Does Your Child Have Grade Anxiety or Just Anxiety?

4 min read

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There is such a thing as too much worry about grades.

Alex had just started high school – and at our September session she had reported that things were “OK” and that she liked her teachers and classes. At our scheduled meeting in October, Alex refused to come, saying she had too much homework to lose any time for “Fink,” as she liked to call me. Her mother, Sarah, let out a deep sigh when we sat down together, and said that she was concerned. Apparently, the teachers were talking about the upcoming progress reports and telling students it was time to buckle down and take things seriously. Since Alex had told her mother about this, the girl had become terrified of getting bad grades and could think about little else.

Her mother told me that Alex was doing schoolwork (or trying to) non-stop from the time she got home from school until well past her bedtime; she was resisting going to sleep until all her work was done perfectly. When friends texted, she told them she was busy, and she was skipping her dance classes, which had been her passion. Mom suspected that even with all the hours she was putting in, Alex was having trouble finishing work because she would get stuck on something and not be able to move on. Any loss of points on a homework or a test or quiz led to meltdowns that took hours to recover from.

Alex’s parents had told me that she had always been an excellent student. She did worry about grades and homework, but the worry didn’t seem excessive and had helped her succeed in school. But this new situation was a tipping point: Her anxiety had moved beyond productive and into destructive. Alex’s worries about grades were taking over her life and nearly paralyzing her. Her sleep deprivation spiraled into more worry and made it even harder to focus. We made the diagnosis of an anxiety disorder and began to put together a treatment plan that started with cognitive behavioral therapy.

Some anxiety helps

Anxiety responses are essential to survival and well-being. Adaptive or productive anxiety alerts us to danger, such as noticing cars in the street so we stop before we step off the curb. It energizes us to do things to prevent something harmful or negative, such getting our homework done to avoid a bad grade. Humans (and animals) naturally experience anxiety across a wide range of intensities. People with inherently lower anxiety responses are more tolerant of risks of negative outcomes. People at the higher end of the anxiety spectrum are more risk averse – and behave in ways that reduce risk.

Healthy function is associated with many levels of anxiety across that spectrum. Being more risk averse or more risk tolerant, on its own, doesn’t mean there is something wrong; it’s just one part of our personality and our way of being in the world. It’s like my two kittens: One explores new situations without hesitating while the other is much more cautious before jumping in. Neither of their approaches gets in the way of function; they just operate differently.


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How do you know when a child’s anxiety is too much?

Anxiety disorders, or capital-A anxiety, occur when one’s anxiety levels become unproductive, or even destructive. Frequent and severe levels of worry and fear can lead to so much risk-avoidant behavior that it can be hard to get anything done. In Alex’s case, she had some background anxiety that was higher than many other children’s, but she managed it, and it helped her get her work done. However, her escalated anxiety levels weren’t helping her; they were shutting her down. She could only focus on preventing a bad grade and was spending all her time and energy on avoiding that outcome.

In parenting children who tend to be anxious, it’s important to watch how their anxiety helps and how it hurts. While anxious kids are often successful academically because they care so much, it can tip into destructive patterns. Excessive anxiety can lead to intensive behaviors to avoid risk, such as over-studying, not getting enough sleep, or not seeing friends. It can also be expressed in fight/flight/freeze responses such as meltdowns and shutdowns. Any of these or similar responses would suggest that it’s time to consider a professional evaluation for your child’s anxiety.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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