It’s common for kids who struggle in school to experience stress and anxiety. But are stress and anxiety the same thing? Many people use the terms interchangeably. The fact is, though, that stress and anxiety—while related—are different. And understanding the difference can help you find the best ways to help your child.
Read on to learn more about the connection between stress and anxiety.
Stress and anxiety are closely related, but they’re not the same thing.
Stress is a natural response to a challenge. Changes in brain chemistry make our heart pump faster and our palms sweat as we get ready to act. Stress can:
Make us feel nervous, angry, and frustrated.
Have a positive effect. For example, it can “pump up” a child to study for a test.
Be overwhelming. Feeling stress every day for a long time can take a toll on your body and mind.
Anxiety is different. It’s a reaction to stress. It’s the feeling kids get when they don’t think they can handle the thing (or challenge) that’s putting pressure on them. That lack of control makes kids feel worried and afraid.
Here are some common aspects of anxiety:
An anxious feeling is often out of proportion to the real or imagined “threat” (for example, a child crying in terror because she’s afraid to enter a birthday party).
Anxious children may expect that something bad will happen and not believe they’ll be able to handle it. (That dog’s going to bite me and I’m going to die!)
“What if?” is a common phrase anxious kids say and think.
The bad feelings associated with anxiety can come from something specific, like
algebra. Or anxiety can be a more general sense of uneasiness that affects much of everyday life.
As with stress, all kids feel anxious from time to time. Here are some common signs of anxiety:
You can also download an
anxiety log to help look for patterns in when and why your child feels anxious.
When Stress Leads to Anxiety
When kids feel stress for an extended period of time, they may have what’s called chronic stress.
For example, kids who struggle with math typically experience more failure with math than success. Every time they have to do a math problem, they feel stressed. When they do math homework, they may make errors that make them feel “stupid” the next day—and the stress continues. That’s chronic stress.
Chronic stress can lead to anxiety. Kids who experience chronic stress may start to think they just can’t do certain things. They develop a sense of worry or fear that no matter what they do, they’ll still fail. That’s anxiety.
To break the cycle and prevent anxiety, it’s important to help kids balance the “I cans” with the “I can’ts.” They need to experience the joy of success more often. One way to do this is by setting a competence anchor—helping kids connect the feeling of something they’re successful at with a task they’re struggling with. (Learn more about
how to set a competence anchor.)
Anxiety and Kids Who Struggle in School
Just about everyone feels anxiety at some point. But kids who struggle in school may have extra reasons for feeling worried and afraid. These include:
Anxiety about not being able to keep up: Struggling students may notice they have trouble doing what their friends can do easily. They may be too hard on themselves in general or feel anxious about specific things, like
Anxiety about feeling different: Kids who don’t do as well as their peers may worry they
don’t fit in. And kids who get extra support, like accommodations, might worry their classmates will notice they get more time on tests or will see them in the resource room.
Anxiety about the future: Teens who struggle in school may fear what’s after high school. “If I can’t pass a math test, how will I ever take the SAT?” Or they may worry they won’t be able to live away from home.
Anxiety is especially common in kids with ADHD. Some of the challenges that come along with ADHD can make kids anxious, like trouble with working memory and organization. These built-in challenges can make it hard for kids to have a sense of control. This increases anxiety.
Other learning and thinking differences can be closely related to anxiety, too. Learn more about:
When anxiety stops a child from enjoying life, it can be a sign of an anxiety problem. It can be hard to know
when it’s time to get your child help for mental health issues. If you’re concerned your child’s anxiety is interfering with everyday life, you may want to consider professional help. With the right treatment and support, kids with anxiety disorder do get better.