Smart Child + Adult Level Information = Anxiety

Intelligent kids can be difficult to handle sometimes. Their imaginations get caught up with the wildest things, from why the sky is blue, to the inner workings of a TV. Nothing but the most detailed answers will satisfy and it usually happens at the worse times… when the phone rings, when there’s a knock on the door, or in the middle of a tax return.

Intelligent kids in the classroom can be equally difficult. Work is finished in double time and there are always questions that demand explanations of at least five other topics in order to be coherent and understandable. And this is always accompanied by 28+ other children who need to be continually supervised.

But demanding information isn’t the only by-product of this intelligence. It is often accompanied by thoughts that develop into anxiety. The equation is actually very straight-forward.

Smart child + Adult level information = Anxiety

Adult level information is exciting for children to know. They might find topics of children’s conversation quite boring, and having knowledge that their peers can’t understand is always going to be something that kids enjoy. Equally, kids aren’t great listeners to things that they aren’t interested in. So smart kids might find that it’s sometimes difficult to maintain communication with their peers. But adult information comes with a cost.

Allison Edwards, author of Why Smart Kids Worry, writes that whilst children of a certain intellect can handle adult level knowledge, specifically facts, they cannot deal with the emotional fallout. For example, a smart 5 year old can understand the concept of death, but they wouldn’t be able to handle the emotional side effect of understanding that eventually their teacher, their parents or their siblings will die.

This leads to an obsession of sorts as they try to process this emotional turbulence. This obsession, and inability to process can lead to a worry, which then manifests into anxiety. The stigma surrounding anxiety has been gradually reducing over the years, but the idea that such young children can suffer from it seems to surprise people. What do they have to even worry about?

Looking at the world from a child’s perspective can be quite scary. We have the tools to deal with this stuff, to understand that death is a fact of life, that university is years away or that global warming exists. But for children, these problems can spiral into a dark twisting nightmare that they can’t escape.

Sometimes this can develop into a ‘Default Worry’, which are “the worries kids go back to over and over again”. They will often do this for two reasons. Firstly, they don’t know why they’re anxious, so they just assign it to a worry that might not actually be the cause. Secondly, they have excess mental energy that they can burn off through worry. Often, though, in the classroom — an excess of mental energy isn’t going to be a problem.

So dealing with a default worry is quite often going to be the case for a teacher when the child has no idea why they’re anxious. Allison Edwards suggests the following advice: “The worry will probably go away and come back again periodically. What is important is that [the] child is afraid right now. Don’t panic, and don’t try to rack your brain for something that will remove the fear forever. Just be there with him and ride it out.”

If it’s a more proactive approach that you’re after, however, you can go about trying to raise a child’s Emotional Intelligence (known as EQ). We can work towards giving children the best tools we can for coping with the Adult Information that they will undoubtedly be exposed to in today’s media-heavy world. Edwards offers a 4 point model to follow in order to help children through a surge of their anxiety.

  1. Register your own emotions.
    If you are anxious you will only encourage anxious feelings within a child. You need to be able to take a deep breath and calm yourself before trying to help them.
  2. Talk openly about the child’s feelings.
    By acknowledging emotions, you are going to let the child know that it is ok to feel that way. Feeling sad or frustrated is just part of being human, and we should treat that accordingly.
  3. Model appropriate behaviour.
    As their teacher, you a role model for a child. This extends to modelling emotional behaviour. You can reinforce this with phrases such as ‘I’m happy you got 10 out of 10 on that spelling test!’ or ‘I’m sad that you missed that goal, but I’m looking forward to watching you try again’.
  4. Separate emotions from behaviour.
    A symptom of anxiety can be irritability, and we need to be able to teach children that it’s ok to be angry, it’s ok to be frustrated, but it’s not ok to hurt other people’s feelings and it’s certainly not ok to hit people.

To find out more, there is plenty of resources available, but I found Allison Edwards’Why Smart Kids Worry and What Parents Can do the Help to be really helpful in providing a strong base of knowledge to further research around this subject.

Beth Jennings — Teachers Register