My 16-year-old son has developed such a high level of anxiety that he is unable to attend class or to do any schoolwork. I just don’t know what to do.

- User Submitted

Hey everybody.

We have a question today that I want to address, I think it's really important. My 16 year old son has developed such high level of anxiety around school work that he's unable to attend class or do any school work. He's missed so much school, I can't see how he can pass the year. I'm terrified of the impact on his future. I'm just not sure how and if we can make this work. If I push him and try to try to work he has major anxiety attacks. But I'm desperate and feel like I should keep trying if we give up and let him stop school. I'm worried that he will become stuck and isolated. I just don't know what to do.

You know this is a common question that we're seeing more and more often with our youth today, this high level of anxiety. And, so I just want to offer a couple of foundational concepts that we want to work on with anxiety. First, is what we call emotional regulation, is learning to deal with the emotion. The way we do that is actually give the anxiety a voice to express the fears. Its expression of the internal feelings. So, what we know is that when we express anxiety, it loses some of its power. So what are those fears? And having him talk with you about them, giving it a language is is the way I often refer to it. So concept number one is we want to give that anxiety a language.

We also want to identify what it's doing to his body? We know that a lot of that anxiety, the panic, is internal and it's really the body's way of saying I don't feel safe. And, if he doesn't feel safe, he's more prone to feel the anxiousness and not know what to do with it. So, we would like to help him learn to listen to his body, where does he feel it and then give that a language. I feel tense, I feel tight in my stomach. I feel it in my shoulders. So now we would do some kind of a breathing exercise to see if we can help him regulate that. So give it a voice and language identify it where it is in the body and then we're going to do some breathing to see if we can get the body to relax. A couple of additional things that might be helpful there, if you're close to your child, it might actually be touch and helping him feel. Like, just rubbing his shoulders as he's giving a voice to some of his anxiousness.

Now, I want to be a little bit more pragmatic for a second. If he's so far behind, I would actually take him to the school office and get a school counselor and I would get a strategy or a game plan so he can do some of the schoolwork online. And, really helping him, you might need to get a tutor, somebody who specializes in that, a classmate who maybe he's friends with that has the same classes so he doesn't have to do it alone. If you can find a tutor, if it's you  yourself, it's a friend in his classes, you want to make sure that he has some support there. So we know that when people have high anxiety what happens is they often feel isolated and alone and create some kind of structure there where he feels like he's not alone and he has a friend that could be very very helpful.

Now, obviously your fear is I don't want to give up but I feel stuck and I see him isolated. One of the other things that we know is that when people have social connections their anxiety tends to go down. So, we would want some type of relational support here, again friends. But, I think if you could take him, talk with the school counselor, and really, I know he's having some major anxiety that's why if it's not going away some of these strategies are what you would learn in therapy is how to give it a voice and how to regulate it.

So those are some core concepts of where I would get started. But with those kind of panic attacks, I don't know how much those have been happening, how frequently they've been going on the past but one of my concerns would be to make sure that he's able to get support for a panic attack and understand what's happening inside of his body and learn how to regulate it and that's something that could be learned in therapy.

Thank you for your question and good luck with your son as you go through this difficult time. Obviously, you're a caring parent so you keep trying and I hope some of these suggestions, if you can go through them with him, I hope they'll be helpful to you.

Thanks for your question.

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Dr. Kevin Skinner