Anxiety During the Middle School Years
With the rise of anxiety skyrocketing during the middle school years, parents and educators alike eagerly seek options to bring calm in the midst of these seemingly chaotic years. Parents search for ways to lighten the load for their pre-teen children while schools no longer focus on just reading, writing and arithmetic but incorporate teaching social and emotional skills. With research showing anxiety as the leading mental health issue in American youth, the need for solutions remains crucial.
As a mom of four, I watched firsthand three of my own children struggle with anxiety during their middle school years. The months my daughter would not get out of bed due to the “morning stomach aches” proved excruciating as a parent. As a 6th grade teacher, I often observed the stress in my students’ faces. I heard the stories of cruelty amongst students, traumatic events at home and no outlet for dealing with the pressure. I began to search for relief. How could I lessen fears and make this time in their lives more of a blessing rather than a curse? Realistically, I knew there was no “one, two, three and ta-da” all is well. Off I went on my quest to smiling, laughing 11, 12 and 13-year-olds.
As I scoured numerous books and new articles on pre-teens with anxiety, the term mindfulness popped up repeatedly. It was time to see exactly what this mindfulness trend meant and what it could actually do.
Mindfulness: Maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future. (1)
The light bulb went off. This made complete sense and not just for my students, but for me as well. How often I found myself mourning my own past mistakes, wishing them away, instead of focusing on the present and what I could now accomplish. Wouldn’t these young brains feel the weight of their own mistakes ten-fold?
Teaching Middle School Mindfulness
Speaking with a successful adolescent therapist in our community, she recommended, using a meditation app like Headspace or Calm. Implementing the meditation technique into my own morning routine, I quickly realized the benefit of time spent in developing this skill. The following week our opening activity became two minutes of a calm voice walking students through deep breathing and relaxation. The first day resulted in a few giggles and some questioning eyes peering up at me. Within the week, they quickly settled in for their first minutes of class, heads down, eyes closed… silence, beautiful sweet silence. As the weeks moved on, if I happened to move into the daily lesson without our quiet mediation, hands flew up and little voices called out, “Mrs. Davis, you forgot Headspace.” or “Can we do the ten minute one today?” A handful requested their parents buy the app for them as well. Success! Our children truly long for a peaceful calm without ever realizing the need. Their brains work overtime, rarely settling down for an undisturbed moment in the present. Thoughts slowed, breathing steady, heart rate reduced… mindfulness brings the much-needed calm in place of chaos.
This is another amazing coping technique for anxiety. This activity takes the child through the five senses. This practice will definitely be added to my curriculum this year for my students.
- FIVE things you see around you.
- FOUR things you can touch around you.
- THREE things you hear.
- TWO things you can smell.
- ONE thing you can taste.
Get to Coloring
There are so many cool coloring books and pens out there these days. Find them! And be sure to check out the research! “Coloring requires you to focus, but not so much that it’s stressful. It opens up your frontal lobe, which controls organizing and problem solving. This allows you to put everything else aside and live in the moment, generating focus and calm.” (2)
Find what they love. Tell them you’re taking them for a surprise. Leave the phone in the car! There is nothing more enticing than a good old-fashioned surprise like a trip for ice cream or a snow cone. Sit outside. Sit still. No questions. None needed. How about a trip to the new comic book store? Sit outside. Sit still. No questions. A trip to the library? Sit outside. Sit still. No questions. The park. A baseball game.
This seems to be a no brainer, but the battle is setting the boundaries. For the school year, we limited to weekends only. As long as you are firm and consistent, you will benefit AND your child’s teachers will thank you! “Digital daze” is quite real.
Continuing on this journey to find more to this mindfulness exercise, I remain committed to explore more practices that stimulate peace and calm for our children during these typically turbulent years. In the fast-paced and technological world in which we live, the need is great for space, stillness and tranquility.