Monday, September 19, 2016

High Diving Board Syndrome

As I was completing my morning walk I came across a couple of elementary age boys with their bikes having an intense discussion with their Grandma. It seems they were being encouraged to ride their bikes to school, but they were a bit nervous to attempt this task. 

Riding from Grandma’s house they were merely a block from school in a safe neighborhood with many parents walking with their children. Grandma was getting ready to follow along in her car.

The boys looked to be about 6 and 8 years old. Why would they be so afraid to ride their bike one block to school? 

I don’t know their particular situation, but I do know that anxiety in children has increasingly become a factor in schools. Children refuse to come to school, older children suffer separation anxiety previously only seen in young children, teachers must teach calming techniques, and classrooms are outfitted with “calming corners” for children who are feeling stressed. This also makes me wonder how many more children are being medicated for anxiety at earlier ages.

First of all, I would like to say that this post is NOT for parents of children who are experiencing panic attacks. Children with intense anxiety issues will benefit from expert care that is far above my level of expertise. Furthermore, I do not wish to put guilt on parents that they are causing anxiety in children. But given the increase in anxiety, this is something we want to address.

When I taught kindergarten, it was not unusual for my class to include a child or two who was anxious at the kindergarten door. I learned to reassure parents that their child suffered from what I lovingly called “High Diving Board Syndrome.” I pointed out that a child climbing a ladder rarely thinks of the height of that ladder until he or she stands at the end of the diving board; then the panic sets in. Likewise, once the swimmer has made the jump, the anxiety is transformed into pure thrill. This is simply a description of initial anxiety. This kind of anxiety comes from the body pumping adrenaline in anticipation. For a brief moment, there is more adrenaline than what is being used. For most children we can talk them through it by pointing out they are safe, and by reminding them of how good it will feel to tackle this challenge.

Our children engage in quite a bit of passive entertainment. They have television, streamed movies on computer, and an infinite number of games on phones. The downside of too much of this activity is that children become comfortable with the peaceful feeling of passive entertainment. They rarely have to deal with initial anxiety. Then when they feel anxious about trying something new, they might pull back instead of learning that initial anxiety is temporary and is what makes us mentally sharp. 

Here are some things to remember when children are reluctant to try something that you are confident they are able to do:

1.     Name the anxiety for what it is. It is a state of alertness that God gives us when we try something new that helps us to pay better attention. It will go away once your child engages in the activity and uses the adrenaline that is pumping away.
2.     Empathize, but do not sympathize, with your child. Recognize the anxiety and help your child to focus on the feeling of accomplishment that will occur later.
3.     Remember that children develop self-confidence by accomplishing something difficult – even if mistakes and failures are involved.
4.     Do not emphasis performance. Instead remind them of accomplishment.
5.     At the dinner table, share stories of times when you were anxious about trying something new as a child. Let your child see how things worked out.
6.     Reduce the amount of time your child spends in passive entertainment and increase the amount of time spent in unstructured play outside with other children.  This kind of play involves many instances of small risks that children safely overcome and can build confidence.

In your family devotions, you can lift up your child’s anxieties to God in prayer. We do not have to tell children to ignore their anxiety. As Christian parents we can remind them that they are loved and cared for by parents and their Heavenly Father.

And by all means, seek help for children suffering from anxiety that has adversely impacted their lives. God has blessed us with many experts that help us to raise happy, healthy children.

The LORD Himself goes before you and will be with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Deuteronomy 31:8