Austin Tucker, MSW, Middle School Counselor

Anxiety in Middle School

It’s not called “middle” school for nothing–this is a big time of transition. And although many of the changes taking place are positive and exciting, they can also increase anxiety, even for students who haven’t experienced it before. The good news: it’s not uncommon. More good news: there are ways to help, in school and at home.

First, I’ll say this: a certain amount of anxiety isn’t just developmentally appropriate, it’s useful. It tells our brains that something needs our attention and awareness. Most of us need a little bit of worry to know what’s expected of us and what needs to get done, making it the ideal time to learn or practice a new skill because we’re alert and focused. But too much anxiety makes us feel overwhelmed, and interferes with our ability to take in information and act on it appropriately.

What Contributes to Anxiety in Middle School?

Understanding what contributes to anxiety, and what it can look like, helps us address it. There are three key things that combine to create additional anxiety in the middle school years:

  • issues of self-identity
  • increased workload
  • onset of puberty

Middle School is a time when we start figuring out who we are as people independent of our parents and other adults, and how we want to present ourselves to others as we move through the world. We become drawn to peers based less on convenience and proximity and more based on interests and personalities, and socializing becomes a little more stressful and complicated as everyone else is also trying to find their place. This emphasis on belonging and acceptance creates greater self-consciousness . . .all while questioning who that self even is!

At the same time that social emotional pressures are mounting, so is the academic workload. Middle Schoolers are now getting letter grades, and expectations rise in anticipation of high school. Assignments come more regularly, and there are more of them. It’s a lot to manage, and it can be easy to get overwhelmed.

Add to this hormones and puberty, and all bets are off! We’re just not able to regulate in ways we’ve gotten used to; things that worked for us in the past go by the wayside and we’re forced to find new coping skills. And with physical changes, we inevitably compare ourselves: will I be accepted for how I look? Am I too short? Too tall? It’s all out of our control.

How does Anxiety Manifest in Middle School?

Anxiety at this age manifests in many different ways. And then there are kids who internalize it all so you’d never know they were anxious unless you talked to them or their parents. Nail biting and fidgeting are among the more classic signs of anxiety, but there are plenty of less conventional presentations, as well. The child blurting out in class may be dealing with excess anxious energy and having a hard time regulating as a result. Someone anxious about looking like they don’t know as much as others do may cover for this by raising their hand repeatedly whether they have the answer or not. Kids who are anxious often turn to undesirable behaviors or play the role of class clown as a way of diverting attention away from the thing that’s causing them discomfort and stress; others develop avoidance strategies, like visiting the nurse during a challenging class, with hopes they don’t have to deal with it at all.

At McLean School, we know that anxiety looks different for everyone and we’ve pretty much seen it all. Our goal as educators goes beyond identifying and understanding anxious behaviors to helping our students connect their own dots–to begin to understand what causes them anxiety and why, and build the skills to manage it. Everything we do is designed to create a safe space for that to happen, from our school-wide integrated Mindfulness Program to other social-emotional education at all grade levels, to our focus on building authentic, trusted relationships. We also work very collaboratively with one another, across departments and divisions, to share ideas and also ensure that we’re all on the same page. We do this in support of individuals, but also in support of our School as a whole, for example: how can we talk about grades in a way that helps students understand that a B isn’t the end of the world?

How do you help Middle Schoolers with Anxiety?

Here are just a few important things to consider when it comes to helping Middle Schoolers with anxiety:

Real-time interventions that shift focus from mind to body can calm the nervous system and help students feel less anxious. A grounding exercise that brings attention to the senses works wonders with students in an anxious moment. For example, asking them to identify 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell, 1 thing they can taste.

The help of an outside professional ensures that your child is getting one-on-one, focused support to supplement what we’re able to do during the day in a school full of students. This is made all the more effective when we are able to collaborate with outside counselors to provide wrap-around, consistent support.

Good communication between school and home is critical. Often we see things that families don’t, or parents will tell us what’s happening at home and we observe something very different–children often share different sides of themselves depending on the setting. But regardless, if there are strategies being used in therapy or home, it’s especially effective if we’re able to reinforce those concepts here at school. The more students hear consistent messages from caring adults in different areas of their lives, the better.

Positive relationships are key. At McLean, the Counselors work closely with faculty and staff to support all our students–and being a small school, we have the luxury of being able to really get to know them. So if we learn that someone is feeling super anxious about one particular class or a social dynamic, for example, we’re not only able to make each other aware about it in a timely way, but we’re able to problem-solve together.

I encourage parents who are concerned their child may be feeling anxious to start by speaking openly with them about it. The more families are able to have candid conversations about anxiety, the more it normalizes the issue and opens up the lines of communication. Be willing to talk about strategies like mindfulness and deep breathing, and know that we are always a resource. We can’t prevent anxiety–it’s part of life–but what we can do is raise our awareness of what it is and why it happens, as well as how to help when it does.

If you’d like to learn more about McLean’s approach to supporting students in the Middle School years, please feel free to connect with our Admission Office.

Austin Tucker, MSW, Middle School Counselor