“Actually dad, I’m really getting on with it now. “
My daughter, Penny, is a charming and intelligent 15 year old, but recently she has been driving me crazy. “What is going on?” I ask myself.
You would think the whole world depends upon the outcome, judging by the toll it is taking on her (and me) and this seems to be a growing concern nationally and probably internationally. These days more and more children and teenagers are burdened with ever increasing expectations to do well and succeed. Whatever happened to going out to play? Well, I guess with the advent of the Internet, smart phones and tablets a child’s entertainment is now on hand, but equally it seems that in this age of information, our children are expected to be as smart as the machines that are robbing them of their childhood.
“Would you like to go out for a walk? I ask casually
“I’m revising!” tends to be the stock reply.
She isn’t, but I don’t want to get into an argument over it.
We call it anxious avoidance and at exam time it can reach epidemic proportions. It is not a small thing either. In my clinic in Cambridge I have unfortunately a long waiting list of teenagers suffering with a whole range of anxieties which make exam stress that much more stressful.
It has a lot to do with the hormone adrenaline. This is a chemical, produced naturally by the body which then acts on the body in very specific ways. It is part of the body’s threat system, which stresses the heart in particular, but the nervous system in general. So, the body is prepared, in the physical sense at least to take on the threat or get away from it (this is referred to as fight and flight).
Now, if I think about what is going on for Penny, it seems very clear to me that the thought of failure is the threat, the adrenaline then generates stress (experienced as anxiety), and since this is unpleasant, it is followed by avoidance. So with that rationale, you might think a walk is preferable to actual revision. So why isn’t it?
This simply means putting off what needs doing, but can result in feelings of guilt and shame. Since these are also unpleasant feelings it creates a negative reinforcing cycle that is often hard to break. If Penny is worried about failure, then whenever she is really confronted by revision she will feel anxious. As has been said, anxiety often leads to avoidance but this kind of avoidance needs to be mindless, like watching TV or surfing the Internet because if she has time to think about it she will start to notice the guilt and shame and feel worse. So, what’s the best solution?
This is the most obvious one;
So I say to Penny, “how about I help you get started on something tangible, something that is really likely to come up in one of the exams. Do it for an hour, then, let’s go for a walk?”
There is invariably reluctance to let go the mindless stuff, because it is serving an important function (keeping the guilt and shame at bay), but if I am firm in the belief that helping her focus on something productive will in fact reduce her exam stress (by actually doing some preparation she begins to feel more confident that she will not mess up), then it’s a win/win result.
So, an hour later I find myself proposing going for walk again, and what do I get this time?
“Actually dad, I’m really getting on with it now, can we go after another half hour?”
The problem with anxiety is that it can set us up for conflict, so if the anxiety can be smoothed over by positively dealing with the sense of threat, it opens up a space in which love can flourish.
So, about an hour later, we are out on the walk, enjoying nature. All thoughts of the Internet or revision or procrastination are far behind us. There is lightness to our mood, sharing a piece of chocolate or a drink of water. There are some Polish, wild ponies close by, and their easiness and calm temperament have an uplifting and satisfying impact on our emotions. The day is almost done, and as the light slowly changes all becomes still for a moment.
We have come a long way from the stress, the potential conflict and the anxiety in a short time and Penny appreciates it.
“Thanks dad.” She says when we get home, “That was really good.” And then in her rather quirky obsessive way, “We should do that every day!”
“Yes.” I reply, grateful for the gratitude and the joy her joy brings me, “That would be lovely.“
Dr Tim, child therapist.
A specialist in the field of child and family mental health.
Currently working within the NHS