When I was in grad school, I saw a counseling intern at my college’s psych center who said “It sounds like you’re having a lot of anxiety about that.” It was the first time I realized I had anxiety. That’s right; I didn’t recognize my own anxiety until I was 22. And I realized I was a highly anxious person and had been forever. While it was wild to me that I didn’t realize this until I was in my twenties, just naming my experience as anxiety was incredibly powerful.
As Dr. Dan Siegel says, we have to “Name It to Tame It”. One of our jobs as counselors is to help our students with their emotional vocabulary so they can “name it” and understand their own emotions as well! In this 20-21 school year, there are many concerns about our students being anxious. Let’s make sure they know what worry really is. Let’s teach kids about anxiety before ever trying to intervene in it.
1. Two things to help kiddos understand right from the get-go: worry words and what worry looks like. We don’t always know what they’ve been exposed to. Help them to know all of THE WORDS USED TO DESCRIBE WORRY: anxious, nervous, shy, and maybe even stressed. They also need to know what worry looks like. What I mean is that students often have a picture in their mind of worry. Of someone biting their nails. Or their eyebrows raised in shock. That can totally be true – but someone can be worried and also look “okay” or frustrated or distracted. Show them this with clipart of pictures.
2. And of course, providing students examples of worries is immensely helpful as well. I had a number of fourth graders that just thought worries were about spiders and snakes. Introducing them to the concept of “WHAT IF” THOUGHTS was important. And explaining that sometimes our worries are about THINGS THAT HAVE ALREADY HAPPENED, not just the future. My students’ “what ifs” were mostly on how their peers saw them, the safety of their family members, and getting in trouble at home.
(If you’re looking for a ‘ready to go’ lesson with all of these ideas, I have an easy to use “What is Worry?” lesson)
3. You know how if a kiddo has a stomachache and gets sent to the nurse, that the first thing the nurse might ask is if they’re feeling nervous about something? It’s because they know that humans (adults too!) can get upset stomachs if they’re anxious. What if we taught this to students ahead of time? What if we helped our students to know about the PHYSICAL CLUES IN THEIR BODY that might mean their worried? Not worry specific, but the book Listening to My Body (affiliate link) is wonderful for this.
(This lapbook is a tool I have used when doing class lessons about body feelings and also in individual sessions)
4. While it is one hundred percent okay for our students to experience and express anger, sometimes they’re actually feeling worried. Being anxious can feel like anger and can make us act angry. Help your students understand the ANGER MASK so they can recognize when their immediate anger is covering a worry about something. I share with my students that most of the time I feel angry, raise my voice, and get cranky I realize I’m actually feeling worried about something; being late, making a mistake, etc.
5. Students also need to understand that our worried feelings (all feelings!) are on a scale. We can feel a little nervous/uncomfortable, we can feel solidly worried, or we can feel totally panicked. Being able to SCALE THEIR WORRY is important because 1) it helps kiddos recognize not all situations are the end of the world and 2) sometimes interventions don’t erase worry but instead lessen it. Just like being able to name worry helps, recognizing when worry has lessened is also helpful.
(I used a feelings scale in my office aaallll the time, and a couple teachers started hanging it in their rooms as well)
6. Some students also really connect with worry when they understand why we worry. Here’s where teaching about our “guard dog” AMYGDALA comes into play. Students are more empowered to understand and take care of their anxiety when they connect it to their brain and the feeling is normalized. You can do an entire lesson or session about flipping a lid, or you can just explain it like this:
‘Worry and fear are not bad feelings. There’s no such thing as bad feelings! In fact, fear can actually be helpful. Fear is when a part of your brain called the amygdala says “Hey! You’re in danger! Act fast to keep yourself safe!”
But when you’re not in any danger, and your brain is super worried, it hurts you instead of helping you. You might freeze and not do anything at all, you might get snappy and rude with others, or you might try to escape and be alone. There’s good news, though. Everyone has anxiety and worries sometimes. And if you’re having a LOT of anxiety, there are things you can do that will help.’
Once you know your kiddos totally understand what worry is, looks like, feels like, and can identify and accept it in themselves, that’s when you can move on to helping them cope with it!
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