Program focuses on stressed students at Patton

Tearful parents express their own stress factors during PTO presentation

By Karen Cresta, Correspondent, The Times

PattonLogoFullEAST MARLBOROUGH – While many adults are feeling stressed in this era of information and schedule overload, kids, especially middle school students, may be feeling it even more.

Charles F. Patton Middle School’s (CFPMS) Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) hosted a special presentation on Thursday as part of the Unionville Chadds Ford School District (UCFSD) Board of Education’s goal for 2014-2015.  As part of this goal, a Wellness Committee was formed to develop an action plan to raise awareness about student health issues.  One of the mental health topics of interest identified was stress and anxiety in middle school- aged children. 

“Because of our district focus on student wellness and what research tells us about the needs of middle school-aged children, the PTO and Patton Middle School became interested in the idea of bringing in experts on the topic to speak to our parents to help them identify and assist their children with stressors in their adolescent’s lives. We were very excited to be able to call on a community partner in Crozier Brinton Lake to be able to help,” Tim Hoffman, Principal of CFPMS, said in a prior statement.

Lisa Moore, a licensed social worker from Crozier Health System, challenged each parent in attendance to voice his/her own top stress factors as an exposure exercise to think out loud and externalize stress issues.  Many tearful parents expressed the stressors of busy schedules and the challenges of being able to balance it all, keeping children on the right path, peer pressure and social media’s effect on their children.  Another major contributing factor among the parents’ concerns was the different capabilities of each child to find the words and to be open with them.

Along with the tearful sharing of emotions was applause from the audience of parents when the topic of too much focus being placed on academic excellence and not enough on wellness was mentioned.  Many parents were in agreement that every teacher also needed to hear this concern and help to bridge the gap.

Hoffman expressed his opinion on why stress is especially concerning from sixth to eighth grade. He stated, “Middle school is a time of exploration. The academic rigors and accountability increase as after school commitments and interests begin to expand. Stress and anxiety can also increase with these demands on time and academic performance. Additionally, there are internal pressures many middle school students feel in trying to find their identity and belonging in their social circles and families. It can be a very difficult time for students as they navigate a myriad of physical, mental, and social-emotional changes.”

Moore’s presentation consisted of the four steps to learning about anxiety. The first step is identifying anxiety and how it is a normal feeling in life to prepare us for real danger. The second step is learning to relax to counteract physical trauma such as quick breathing and muscle tension. The third step is challenging scary thoughts that are overly negative and unrealistic. The fourth step is facing fears by managing situations or places that cause anxiety.

According to Moore, anxiety is the normal feeling that is triggered with stressors. A triggering event can be real or imagined but stressful events will develop a sense of anxiety. Children need to understand what is happening to them when they experience anxiety.

“A lot of what you are experiencing is normal. It happens day in and day out. It goes without saying that you may think you’re the only one who has these thoughts and concerns but that is just not the case. When you have anxiety, it is your body’s natural way of saying to you, here’s an opportunity for me to do something different,” Moore stated.

“The way that your mind processes it is important with the feeling of anxiety. It only becomes a problem when it stops you and your children from carrying out normal activities in your day to day lives. The goal is that you want to get your kids to really understand anxiety as a part of everyone’s existence,” Moore added.

Moore reassured the parents to tell their kids, “It’s okay to be anxious. It’s okay to feel anxious and to feel pressure. It’s real. It may not feel good to be anxious; however, you are going to be anxious and you will be supported.”

Moore discussed the resolution that parents can help kids recognize the feeling of anxiety, what kind of thoughts and fears go with it, and tell them it is not a permanent phase in life. Parents can provide constant reassurance and validation of feelings. Parents can teach their children how to relax with calm breathing techniques and develop rituals at home. Parents can be role models in how they handle stress in a positive way and to teach children how to see things clearly and fairly and not to focus on the negativity.

The presentation also covered how parents can redirect children’s anxiety-driven thoughts by channeling them to more positive ones. Children can be taught how to handle anxious feelings by dealing with them when they happen instead of avoiding them. Avoidance is a main symptom of anxiety. Thoughts can be channeled so they don’t get caught in bad thinking traps such as anticipating failure, over generalizing, over exaggerating, labeling or focusing on the catastrophic. The negative thoughts can begin to be filtered into focusing on the positive.

Moore added, “There are more things that you can influence than there are that you can’t so that you are able to help kids to understand. Children can influence themselves to do better at coping.  That goes a long way.”

“Have realistic goals for kids. Have them make a top ten list of fears. Have them know themselves. Recognize what reasonable fears are for them and crazy fears and gauge them,” Moore continued.

Moore provided a handout explaining the steps of anxiety covered in her presentation, a thermometer to gauge the level of anxiety, and a few interactive worksheets.

Moore reminded parents, “Your approach is going to be everything.  They may be in this phase where you know nothing so you’ve got to be crafty in knowing your child’s temperament and get in there when the child will be receptive.”

“The takeaway would be to recognize those main triggers of anxiety, those feelings, those thoughts and those behaviors,” Moore concluded.

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