Blog posts

Exams and your anxious child

 

Exam time is upon us. As soon as the Easter holidays are in sight, a small cloud of fear rises from the pit of my stomach. It still happens now and I’m nearly 40! I absolutely hated exams when I was younger. I worked so hard throughout the year and it all came down to one day (a few hours in fact) sitting in a silent, wood-panelled hall. I would revise right up until the second I sat down, going over and over different rhymes, mnemonics and lists to aid my memory. Then I would experience it all…the feeling of panic and dread, sweaty palms, head rushes and possibly the worst feeling of all; a completely blank mind. This didn’t happen every time, but more often than not I would be in a state of terror for at least the first few minutes of the exam before I calmed myself down, usually by talking to myself.

 

Fortunately, the pressure of exams didn’t really start for me until my mock GCSEs. I got to the age of 14 relatively unscathed. In our modern education system however, the burden of tests and exams can start as early as 4 years old! One of my saving graces (apart from my amazingly support family) was a Maths teacher who taught me how to meditate. She taught me how to visualise a safe, tranquil place and to control my breathing. I would repeat the techniques she taught us in lessons every night before I went to bed and I became hooked! The exercises were so simple yet so effective. They calmed my anxious mind during an extremely stressful time.

 

Working for the last decade as a teacher in both primary and secondary schools, has made me detest exams as much as I always did. I would empathise with those children who were fantastic in class and could formulate answers and work through problems, but would then fall to pieces during tests. Or those children who couldn’t work against the clock. They just needed more time to process the questions. Or those children who didn’t have good memories. They had revised and revised but still managed to struggle and ‘fail’ because they just couldn’t quite remember the facts when they needed to. It all seems so unfair! Currently, there are more changes in the pipeline for our school-aged children, none of which seem to be dealing with the intense pressure from early testing. So for the moment, our only option is support our children who may be feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

 

Here are some of my top tips for dealing with an anxious child:

 

  1. Just listen.

    Before you jump in and try to solve all of the problems, or worse, deny that there is a problem, just sit and listen to your child. Really listen and find out what they are worried about. Is it because they don’t understand the subject, or they are worried about their memory or they can’t talk to their teacher? By listening sympathetically, you will be able to pinpoint their main cause of worry and name it. Children can then begin to feel like they have ownership over their own thoughts and actions if they can name the reason they are feeling the way they do.

     

  2. Reassuring your child doesn’t always help.

    Telling your child “There’s nothing to worry about. You’ll be fine,” doesn’t usually help and there is a scientific reason for this. Your anxious child desperately wants to believe you, but their brain won’t let them.  During periods of angst or extreme worry, your child’s amygdala is triggered and puts it into a flight, fight or freeze mode. One by-product is that the prefrontal cortex — or more logical part of the brain — gets put on hold while the more automated emotional brain (amygdala) takes over. In other words, it is really hard for your child to think clearly, make reasoned decisions or even remember basic facts. Instead of reassuring your child, empathise. Tell them that you understand that exams and tests can be extremely nerve-wracking and you will be there to support them through it.

     

  3. Work on different calming strategies.

    There are a multitude of different exercises out there to help your anxious child and you can work together to find a few that really work for them. For example, you could try controlled breathing techniques as simple as inhaling for 4 counts and exhaling for 7. Counting backwards from 10 can help just before a test or an exam. Asking your child to visualise their favourite, safe place can also help, particularly if they struggle sleeping. Talk this through with them and ask them to describe things in detail. What are the colours like, the smells, the textures? The more detail they provide, the more vivid the picture will be when they try to visualise it when they are feeling anxious. Ask them to create their own personal affirmation they can repeat to themselves when they are in a stressful situation. For example, it could be “I can do this!” or “I feel calm and focussed.” The more they repeat the positive statement, the more their brain will ‘believe’ the statement and begin to embody it.

     

  4. Worrying is normal.

    Remind your child that everyone worries at one point or another. Worrying is a coping mechanism and is useful for short bursts of time. However, we cannot let our anxiousness get out of control because it will then have a detrimental effect on our ability to learn, play and rest. More often than not, your child can’t control the situation they are in, but they can control their reaction to it.

     

  5. Our thoughts are just that…thoughts.

    By using mindfulness techniques, children can understand that their thoughts are not facts. If they think ‘I am going to fail my SATs’, they need to be reminded that that is just a thought in their head and it’s not a fact. One exercise I do when working with anxious children is ask them to imagine that their thoughts are leaves falling from a tree as they sit in their treehouse. In their mind’s eye, they watch their thought-leaves, gently fall from the trees. They don’t judge the thoughts or try to catch them, they just notice and observe and let them float gently down towards the ground.  

     

  6. Focus on the ‘now’.

    Focussing on the past or the future can actually exacerbate anxiety. Research shows that coming back to the present can help alleviate this tendency. One effective method of doing this is to practice mindfulness exercises. Ask your child to focus on one thing at a time; it could be their breathing, a piece of art-work, a sound or eating a piece of fruit whilst noticing the taste and smell sensations. This helps focus their attention and calm their mind.

     

  7. Create a list.

    You and your child can work together to produce a list of strategies to help when your child is feeling particularly anxious. This could be a physical list that they keep in their backpack or pocket. Sometimes just knowing that it’s there will help alleviate some stress. Alternatively, a mental list for older children can be equally helpful. Talk about it and discuss the list in a matter-of-fact way. After a day at school, ask if they used any of the strategies. Did they work? If not, then work together to find another strategy that does. Keep the list alive so eventually it becomes embedded in your child’s memory and using the calming techniques become second nature to them.

     

  8. Remind them of your unconditional love.

 

0 Comments

Interview with Village Life

We recently sat down with Paul from Village Life who has launched a new online newspaper focusing on positive news from the surrounding villages in South Tyneside. Check out his website www.villagelife.co

Read More 2 Comments

Blog: Have a mindful Christmas.

 

Christmas is such a wonderful season; the food, the family bonding, exchanging gifts, the parties. But it can also be extremely hectic and stressful with a never ending to-do list! Families can often become overwhelmed and by the time the 25th of December eventually arrives, everyone is worn out and even, dare I say it, a little jaded by the whole festive spirit! Everything leads up to those brief 24 hours, and then within the blink of an eye, it’s finished. Over for another year. It is important for you to put some time aside to be still, quiet and collect your thoughts. This will re-charge your batteries and give you that extra ‘oomph’ to enjoy the festivities. I’m sure we all want to have some energy to actually celebrate with our friends and families!

Read More 0 Comments

Exams and your anxious child

 

Exam time is upon us. As soon as the Easter holidays are in sight, a small cloud of fear rises from the pit of my stomach. It still happens now and I’m nearly 40! I absolutely hated exams when I was younger. I worked so hard throughout the year and it all came down to one day (a few hours in fact) sitting in a silent, wood-panelled hall. I would revise right up until the second I sat down, going over and over different rhymes, mnemonics and lists to aid my memory. Then I would experience it all…the feeling of panic and dread, sweaty palms, head rushes and possibly the worst feeling of all; a completely blank mind. This didn’t happen every time, but more often than not I would be in a state of terror for at least the first few minutes of the exam before I calmed myself down, usually by talking to myself.

 

Fortunately, the pressure of exams didn’t really start for me until my mock GCSEs. I got to the age of 14 relatively unscathed. In our modern education system however, the burden of tests and exams can start as early as 4 years old! One of my saving graces (apart from my amazingly support family) was a Maths teacher who taught me how to meditate. She taught me how to visualise a safe, tranquil place and to control my breathing. I would repeat the techniques she taught us in lessons every night before I went to bed and I became hooked! The exercises were so simple yet so effective. They calmed my anxious mind during an extremely stressful time.

 

Working for the last decade as a teacher in both primary and secondary schools, has made me detest exams as much as I always did. I would empathise with those children who were fantastic in class and could formulate answers and work through problems, but would then fall to pieces during tests. Or those children who couldn’t work against the clock. They just needed more time to process the questions. Or those children who didn’t have good memories. They had revised and revised but still managed to struggle and ‘fail’ because they just couldn’t quite remember the facts when they needed to. It all seems so unfair! Currently, there are more changes in the pipeline for our school-aged children, none of which seem to be dealing with the intense pressure from early testing. So for the moment, our only option is support our children who may be feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

 

Here are some of my top tips for dealing with an anxious child:

 

  1. Just listen.

    Before you jump in and try to solve all of the problems, or worse, deny that there is a problem, just sit and listen to your child. Really listen and find out what they are worried about. Is it because they don’t understand the subject, or they are worried about their memory or they can’t talk to their teacher? By listening sympathetically, you will be able to pinpoint their main cause of worry and name it. Children can then begin to feel like they have ownership over their own thoughts and actions if they can name the reason they are feeling the way they do.

     

  2. Reassuring your child doesn’t always help.

    Telling your child “There’s nothing to worry about. You’ll be fine,” doesn’t usually help and there is a scientific reason for this. Your anxious child desperately wants to believe you, but their brain won’t let them.  During periods of angst or extreme worry, your child’s amygdala is triggered and puts it into a flight, fight or freeze mode. One by-product is that the prefrontal cortex — or more logical part of the brain — gets put on hold while the more automated emotional brain (amygdala) takes over. In other words, it is really hard for your child to think clearly, make reasoned decisions or even remember basic facts. Instead of reassuring your child, empathise. Tell them that you understand that exams and tests can be extremely nerve-wracking and you will be there to support them through it.

     

  3. Work on different calming strategies.

    There are a multitude of different exercises out there to help your anxious child and you can work together to find a few that really work for them. For example, you could try controlled breathing techniques as simple as inhaling for 4 counts and exhaling for 7. Counting backwards from 10 can help just before a test or an exam. Asking your child to visualise their favourite, safe place can also help, particularly if they struggle sleeping. Talk this through with them and ask them to describe things in detail. What are the colours like, the smells, the textures? The more detail they provide, the more vivid the picture will be when they try to visualise it when they are feeling anxious. Ask them to create their own personal affirmation they can repeat to themselves when they are in a stressful situation. For example, it could be “I can do this!” or “I feel calm and focussed.” The more they repeat the positive statement, the more their brain will ‘believe’ the statement and begin to embody it.

     

  4. Worrying is normal.

    Remind your child that everyone worries at one point or another. Worrying is a coping mechanism and is useful for short bursts of time. However, we cannot let our anxiousness get out of control because it will then have a detrimental effect on our ability to learn, play and rest. More often than not, your child can’t control the situation they are in, but they can control their reaction to it.

     

  5. Our thoughts are just that…thoughts.

    By using mindfulness techniques, children can understand that their thoughts are not facts. If they think ‘I am going to fail my SATs’, they need to be reminded that that is just a thought in their head and it’s not a fact. One exercise I do when working with anxious children is ask them to imagine that their thoughts are leaves falling from a tree as they sit in their treehouse. In their mind’s eye, they watch their thought-leaves, gently fall from the trees. They don’t judge the thoughts or try to catch them, they just notice and observe and let them float gently down towards the ground.  

     

  6. Focus on the ‘now’.

    Focussing on the past or the future can actually exacerbate anxiety. Research shows that coming back to the present can help alleviate this tendency. One effective method of doing this is to practice mindfulness exercises. Ask your child to focus on one thing at a time; it could be their breathing, a piece of art-work, a sound or eating a piece of fruit whilst noticing the taste and smell sensations. This helps focus their attention and calm their mind.

     

  7. Create a list.

    You and your child can work together to produce a list of strategies to help when your child is feeling particularly anxious. This could be a physical list that they keep in their backpack or pocket. Sometimes just knowing that it’s there will help alleviate some stress. Alternatively, a mental list for older children can be equally helpful. Talk about it and discuss the list in a matter-of-fact way. After a day at school, ask if they used any of the strategies. Did they work? If not, then work together to find another strategy that does. Keep the list alive so eventually it becomes embedded in your child’s memory and using the calming techniques become second nature to them.

     

  8. Remind them of your unconditional love.

 

0 Comments

Interview with Village Life

We recently sat down with Paul from Village Life who has launched a new online newspaper focusing on positive news from the surrounding villages in South Tyneside. Check out his website www.villagelife.co

2 Comments

Blog: Have a mindful Christmas.

 

Christmas is such a wonderful season; the food, the family bonding, exchanging gifts, the parties. But it can also be extremely hectic and stressful with a never ending to-do list! Families can often become overwhelmed and by the time the 25th of December eventually arrives, everyone is worn out and even, dare I say it, a little jaded by the whole festive spirit! Everything leads up to those brief 24 hours, and then within the blink of an eye, it’s finished. Over for another year. It is important for you to put some time aside to be still, quiet and collect your thoughts. This will re-charge your batteries and give you that extra ‘oomph’ to enjoy the festivities. I’m sure we all want to have some energy to actually celebrate with our friends and families!

 

I teach mindfulness, yoga and relaxation techniques to children, but even they can become anxious and worried during Christmas. Is the ‘Elf on the Shelf’ watching them? Have they been good enough to receive the presents they want?  Will they be on Santa’s naughty or nice list? This can all sound trivial but to a child, it is very important. We sometimes don’t think about their perspective during Christmas and if they don’t (or can’t) verbalise how they are feeling, then it is easy for us to either dismiss our children’s anxieties or not even notice that they are struggling a little. The modern trend for excess can engulf families and this trickles down to children. Their little bodies and minds deal with some intense things during this season, for example excitement, anxiety, hyper-activity, tiredness, extra sugar etc. This is why it is important, as a family, just to take some time to relax and enjoy your time together.

 

Here are 10 easy ways to really enjoy the lead up to Christmas, as well as the big day itself:

 

  1. Go for a walk as a family.

    Walking is a brilliant stress reliever and it’s free! A relaxing walk can soothe frayed nerves and you may be surprised at the conversation you have with your children, uninterrupted by smartphones and iPads. It’s amazing how just 15-20 minutes of walking together can really boost everyone’s mood.

     

  2. Breathing.

    This is one of the easiest yet most powerful ways to alleviate anxiety. This one-minute exercise activates the parasympathetic nervous system which helps you relax, by lowering your heart rate and blood pressure. The important thing to remember is to keep your exhales longer than your inhales and then your body will begin to rest. To do this exercise close your eyes and take a deep breath through your nose for a count of 3 and then exhale through your mouth for a count of 5. Focus on your breath and repeat for 60 seconds. If your mind wanders, which it invariably will, just gently guide it back to your breathing. This exercise really calms down children too and is an easy stress-relieving tool to remember.

     

  3. Take a heart-warming lesson from the Danes and indulge in some ‘hygge’.

    ‘Hygge’ loosely translates as ‘cosiness’ and what better way to enjoy the winter than putting on some toasty socks, lighting some candles and snuggling up to watch a Christmas film. Hygge is all about spending quality time with friends and family, in a warm, relaxed environment. It’s not about formality or perfection, but it is centred on wellbeing, during these darker months.

     

  4. Just say no.

    We say ‘yes’ to too many things and even more so over the Christmas period. There is a tendency to pack our diaries full to the gunnels. Sometimes we do this because we want to but more often than not, we do it because we feel obliged, guilty or pressured into it. So maybe this year, think about saying ‘no’ to a few things. Don’t put yourself or your family under too much pressure. Do your schedules need to be packed out with event after event? Children (and adults) can easily become overstimulated and worn out, if they are constantly on the go. Sometimes saying no can be a relief!

     

  5. Give to give, not to receive.

    Christmas these days seems to be more about the receiving rather than the giving.

    We are bombarded with adverts for toys, clothes, perfumes etc. and images on social media of Christmas trees swamped with presents. Is this really the message we want to be sending to our children, one of self-absorption, excess and greed? Spending a little time during Christmas by helping others can be beneficial in a number of ways. In fact, new studies attest to the benefits of giving—not just for the recipients but for the givers’ health and happiness and for the strength of entire communities. Buy some extra items for a food bank, ask your children to select some old toys to give to charity or help out an elderly neighbour. I guarantee, this will warm your heart and be an excellent lesson in ‘giving’.

     

  6. Excess baggage.

    We’re all guilty of a little excess when it comes to Christmas, whether it is food, alcohol or sweets for the children. The key to mindful eating (and drinking) is to slow down and fully engage all the senses and what better time to do this than now! The smell of mulled wine, the taste of rich chocolate, the sweetness of clementines and pomegranates are all comforting reminders of the season. By mindfully savouring these treats we will not only enjoy them more fully, but we will also be less likely to overindulge and then punish ourselves in the New Year for those few extra pounds.

     

  7. Look after yourselves.

    It’s important to eat well, exercise and stay hydrated to avoid being hit by the seasonal colds, flu and sickness bugs. School-aged children are particularly susceptible because germs spread wild and free in Christmas classrooms. Teach your children to ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’ by sneezing into tissues, throwing them away and then washing their hands. Simple hygiene rules even for very young children can help prevent germs spreading throughout your family.

     

  8. Have realistic expectations.

    Media images distort our expectations of the perfect Christmas. Remember, people generally only show their highlight reel on Instagram and Facebook, so don’t worry if things in your house go wrong this Christmas. So what if the turkey is a bit burnt or you all can’t agree on which festive TV programme to watch or you forget to press record on the video for those Christmas morning expressions. Give yourself a break and relax a little.

     

  9. Instead of multi-tasking, try solo-tasking.

    For years there has been the good-humoured debate over whether men can multi-task as well as women. Well, I think it is now time for solo-tasking. This is a case of doing less, to do more. Don’t try to juggle too much when preparing for the big day. When we really focus on one task and see it through to the end (even if it is just peeling the potatoes or wrapping those presents), we get immense satisfaction from crossing it off our list. If we start a number of jobs at once and go to bed with many of them unfinished, the stress and anxiety can kick in.

     

  10. The gift of listening.

    Finally, one simple gift you can give your family this Christmas is the gift of listening. I have used a number of techniques with children to demonstrate mindful listening and the one thing they have all said is that they love being heard. Everyone is so busy that it is easy to pretend you are listening whilst making a cup of tea or scrolling through your phone but to give someone your undivided attention, without interrupting, can be really powerful. Your family will love how important it makes them feel and this simple action can really strengthen bonds during what can be, quite a fraught time.

 

Wishing you all a very merry Christmas and a peaceful New Year!

 

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The Tranquil Treehouse® | Tuolumne, 231 King George Road, South Shields, Tyne and Wear | NE34 8PP

Email: hello@thetranquiltreehouse.com

Website: www.thetranquiltreehouse.com