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Did you know that anxiety actually harms our ability to succeed and do well rather than helps us? Most of us actually believe that we do better when we are anxious. Somehow, we reason, if we stay fearful about how we are going to do, than that will motivate us to do our best and excel. If we don’t stay fearful something terrible might happen. We might fail, become lazy or have something otherwise catastrophic happen to us. In fact, most people who are overachievers and perfectionists hold this belief. The fact is, however, this is not true. Anxiety depletes our ability to do well and focus on the task at hand. And focus it turns out, or mindfulness, is the key to doing well at almost everything.
The Cognitive Attention Model
Did you know that low anxious people are much more likely to focus and excel on a task than high anxious people? Why would this be?
It seems that people, who are anxious switch between focusing on the task that they are trying to accomplish with divided, rather than concentrated attention. They are constantly shifting back and forth between ruminating about their performance, and paying attention to the task. This leads to decreased performance, and wasted time because of the worry. Children who are highly anxious have been shown not to attend to the important details when problem solving, and to do a poorer job of problem solving. Anxiety overwhelms the brain and nervous system making it difficult to access the ability we have to think clearly and reason from a logical place.
In fact, it has been theorized that anxiety about test taking and academics actually begins to interfere with the learning process at the beginning stages when a teacher is instructing students about a new topic, and continues to impair anxious students through the entire process of learning.
What can you do as a parent?
Children are capable of understanding this. Teens can learn this concept by being taught to pay attention to what happens with their mind when they get anxious. Little children can be instructed in these concepts through more creative methods, such as using artwork to depict their anxiety as something harmful outside of themselves.
Assess whether your child’s academic environment is a good fit for them.
Children may struggle because the work is too challenging for them, and they have suffered failure because the demands academically are beyond their ability. This may be the case if they have a learning disability, or if they are incorrectly placed in a classroom setting where the work is too challenging. If your child is suffering from anxiety look at these issues to determine if this may be the case.
What can you do as a parent? Get your child an IEP or change the classroom setting so they can have a greater chance of success
Assess whether children have learned beliefs about their self worth being tied to their academics.
Children who can perform in the setting they are in, but still act as if they cannot, may suffer from test anxiety because of intense pressure that they perceive. They may believe that if they fail, they will be worthless, or that the most important thing is for them to do well academically.
What can you do as a parent? Get clear on the messages you may be sending your child about their need to be successful, and also about the behavior you may be modeling in the house. Sit down and examine whether you may be giving your child messages that are unhealthy and whether you are suffering from fear and anxiety that might be affecting them.
Look at your child’s study skills to determine some hints on how to help them.
Research has shown that kids may have difficulty studying because they lack study skills, thus increasing the likelihood they will be unsuccessful and reinforcing the anxiety cycle. Looking at your child’s study patterns can help narrow down what may be happening that is contributing to the anxiety.
What can you do as a parent? If study skills are a problem, the solution is to teach them new study skills. The internet is filled with information on teaching study skills to students who don't have them, and your school may offering services to help with this skill.
Does your child believe they won’t succeed?
Some children may have excellent study skills, thus pointing to a different cause of their anxiety, such as the belief that they will be unsuccessful or cannot be successful. We call this negative self appraisal. It is based on a cognitive misconception, or the tendency to predict that things will go wrong, when there is no reason to think that. This becomes a vicious cycle and a self fulfilling prophecy.
If appraisal or belief about their ability to succeed is the issue, they need help adjusting their self limiting beliefs. It is likely that in this case, your child may need the help of a professional therapist to challenge and examine the beliefs that are driving the anxiety.
What can you do as a parent? To explore this on your own, you can ask your child a serious of questions to get to the core of the beliefs they have, and attempt to find ways to disprove or challenge those beliefs so they can see how their thinking is what’s responsible for their anxiety.