Nicola Morgan

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Questions about anxiety #12: Will older students talk about worries as openly as younger ones?

I’m gradually getting through the questions you asked before the publication of No Worries! You are welcome to ask more at any time. You can either add them to that post or just email me for complete confidentiality.

Joanne asked:

I currently work with Primary School children and have seen a definite increase in anxiety over the past two years, the children are really open to talking about how they feel and respond really well to time to talk and strategies given. Next term I am moving onto Secondary school, will the children be just as open about their feelings now they are older.

The answer is simple: it depends.

Here’s what you can expect, based on some common differences that affects adolescents as opposed to younger children. But remember that how young people react and behave will depend on: their group/peers, the specific pressures they’re under, the atmosphere at school, what’s going on at home, stress levels, personalities, how approachable and helpful they believe their teachers to be. And of course, how they feel.

How and why secondary students might be different

  • More self-conscious – “everyone’s looking at me” can make it harder to open up.
  • More aware of “what people might think” – it really matters. So, if their friendship group/peers are talking openly, they are more likely to, and vice versa.
  • More difference between how boys/girls might express themselves – gender stereotypes, eg that “boys don’t cry”.
    • Note that boys more often feel and express sadness as anger – though both can feel/express as sadness or anger.
    • I’ve had school counsellors or wellbeing professionals tell me that boys are more often teased by their peers for going to talk about what’s on their mind with a teacher.
  • Bigger and darker emotions which can be hard to express (though they have better language skills than younger).
  • They are becoming independent, which might mean they are more reluctant to ask for help. But it can also help them know when would be good to ask for help and how to.
  • Greater knowledge of the terminology and issues around mental health – you might think this would only be beneficial but it’s not necessarily so. First, they are likely to have picked up a lot of mythology or exaggeration (eg from TikTok). Second, they may tend to self-diagnose inappropriately and then insist that this is what is wrong with them. Very often, their parents are a  big part of these misconceptions as very often parents want a diagnosis or label. Teachers and school leaders are telling me this a lot at the moment!

How you/we can make a difference

  1. Ensure that it is embedded in everyone’s understanding – students and adults – that negative emotions are not illnesses and that anxiety, sadness, anger, fear and dislike are common, natural, healthy and usually appropriate reactions to things going on around or inside us. We should not be anxious about anxiety.
  2. We need to learn the signs of illness so that we have a reasonable idea of when we or a young person are experiencing negative emotions on a scale and frequency and with an effect that are detrimental to success and enjoyment of life. But don’t go looking for this because most of it is within the range of ordinary human emotions. Put it like this: if you get a pain in your abdomen, it is not reasonable or useful immediately to think you have appendicitis. Only when the symptoms become those of appendicitis is it reasonable to think that it might be. And we remember that only a tiny proportion of abdominal pains become appendicitis.
  3. Foster acceptance of mental distress as legitimate, real and important. It is not something that happens to “weak” people. It might happen more often to sensitive people but sensitivity is good. Would you rather have a sensitive friend or an insensitive one?
    • Bottling something up and trying to be “strong” is not usually a good idea. Trying to be resilient is a good idea but that does not involve bottling up or pretending there’s no problem. Resilience involves acknowledging the challenge and finding ways to approach it.
  4. Do not accept gender stereotypes. To suffer is human. That’s all.
  5. Help students realise that a burden shared is a burden halved – and that most people want to help. But teach them how to share it with the right person. And the risks of sharing with the wrong person.
  6. Have clear and simple mechanisms for reporting a worry, anxiety or problem. Students must know:
    • Whom to talk to
    • How and when to talk
    • What to expect in terms of confidentiality – including those times when you would have to share with another adult
  7. Model openness and acceptance of your own experiences – but with caution: this should be done in the most general way, without going into specifics. If you are specific about your struggles a) it’s unhelpful because no two people experience the same so your specific experience can muddy the waters for them and b) you could trigger a new fear in a young person, whether in relation to themselves or someone they love. So, my advice is to be general, for example by saying “I often feel anxious and these are the sorts of things I sometimes feel and how I deal with them”. It’s really important to show that you have strategies and that you use them.

Remember, adolescence means “becoming adult” and these young people of secondary school age are doing just that. So they will heed what the other adults around them are doing. If they see trusted adults coping and talking and listening and growing, they will try to do the same.

It’s a big responsibility. But you didn’t become a teacher or parent without knowing that!

Don’t forget to take a look at No Worries – it’s written for young people and will really help them navigate through what’s OK and what’s not when it comes to feeling anxious or distressed.

Do think about buying the Gift for a Teenager – a great way for them to approach the new school year with confidence and the reassuring knowledge that you care about them. It contains personalised messages from me to them, based on what you tell me about them. Take a look!

Do comment but please remember that this site is for all ages.


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