How Not To Get A Stressed Out Teen Ready For High School: Tell Them They Need To Be Ready

Apparently the 8th grade teacher thought that by crumpling the student’s essay and then tossing it into the trash, he was effectively making the point that the student needed to be “better prepared for high school.” At least this is what he told the student as he made the histrionic gesture, and later the parent when she questioned his methods.

“He is ready, he’s here,” replied the parent.

That the child had suffered a deeply traumatic event earlier in his life was not unknown to the teacher however, unless a teacher (or any professional in a child’s life) has worked to become trauma informed, the dots between the trauma and the impact of elusive futuristic warnings are typically left unconnected.

Regardless, with or without a history of trauma, treating current school issues with old world solutions is counterproductive at best and harmful at worst. Shrouding the future in a cloak of potential failure has never been a particularly wise or healthy tactic however, given that nearly 35 million children have experienced trauma and/or adverse childhood experiences, it’s even more important to recognize why educators and parents need to be more cognizant of their language.

The NYTimes recently published a comprehensive look into the spike in teenage anxiety: The Kids Who Can’t,”

One of the more notable comments to the article came from a high school junior from Brookline, Massachusetts named Natalie Jew:

If high school is about educating students for a future life, then why is it causing such anxiety that there is an increasing number of hospital admissions for teenage suicide attempts? Why do we have to think about our adult life every day as a teenager? I’m a junior in high school, and sometimes I forget that I’m supposed to have a life as a teenager. I can’t sleep at night; all I do is stay up thinking and planning. Why are more American teenagers than ever suffering from severe anxiety? It’s because we get it into our heads that school is what’s going to make things better; we live for the future instead of actually just living.

Ms. Jew’s response builds on what the parent in that 8th grade classroom meant when she said “he is ready, he’s here.”

By simply being there; by showing up and engaging in class, that student is showing more “readiness” for his future than is the student who fervently stresses till the wee hours each night in an attempt to hand in the perfect paper.

Vague warnings about future success, particularly when kids are just in middle school, does little to nothing to build internal incentive. And for the student it does “work” for – in the form of high grades and teacher’s praise – it often comes at the expense of that student’s ability to relax.

For kids who have suffered adverse childhood experiences or trauma, such warnings can be especially unsettling.

A traumatic or highly stressful experience puts kids on high alert for months or years after the event. Rather than being a safe and exciting place through which to journey, the “unknown” becomes a place of potential harm. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shootings, a number of students in Newtown, CT. were afraid to venture far from home. A colleague’s son won’t go to go to church because of the Sutherland Springs, Texas church shootings. My son, who struggled with anxiety after suffering a traumatic accident as a first grader in 2004, reflects on his memories of warnings about standardized tests or being ready for future grades as useless and oftentimes downright “scary.” He did what many victims of trauma do: he shut down, lost motivation and internalized the anxiety. Alternatively, others may become hyper focused on staying ahead of the game which can outwardly look like “success” but inwardly leads to issues such as sleep deprivation, self-harm, and/or substance abuse.

Stressed kids spend an inordinate amount of time in their heads; disconnected from grounding and helpful sensations such as deep breathing and body awareness. Add to this a recurring message from adults that a nonexistent tomorrow matters more than today and you have the perfect recipe for crippling angst.

This is not to say that educators shouldn’t constructively prepare kids for the future. If a student hopes to go to go on to a certain career or favorite college, of course they need to learn what steps to take to get there successfully. Re-framing the conversation from cryptic threats to more compassionate and present focused guidance that takes into account that student's unique story can more effectively prepare a child for an actual rather than a perceived and thus anxiety provoking future.

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