February 17, 2013

Motherlode: You can help worrier child do better, feel stress less


Is your child a warrior, or a worrier?

That cute -- and memorable -- phrasing comes from "Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?" by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (famous for "Nurture Shock" and now the authors of "Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing") in The Times Magazine. It's shorthand for a problem most of us are familiar with: Some people seem born to take tests or compete. For others, the whisper of pressure can trigger the seeming disappearance of everything we ever learned.

In their magazine piece, the authors look at what lies under that difference -- "how we were raised, our skills and experience, the hormones that we marinated in as fetuses."

But while understanding the causes may help promote eventual changes in standardized testing, there's no way to entirely avoid the need to perform under pressure -- and no way to avoid it on behalf of our children.

For the parents of worriers, one question hovers over the topic: How can we help our children learn to both perform better, and feel that stress just a little less? I asked the magazine piece's authors to help me pull out what they learned in researching their article, and to share some other ideas and background that might help.

Embrace the anxiety. Students who read a statement declaring that recent research suggests "people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better" did, in fact, do better on tests, in the lab and outside.

Find competition that's fun. Spelling bees, chess teams, sports, science fairs: When the pressure is predictable and comes with friends and excitement, even worriers build up their tolerance for the stress that doesn't include those benefits (like the SAT exams). These competitions "give kids the chance to make that connection between feeling a little anxious and performing at their best," Bronson said.

Emphasize success. Even when competition is fun, getting through it is a victory for a "worrier." Help your child focus on the ebbs and flows of the competitive anxiety, and then remind him to celebrate the accomplishment -- and think back to it the next time that anxiety rears its head. Parents comfort children when they feel insecure, but we also need to foster exploratory behavior. "By destabilizing children, pushing them, we help children be brave in unfamiliar situations, stand up for themselves, and learn to take risks."

Watch for when "stress" turns into "distress." For many children, short-term stress can be energizing. But when it goes beyond the short term into a larger problem, "parents need to try to find the triggers that change test taking from a challenge state to a threat state." The child who lost sleep for a month over standardized testing (described in the article) had heard from teachers that school funding and teacher pay is partly tied to these tests now, so he felt an enormous burden to score super high on the standardized tests, to help buoy the school's averages.

Change the story. "Right now, the story is that college spots are really hard to get," Bronson wrote in an email. "Cary Roseth, assistant professor of education at Michigan State University, classifies the race to college as a 'scramble competition,' like a huge game of musical chairs -- except with too few chairs. This is somewhat of an illusion. Every year, UCLA runs a national survey of incoming college freshmen; last year, it collected data from over 204,000 freshmen who attend 270 different bachelor's colleges; 83 percent of them were attending their first- or second- choice college. UCLA, all by itself, admitted almost 16,000 applicants. More than 10,000 of them turned UCLA down. Nationally, 59 percent of all admittances are turned down by the students. So who is rejecting whom here? Maybe we all need to hold our tongues when we're tempted to scare the kids, 'You know, you have to study harder if you want to get into a UC.'"

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:



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