Reassuring a Worrier
Q | I have a third grader who worries about everything. After a lesson on weather, she became convinced a tornado would destroy our town. What can I do to help her?
A | The natural tendency is to try to alleviate the distress as quickly as possible. You may find yourself repeatedly reassuring your student about weather reports, her health, and so on. But as you get pulled into this pattern, you’ll find that her worries will actually worsen as you increase your efforts to convince her otherwise. So what should you do instead?
Take a two-step approach: 1) Answer any question she may have about bad weather, the date of the next test, etc. 2) Resist the urge to engage with her further. The more you try to convince her, the worse her worrying will get. And repeatedly reassuring her takes time away from your other students. Gently let her know that you’ve already answered her and it is time to get back to work.
If she continues to worry, check in with her caregivers. Your student may be experiencing clinically significant anxiety, and may need further evaluation and treatment. If your student is already in treatment, perhaps you can get some tips from her family on how to use similar strategies in the classroom.
Responding to Grief
Q | One of my second graders recently experienced the death of an uncle. Now he seems withdrawn and doesn’t want to engage with his peers. How can I help?
A | Grief is affected by many factors. For kids, one of these factors is their understanding of death—its cause and its permanence. How close they were with the deceased and how their caregivers are coping also influence how they adjust. It’s not uncommon to see a child withdraw from activities and friends. Some kids misbehave more. These reactions are typical within the first year. Only a small percentage of children experience clinically significant psychiatric problems following a death.
Because your student’s loss was recent, it sounds like he is having a typical reaction to the death of a loved one. That said, there are steps you can take to support him. Good parent-child communication and maintenance of positive routines are key protective factors in the grieving process at home. In the classroom, anything you can do to express warmth to your student while keeping him involved in classroom routines will benefit him. Communicate your efforts to fellow teachers and school personnel to maximize a consistent response from the adults with whom the student interacts at school.
Question for Dr. Fernandez?
Melanie A. Fernandez, Ph.D., ABPP, is board certified in clinical child and adolescent psychology and is director of the Parent-Child Interaction Therapy Program at the Child Mind Institute.