11 Feb


We deal with stress every day – both in our professional and personal lives. Unlike adults, who can communicate about how stress impacts their lives, children and teens may not recognise or even have the words to describe how they’re feeling. Positive stress responses from events such as changing schools and meeting new friends can actually help our youngsters learn and grow. But when exposed to repeated stressful events without the tools to manage feelings around them, stress can become emotionally and physically toxic. Parents and teachers can watch for short-term behaviours and physical symptoms that manifest when stress becomes a problem.

“Anxiety is a combination of intrusive feelings, such as worry, rumination, fear and concern accompanied by physical sensations, such as increased heart rate, dizziness, sweating and gastrointestinal complaints,” explains counselling psychologist Sia Rees.

“The amygdala, which is the emotion centre of the brain, is the primitive survival centre for humans and is intrinsic to how we function when exposed to a life threat,” continues Sia. “When we are in danger the amygdala automatically activates a fight, flight or freeze response in us that kick- starts the release of stress hormones – giving the body the extra energy it needs in order to attain safety.” Adrenaline acquires the extra energy from the body by “stealing” it from less urgent bodily processes and functions such as digestion – which is often why anxious children complain of sore tummies – and frontal lobe processing.

Our frontal lobes are responsible for our higher order thinking such as reasoning and problem solving. “If a learner is experiencing test anxiety, for example, they will find the test more challenging as they won’t have full access to their frontal lobes needed to solve the problems in the test,” explains Sia.

A degree of stress is normal and can be a motivating force. “All learners have experienced the anxiety associated with deadlines. This encourages them to learn important life skills such as time management,” says Sia.

Common school stressors could include tests, assignments, performance, peer conflicts and challenging subjects. “Bullying can also trigger anxiety. Feeling unaccepted, disliked and like you ‘don’t fit in’ can cause learners to withdraw, which can perpetuate anxiety,” adds Sia.

As children enter high school, anxiety can also be provoked by relationship challenges. And towards the end of high school a major stressor is often where/what/when to study. “There is a culture of fear and uncertainty in our country, fear that some children won’t find work and be able to sustain themselves financially, fear as to the state of the country and fear for their safety. Children are brought up amidst these fears, and this can also trigger anxiety,” says Sia.

Anxiety in high school also stems from the marks that need to be achieved to get into tertiary education. “As a society, we are looking for a point of difference, something that sets us apart from others so that your version of success can be attained. I think this is heightened in a South African context, where there is pressure to get the best possible point of difference to set your learners apart in a South African and international context. This means that learners are trying to get into the best possible tertiary options, and this brings about a huge amount of anxiety to perform academically in high school,” says psychologist Bryce Dekker.

“To deal with anxiety in a positive manner, we have to reduce the anxiety around some of the key decisions that need to be made in the learners’ high school journey,” Bryce continues. “We want to endeavour to make the small decisions count by always asking whether we are playing towards the child’s strengths or not. In doing so, and supporting the key decision making with providing all the necessary information to make informed decisions, I think we can deal with the inevitable anxiety as proactively as possible.”

“Having and following a structure can significantly improve marks, and by implication reduce performance anxiety,” says Bryce. “I always remember Benjamin Franklin’s words: If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”

Therapy is sometimes stereotyped as being for children with “issues” or who are “crazy”. The reality is that our children are dealing with more than we ever did as children. “Today’s youth have exposure to more. They are growing up in a world that is busier, faster, smarter and more competitive. Many children don’t cope under this pressure. Giving them access to professional help can help them build grit, make necessary changes and attain a healthier balance in their lives,” says Sia.

Sia suggests schools should offer teachers training on caring for the anxious child. “Anxiety awareness campaigns to both children and parents have proved to normalise the emotions associated with anxiety, and offer coping strategies and tools. It is essential for parents and teachers to feel empowered in how they support the anxious child.”

Creating a culture of openness and support, teachers should consider healthy allowances for anxious children. “If they’re afraid of running the race, don’t let them skip the race but rather sit with them one-on-one, talk about the race, talk about their fears and of ways to alleviate those fears. Don’t underestimate a child’s capacity,” says Sia. “Encourage children to believe that they are not victims but survivors; that they are not worriers, but warriors. Validate feelings, understand challenges – but don’t let their anxiety rule.”



  • Have a structured, predictable environment.
  • Be mindful of situations where the anxious child will struggle and offer support beforehand.
  • Include children in problem solving. There are many allowances you can make for the anxious child, while still ensuring that they face the anxiety head on.
  • Focus on fun; offer free fun time with limited pressures and expectations.
  • Believe in them, see their strength and help them see it.



  • Make home a “safe place”. Structure and a healthy, predictable routine is vital.
  • Create spaces in your home where the only expectation is to have fun.
  • Get out! Nature is so important, teach children to slow down – creating awareness and mindfulness.
  • Be physical, encourage children to exercise before studying, releasing endorphins.
  • Don’t problem solve for them, rather encourage their own problem solving and offer support.
  • Offer praise and reward. Give them something to look forward to and something else to focus their attention on.


Test/exam anxiety

  • Preparation is key. Anxiety stems from feeling “out of control”.
  • Introduce study timetables at a young age, children process visual information better than they do verbal information.
  • Support with extra lessons if necessary.
  • Some high school children find past papers beneficial as they help them feel that the exam is more predictable and less unknown/frightening.
  • Encourage relaxation techniques the week/day before the exam, such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation exercises.
  • Practice mindfulness. Search online for mindfulness techniques or simply take your child out into the garden for half an hour and focus on breathing and being “in the moment”.
  • A good night’s rest is important, as is a good breakfast. Remember for the anxious child both of these things may be difficult. Don’t force them into a big meal, but encourage a smoothie or a fruit: something less heavy that’ll give them the boost they need.
  • Avoid pre-test/exam corridor hype. Encourage them not to discuss the upcoming paper with peers and rather sit quietly somewhere until the paper starts, or to chat with like-minded friends.



Sia Rees: Counselling Psychologist, Hillcrest, 083 777 1017 Bryce Dekker: Psychologist – Industrial, Kloof, 082 653 7637


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