural therapist who focuses on supporting adults to support young people. Email queries to email@example.com