Uncertainty. This term continues to bubble to the surface of every article about student challenges. Many articles point to the struggles "students today" have in dealing with uncertainty. Experts in adolescence and psychology are seeing a growing number of students struggle to recover from minor setbacks. The feeling is students are not equipped to problem solve or advocate for themselves effectively in a world of uncertainty. Business professionals worry that, in this world of uncertainty, parents and schools are not equipping children to take risks, learn from failures or advocate for themselves. Is it simply information overload? Or are children really more fearful and anxious in these fast-changing and uncertain times?
It makes sense. Children growing up in the rapidly changing information age have access to information that likely wasn’t on our radar as we navigated through childhood and adolescence. We didn’t have access to 24-hour news reporting and social media. There were far fewer images available of terrorism or the effects of war. Although our parents may have grumbled at the dinner table about politics, inflation, crime or taxes, these complex topics were easier to tune out without the compelling visuals and stories. That's why it seemed like a much safer world for children.
Without question, the information age has changed the parenting landscape. The pressure on parents to manage and police their child’s exposure to uncertainty is overwhelming, and a disparity that continues to arise is within the level of appropriate involvement. The term “helicopter parent” has been coined to indicate “overparenting.” Recently, the term “lawnmower parent
” has emerged as a metaphor for parents who remove all obstacles from their child’s path. While it is easy to sit back and shake our heads at overinvolved parents, the bigger questions are: What is at the root of this parenting reaction? Do we need to worry about technology and uncertainty harming children? And if so, is there something more we can do besides trying to shield our children?
It is true that easy access to information through technology has led to an increase in stress for adults and children alike. Both The Atlantic
and The New York Times
recently published articles on the rise of students suffering from severe anxiety. The link between smartphone usage and social media pressures to mood swings and depression clearly points to the role these new forms of technology play in student emotions. As parents, we have an innate instinct to protect our children from this type of pain and suffering. So, shouldn’t we shield them from the constant access to information they are not developmentally equipped to process? Are we set up to fail our children with a no-win situation? Although we want to build independence in our children, which requires them to be vulnerable in an uncertain world, we can limit but can’t completely shield them from technology. This is a complex balancing act for parents conditioned to keep their child safe.
The truth is, even if the world has changed dramatically, fears and anxieties have always been prevalent and unavoidable for all children, and the idea of a carefree and innocent childhood is really a myth.
In the book Anxiety and the Gift of Imagination
, psychologist Dr. Robin Alter discusses the natural biology of fear and anxiety in children. “Fear is a normal and sensible response to something or someone that could realistically cause harm,” while anxiety is, “(w)hen a person is having the same kinds of physical responses that people have when they are afraid, but these responses are to events or things that are not dangerous, or are much less harmful than the person imagines.” Sorting this out is a process that happens gradually throughout adolescence. Although anxiety and fears may appear in children more often, the strategies to deal with them remain the same.
On her website, educational psychologist Dr. Michele Borba offers parents “10 Tools to Help Kids Manage Fear and Be Less Anxious
.” Finding activities which focus on growing their understanding of the concepts of power, control, security and self-worth is the key to both mitigating their fears and anxieties, and helping them to develop lifelong coping strategies. Dr. Borba’s suggestions include:
- Teach kids to monitor scary media consumption. Show them how to turn off media that may be negatively affecting them and switch to relaxing or “giggle-producing” content.
- Share worries as a family. It not only tells children it’s okay to have these feelings, even for adults, but it also allows you to reassure your child while clarifying misconceptions and answering their questions.
- Provide calm support. Your words of support will become a model your child can use.
- Help your child know what to expect. There are some fears from which we can’t protect our kids. Educating your child about the worry can clear up misperceptions, as well as boost security.
- Read books that deal with the fear. Allowing your child to identify with characters that share the same anxieties can help them build the self-worth and security needed to tackle fears as they get older.
- Say fear-reducing self-statements. Giving your child one phrase to say daily, such as, “I can do this,” or, “it will be ok.”.
- Practice relaxation strategies. Have your child practice strategies such as slow, deep breaths or putting on headphones with relaxing music over and over until it becomes automatic.
- Give them a hug. Research shows that hugs actually reduce our kids’ worries, as well as calm them.
- Use their imagination. Let them play out their fear while adding themselves or other heroes that save the day.
- Put your child in the driver seat. Control over situations helps reduce fear and anxiety so it is always a good idea to ask your child what they think may help them feel safer or less worried.
Although the parenting rulebook is non-existent in our fast-paced, mega-changing world, it’s important to carve out time within the family experience for authentic, thought-provoking conversations. While we can’t remove thorny challenges from our child’s life, we can serve as a sideline coach. We can take the time to help our children explore the features of the task or situation and generate possible ways to address it. In the end, our children need to take action by choosing initial steps, monitor their progress, and make adjustments along the way. As our children step into uncertainty, we may not be able to take the steps for them but we can offer support as a thought-partner and guide.
By Roxanne Stansbury
, Assistant Head of School & Davida Sims
, Director of Advancement