Anxiety: An Opportunity to Support Advocacy and Coping

School can be a stressful experience for many children, neurodivergent and not. Parents and other adults who have been through school themselves at some point may find themselves tempted to respond to anxieties with platitudes meant to reassure the child that things will be ok. Often, however, these reassurances take on more of a gaslighting tendency than a helpful one.

When children express their concerns about a new setting – or even an ongoing setting, for that matter – they are expressing a problem. They don’t need or want to be told that the problem that is causing them so much inner turmoil is not a problem at all. Rather, they need support and acknowledgement of their feelings and, when they’re ready, guidance for addressing the problem.

Let’s say, for example, that a child comes home worried that a fire drill will happen while they are in the bathroom. This example likely isn’t one you’ll find in a book, be it a parenting book or a picture book. It’s an uncommon worry, and that could make it seem insignificant. But if your child’s bringing something to your attention, it’s significant.

A good first step happens before you have even responded: listen to the fear, and imagine the experience from their perspective. Think of which other areas of anxiety that they have expressed might tie into this fear. For example, do they worry about sensory overload causing them to shut down, which could cause them to become separated from their class if a fire drill were to occur? Are they worried that they would need to finish going to the bathroom and be unable to comply with the implied (or explicit) demand to stop what they are doing and follow fire drill procedures? Our perspectives are our realities. This axiom is particularly true for children who are still learning the ways of the world and the boundaries of authority, especially in the face of trauma they may have experienced during misunderstandings or other encounters with authority. John Mulaney, a popular comedian, quips in one of his skits that he wishes his childhood self could have said, “I am very small and I have no money. So you can imagine the kind of stress that I am under.” Being young in our society is often a powerless experience. This powerlessness, coupled with a society that often fails to understand and tolerate neurological differences, can create a particularly traumatic experience.

Next, find out which response would feel helpful. We as humans need a wide variety of things, including sounding boards, encouragement, brainstorming assistance, advice, and help. Seldom, however, do we need all of these at once. Asking point-blank what support your child needs could be read as a demand in an already stressful moment. However, gleaning an idea of what your child might be needing through active listening, then asking if that hypothesis is correct may be a gentler approach. For instance, a child saying “I don’t know what to do” might be more likely to be seeking advice, help brainstorming, or help advocating. Meanwhile, a child expressing very big feelings and seeming overwhelmed to the point of meltdown or shutdown may need extra listening and comfort before any problem-solving should commence.

Finally, whichever form of support you offer, it’s important to future self-advocacy and anxiety management to express that your child has options and that creative solutions are a possibility. This attitude can be transmitted through avoidance of general statements like “all kids have to go to school” and opting instead for those that acknowledge your child’s specific situation, like, “it sounds like that’s something you’re worrying a lot about during your day.” Children who are more ready to problem-solve may benefit from brainstorming-aloud, such as, “I wonder if it would help to have a plan with your teacher for what you would both do if you were in the bathroom when a fire drill started.” Plans such as these can go a long way in feeling safer in unfamiliar situation.

The counselor/detective/coach/protector role played by most parents can be a difficult one. It is always worth it. At the end of the day, and at all the other times of day, we are raising human beings whose complex emotions and dilemmas are worth our time. The support and guidance that we take the time to impart now will stay with them later when we are not by their side. How lucky we are to be here now.