Anxiety: More than a Hot-Button Topic

Lisa Wright Author Blog
July 23, 2019

Anxiety: a word that strikes fear in the hearts of many parents and of many educators. A hot-button word. A word that brings to mind images popularized in the media of coddling parents and a “soft” generation. A word that educators know impacts students and schools world-wide. Bullying--another hot-button word. School shootings and what to do about them--a hot-button issue. Mental health—yet another hot-button issue. The 24/7 “on” world we live in. Doing more with less. Budget cuts. Class sizes. School discipline. The list goes on. Heavy topics. Someone else. Somewhere else. Everywhere. Overwhelming.

Then we add in individual political beliefs and the ease of posting our thoughts and opinions on social media about all of these types of hot-button issues. School shootings, as an example:

More guns will fix it.

No! Taking away guns will fix it.

No! It’s the kids!

It’s the teachers!

It’s the parents!

Depends on whom you ask. Because it’s a hot-button issue, and because it’s a “big” issue with many moving parts, and because of a little bit of human “not my problem because I really can’t help anyway,” some are reluctant to talk about school shootings at all, at least publicly. Behind closed doors, we all talk about it and hope it doesn’t happen again.

And where are the kids in all this? Kids don’t know what they don’t know. This is their world, their normal. They understand school shootings because shootings have been happening their entire academic career, regardless of their age. They understand anxiety because their friends have it. Maybe they have it. They understand bullying because they have experienced it. Sometimes on both sides of it.

And what about the adults? What are we really accomplishing? Are we all talk and little action? Quick to judge, yet quiet when it comes to putting the real work in? Write a quick zinger online, then walk away?

Educators often fear speaking out on hot-button issues because of the danger of being vilified for being on the “wrong” side of an issue, especially an issue that directly impacts kids and schools. Others speak out “Norma Rae” style, or “Take This Job and Shove It” style and are cheered on, as if walking into the arena in a scene from “Gladiators” and receiving hundreds or even millions of virtual thumbs ups (or thumbs down) from the crowd. Parents are genuinely and rightfully worried about their kids as they read post after post and article after article about issue after issue, hot button after hot button, wondering what to believe, how to react, what to DO, and they react because they care about and love their kids. Trying to do what’s best based on what they know. Frenzy is a word that comes to mind. Well-intentioned yet frenetic. Genuine yet at times reactive. All of us.

There is a better way, and we are all involved.

Earlier this week, a story out of Oregon made the headlines. “New bill allows Oregon students to take ‘mental health days’” “Teen activists lead an effort in excusing ‘mental health days’ in Oregon schools.” Both vitriol and effusive approval were immediate in online commentary. Some spoke in strong support. Others shot it down and virtually shook their heads at “kids today.” Today another story began making the rounds, this one out of Australia. “John Marsden on the ‘toxic' parenting pandemic: ‘I’ve never seen this level of anxiety.’” This is not the first article to come out that looks at the connections between how we—parents and educators—are raising and educating kids and the documented high level of anxiety we see in “kids today.” No, this is just the latest article to voice that concern.

Anxiety is a leading hot-button issue, and because it involves mental health, speaking out about it to voice anything that could, in a soundbite, be construed or perceived as “unsupportive of kids” is met with anger, feeding the cycle. Yet we must take a hard look at what is real when it comes to anxiety and what is being projected onto kids who are then “acting as if” because they believe that is how they are supposed to feel. Hear me out.

I was at a mental health symposium last school year at which parents were participants. The speaker engaged the audience in a bit of Q&A, and the typical parenting topics of social media and what apps to use to monitor it, or how much social media is ok and at what age, etc. came up. When the topic of anxiety came up, one parent, whose child was still in middle school, voiced an opinion that, when coming from a parent can be accepted more readily than when coming from a post from an educator. This parent made the point that he/she (to protect the parent’s privacy) believes kids “hype on” being anxious because kids believe that’s what they are supposed to feel and because it’s what all the other kids are talking about. In other words, kids believe they should feel anxious, and they emulate each other with their anxiousness, comparing how and when and how much they feel anxious. As a longtime educator and high school counselor, I believe the parent has an excellent point. Notice that the parent did not say “no kids actually have anxiety.” No, that was not this parent’s point, nor mine. This parent’s point was that kids today are surrounded by kids and adults talking about how anxious everyone is, so kids assume the role of feeling anxious, or viewing otherwise normal feelings under the umbrella of anxiousness.

So how did kids in our current world come to feel so anxious? Taking this parent’s observation one step further, because the collective “we” work so hard as parents and educators to ensure that our kids do not feel anxious, have we, unintentionally, taught a generation of kids that any feelings other than happiness are to be questioned and addressed or “fixed” somehow? That feeling “upset” is somehow bad, abnormal, and something that should be quickly made to go away?

The truth is that humans experience emotions and feelings, which some say are two sides of the same coin. “Good” ones. “Bad” ones. Anger. Anxiety. Glee. Sadness. Boredom. Disinterest. Joy. Every day. Sometimes all in one day. Adults do it all the time, then regroup and move on. Just a normal day with normal human emotions and feelings. Some days better than others. Sometimes we have “one of those days.” Kids do the same, and it is normal, but it sometimes makes adults uncomfortable.

In a genuine effort to help, and in becoming more “in-the-know” about everything via our 24/7 online world filled with any and all knowledge, we have unwittingly made abnormal the very normal feeling of emotions, and we have bundled much of it under the umbrella of “anxiety.” As an example: kids are anxious about taking tests. Common adult reaction:

Let’s fix this!

We (parents and educators) need good test scores (for school standings and for GPA), so away with test anxiety.

Here is a fact: it is a normal human feeling to feel anxious before tests. We feel anxious as adults before tests, job interviews, teaching the first day of school, making a work presentation, open house, or going on a date with a new person. It is normal. Yet when our kids feel it, we ask them if they need to go “see someone” about it—a school counselor or a mental health professional, when very often, all we needed to do was normalize the feeling for kids in the first place, and this, too, would pass.

To help give context, anxiety isn’t a new feeling or new mental health diagnosis. In order to diagnose someone with anxiety, mental health practitioners look at the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the handbook used by health care professionals in the United States and much of the world as the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders. The DSM defines anxiety as (in part here):

A. Excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not for at least 6 months, about a number of events or activities (such as work or school performance).

B. The person finds it difficult to control the worry.

C. The anxiety and worry are associated with three or more of the following six symptoms (with at least some symptoms present for more days than not for the past 6 months).

*Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge

*Being easily fatigued

*Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank


*Muscle tension

*Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless unsatisfying sleep)

While some kids and adults will fit this description and be diagnosed as having an anxiety disorder, which itself is manageable and does not have to be debilitating, most common situations that involve someone feeling anxious are normal, such as trying out for a team or giving a class presentation. These scenarios make most people nervous or anxious but are not cause for a mental health practitioner to diagnose an anxiety disorder, and that is an important distinction to remember. All of us as humans are susceptible to “self-fulfilling prophecy.” When it comes to anxiety, specifically, we feel anxious in a situation, and we associate similar situations with feeling anxious, so we become anxious when we know we will be in a similar situation. It becomes problematic when we come to believe that there is something “wrong” with feeling anxious in certain situations, when it is actually quite a normal human experience that we are able to manage.

Yes, there are kids and adults who have diagnosable anxiety, and yes, there are times when seeking the help of a mental health professional is absolutely needed. That is not what I am referencing above. What I am referencing is the daily normal feelings that all humans have. Essentially, it is about normalizing kids’ feelings and not giving kids the impression that there is something “wrong” with them that needs to be “fixed” when they experience these feelings or don’t always feel “happy” as the go-to emotion.

Our 24/7 projected images of perfection have had a lot to do with teaching our kids what “normal” looks like, and our adult reactions to our kids’ sadness and disappointment and fears have led us down the path of trying to make it better for them. In truth, our fears of “what if” when kids today experience negative feelings drives much of what adults do in response. Because more kids report feeling anxious, adults and their reactions are heightened because of the “what if” factor…

What if my kid kills himself?

What if my kid hurts someone else?

What if my kid needs to be hospitalized for psychiatric help?

What might happen if I don’t react to this and do something?

Often out of fear and an overabundance of caution, adults react in a heightened way to kids when kids have “negative” feelings (compared to feeling “happy”), and it sends a powerful message to kids that feelings other than happiness are somehow wrong and need “treatment.” That’s what makes our teamwork as parents and educators that much more important, so that we can address issues when they need addressing, and so that we can begin to together normalize feelings and lessen the worry for all adults (and kids, obviously). Right now, we are all often caught in a vicious emotional cycle, and kids only know their current reality, much of which is reflected back at them by adults.

If we truly want to make “it” better, in its simplest form,

*we need to start by letting kids know that feelings are normal, and no one is happy all the time, no matter what their posts suggest or the face they put on publicly,

*and we as adults, as parents and as educators, need to let kids see our emotions and understand that we might feel nervous or upset right now, but that feeling is temporary, human, navigable and manageable. Tomorrow is a new day. Heck, an hour from now can be a new day.

As educators, we must also take a hard look at what the educational system systemically does to increase anxious feelings in students, from overtesting, to large class sizes, to overstretched teachers, to giving kids the impression that the college track is the only path to success, when they actually want to do something else in life. And parents must take an honest look at other aspects of kids’ lives that may contribute to their kids’ anxious feelings, from overuse of electronics and social media, to lack of physical activity, to lack of sleep (often because of overuse of electronics and social media). Another vicious contributing cycle.

I am an educator. I have been an educator for almost three decades. I speak from both experience and research. I, along with my fellow educators and our students, am on the front line of “kids today” and “schools today.” Together, along with our students’ parents, we address hot-button topics every day, and other educators, students and parents across the world are doing the same. These are not American problems with American students in American schools. The research is there to prove it. And many of the hot-button issues are connected, including school shootings. Working on one hot-button issue can improve other hot button issues, just as some of them became hot button issues in tandem.

Most importantly, though, we need to remember that these hot-button issues are not fixed, finite or final. Like the kids we work with every day, these big picture issues are malleable because they all involve humans, and humans, by definition, are malleable and capable of change. As adult leaders—whether educators or parents—we need to look at how we can better approach and normalize kids’ feelings and mental health, while getting the help kids (and adults) need when they need it.

There is a better way, and we are all involved.


Lisa Wright is the author of The Age of Outrage: Strategies for Parents and Educators (Amazon).

Wright is a Texas public high school counselor whose career in education began almost three decades ago and includes twenty years as a middle school/junior high and high school teacher. Wright has observed the changes in students and the educational system brought about by the advent of technology and cell phones, by educational mandates designed to help kids, and by evolving parenting styles, all of which were well-intentioned but have at times resulted in unintended negative consequences.

Wright has witnessed the evolution of schools and the educational system as school shootings have happened again and again. Wright’s experience over three decades of a changing educational landscape and her research bring a unique perspective to her discussion of modern student and school issues. She addresses those issues head-on while including ways both parents and educators can help their kids/students.

Wright promotes open discussion so that educators and parents can unite to work together to make our schools and our world safer places and our kids more resilient future adults.