Each day has enough trouble of its own
These words of Jesus follow a passage about worrying over the necessities of life (Matthew 6:34) and, more generally, worry seems to be running through our community especially amongst children and adolescents and we have labelled that worry - anxiety. But who at times isn’t anxious? Lying awake at night turning over a problem, called at short notice to address a meeting, trying to reconcile differences with friends, feeling incompetent at work, concerned about the health of a family member can all result in anxiety. Everyone experiences anxiety. It is a natural and important emotion, signalling through stirrings of worry, fearfulness and alarm that danger or a sudden threatening change is near. (Anxiety Disorders resource Centre)) So, can a little bit of anxiety be normal, motivating and even helpful? What is the current reported wave of anxiety in children and adolescents about?
While various amounts of anxiety are experienced by everyone in daily interactions and activity, anxiety disorders are characterized by fear, worry or dread that greatly impairs the ability to function normally and is disproportionate to the circumstances at hand (Elia 2021). Anxiety disorders include: separation, panic, agoraphobia, social anxiety and specific phobias. It may be a severe case of one or a combination of these. Recent USA research indicates that nearly one in three adolescents will experience an anxiety disorder. The signs of an anxiety disorder can be any excess of one or combination of:
- Recuring fears and worries about routine parts of everyday life
- Changes in behaviours, such as irritability
- Avoiding activities, school, or social interactions
- Falling grades or school avoidance
- Trouble sleeping or concentrating
- Substance use or other risky behaviours
- Chronic physical complaints, such as fatigue, headaches, or stomach-aches often linked with school-avoidance. (McCarthy 2021)
While aspects of these features might be seen in a child or adolescent, the disorder is identified if it greatly impairs the ability to function normally and is disproportionate to the circumstances at hand. In most cases these disorders will affect student learning and therefore are of concern to teachers. Awareness of these early signs is important, and teachers can help students keep perspective by engaging them in how they see the world, their expectation about school and work and about their social media participation. Concerns need to be shared with other school support staff and with parents.
What is causing the current wave of anxiety?
The literature identifies three broad areas causing anxiety in today’s children and adolescents:
- Genetics – a disposition towards timidity and nervousness is inborn and if one parent is naturally nervous then there is a good chance their child will have anxious tendencies.
- Separation – often developed in childhood and carried over into adolescence as a fear of being separated from parents and loved ones.
- High expectations and pressure to succeed – from examination-oriented education and parent expectations.
- A threatening world view – where students are unable absorb family tragedy, war, displacement, bullying, natural disasters.
- Social media – where students feel constantly connected but their self-esteem and worldview become connected to social media responses and posts.
When an anxiety disorder is evident, teachers should refer the child to the school counsellor who will arrange for an assessment. If diagnosed, behavioural therapies will occur to help the student understand the challenges of anxious beliefs, increase their confidence to face fears and to cope with uncertainty by building up behaviours to face fear. Medical practitioners also have a range of drugs that can be prescribed to add to the behavioural therapy if needed.
In extreme cases and where therapy is slow to take effect, students may attempt to diminish or deny their fears by engaging in risky behaviours including drug experimentation, impulsive sexual behaviour and suicidal behaviour.
Students experiencing anxiety and those with a diagnosed disorder need care and Christian teachers are well placed to support students. Philippians 4: 5b-7 The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
In this passage, Paul reminds us that the Lord is near (both being present and his soon expected coming) and that turning to him in prayer and asking him specifically for what is needed is a way forward. Focussing on him in thankfulness for all that he has done for us in Christ is to provide the worldview and perspective that can benefit everyone. Peace is needed firstly between God and humanity through Christ, and secondly peace in worldly matters for we trust in him and his purposes being worked out through history. Getting the big picture right is a key to dealing with life’s problems and allaying anxiety.
The Christian teacher can share this perspective, pray for their student and, if appropriate, pray with their student. They can ask God for his peace to enter the student’s life, arresting anxiety and giving them the cognitive and behavioural skills to address anxiety. These actions will support the anxious student and be in line with, and support, any behavioural therapy. But anxiety can often be very severe and partly hidden. Teachers should not accept sole responsibility for any advice but refer to student to the appropriate support staff and ensure that their concerns are taken up.
Addressing anxiety is important for children and adolescents because each day has enough trouble of its own.
Anxiety Disorders Resource Centre, Your adolescent – Anxiety and avoidant disorders. https://www.aacap.org/aacap/Families_and_Youth/Resource_Centers/Anxiety_Disorder_Resource_Center/Your_Adolescent_Anxiety_and_Avoidant_Disorders.aspx
Clare McCathy MD FAAP, Anxiety in teens is rising: What’s going on? [https://www.healthychildren.org › Anxiety-Disorders](https://www.healthychildren.org › Anxiety-Disorders
Josephine Ellia MD Overview of anxiety disorders in children and adolescents MSD Professional Version https://www.msdmanuals.com › mental-health-disorders