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Why Is My Child So Stressed Out Over Exams?

06/12/2017 11:52 EDT | Updated 06/12/2017 11:52 EDT
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Girl in blue shirt having problem with concentration to finish home work

I've had a fascinating and, if I'm going to be fully honest about it, troubling experience with my daughter this week. She is 12½ years old and in so many ways a poster-child for self-regulation: the ability to manage and recover from the energy expended dealing with stress.

She has a sunny disposition; loves school; has lots of friends; is a great athlete; an A student; cares deeply about the environment. Like all kids, she gets wound up at times; but she generally knows what to do to restore herself when this happens: fishing, listening to music, taking a long bath, chatting with mom and dad or her friends. But we suddenly saw a very different child.

She is writing her final exams and fell apart. I'm talking going full "red brain" -- a state of fight-or-flight, convinced that she was going to fail and be set back a year. And she's only in grade 6!

The question is, what is a parent supposed to do when this happens to their child? This occurs all the time, over all sorts of things. Trying to talk to them out of it often seems to intensify their anxiety. But ignoring them and leaving them to settle on their own is even worse.

This is precisely where Self-Reg comes in: The method I developed to help children and teens avoid being over-stressed and how to recover when, inevitably, this does occur. Self-Reg teaches us that, whatever the reason why so many kids are over-stressed these days -- and yes, we do need to have a serious society-wide discussion about why this is happening -- the immediate issue when a child is distraught is to make them feel safe and secure.

And the key to accomplishing this is to get them to recognize that they are not alone. Not telling them this, but having them feel this, deep inside their brain and body.

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The first priority is to turn off the child's "limbic alarm"

The limbic alarm is a system is deep inside the brain that is constantly on the lookout for safety or threats, and sends us into fight-or-flight when it senses the latter. If we try to reason with a child when their alarm has been triggered -- get them to see that they are distorting the problem -- they won't be able to process what we're trying to explain. In fact, whatever we're saying to reassure them, no matter how reasonable, can actually be another stress.

The problem here is that the limbic alarm is running the show, crying out for help. Nature has provided parents with a suite of powerful weapons to do just that: not just with a child or teen, but an adult of any age. We need to shift to what are called "limbic modes of communication": a soothing voice and gentle touch, soften our gaze and facial expression, reduce the sources of ambient stimulation, and above all, restrain our impulse to teach or explain.

The message that this sends to a child who is in fight-or-flight is simply: you are not alone. It's the same message we gave the child in infancy, and what is truly remarkable is how often we need to hear it: how powerful these "infant memories" remain throughout the lifespan.

I suspect my daughter did well on her exams. The reason why I think this is that she ended up going to sleep happily and, what is even more significant, woke up smiling the next morning. And all those great speeches I had prepared in my mind to help her put all this in perspective and recognize what a smart and great kid she is: I guess I'll have to file them away for when she's in University.

To learn more about what happens to the thinking part of the brain when a child goes into fight-or-fight, and the "limbic modes of communication" that turn off the child's alarm, see Stuart Shanker, Self-Reg: How to Help your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successful Engage with Life (Penguin, 2017)

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