My older daughter is in 5th grade. Last week, we went to a middle school information night. How did this happen? My feelings about this will show up in another post, but for now, just know that she is a lovely 10-year-old and I’m not ready to throw her to the wolves of middle school.
She had a great year in 4th grade. She bonded with her teacher and experienced a lot of growth academically and personally. 5th grade is different. She has 3 teachers and she rotates between classes. She likes her teachers, but the bond isn’t the same. And sometimes, she comes home with homework in 4 different classes.
She does homework and eats snack right after school. If she has a lot of it, she will sometimes stress out in the middle, wondering how she will ever finish and why she has to have so much in the first place. But she does it.
Inevitably, later in the evening, usually when she’s trying to go to sleep at night, her mind will start to mess with her. “What if I didn’t do all my homework?” she will ask. “What if I forgot something?”
Can’t we all relate to this? Don’t we all have areas in life that keep us up at night? We worry about what we did or didn’t do. We worry if we are good enough. We think about what we should’ve said or what we could’ve done differently or what people think about us.
The good news is that these thoughts are a sign that we care. My daughter works hard and she cares about how well she does. She wants to do well. She wants to please her teachers and get good grades and ace tests. In the rare event that she forgets something or gets a bad grade, she feels it acutely.
And that’s the bad news. Because we care, we feel things sharply and we often spend time thinking in a way that doesn’t serve us. We worry and fret. We question and doubt ourselves. While this is natural, we must realize it is also very unproductive.
My daughter’s nightly worries take energy. These thoughts sometimes keep her up at night, postponing her sleep, which is sooo important. These anxious thoughts certainly don’t help her prepare for a test or feel good about her abilities. On the contrary, they sow doubt and insecurity.
Let's remember that anxiety is a throwback emotion. Our ancestors needed anxiety to survive. But in our world where getting food is an act of going into a well-lit building and picking something off the shelves versus hunting and gathering and survival isn't usually a question from moment to moment, most of our anxiety is unfounded. Yes, our world is full of threats, but if we are truly in danger, we are not sitting around and fretting. We are running for our lives or fighting back or actively hiding or calling the police.
Anxious thoughts are not a problem in and of themselves. In fact, they can serve the purpose of highlighting what is important. They can also help us figure stuff out. They become problematic when they occur beyond logic. My daughter, for example, will often have a conversation with me that goes like this:
“What if I forgot to do some homework?” she’ll ask.
“I don’t know.”
“Did you check your planner? Did you do everything you needed to do?”
“I think so...but what if I didn’t?”
“I saw you working on math and reading. And you spent some time on your science presentation. Was there anything else?”
“No. That was it.” Pause. “But what if it wasn’t?”
You see, our brains often work against logic, against evidence, against the truth. And if we aren’t paying attention, we become victims to this thinking, which absolutely limits us.
So what did I say to my daughter? What will I keep saying to her when these thoughts interfere with her wellbeing? Something like this:
“Did you do the homework that was assigned to you...as far as you know?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“Do you trust yourself?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, do you believe that--to the best of your knowledge--you did what you needed to do?”
“Okay, then you need to trust yourself. You can lay here and get all worried about what you might have forgotten, but you almost always get done what you have to get done. So focus on that. Focus on the fact that you haven’t forgotten a homework assignment in a long time. Trust yourself.”
She looked skeptical, but she was listening. “And,” I added, “even if the very worst thing happens and you forget a small assignment--I know you wouldn’t forget a big important one--then you talk to the teacher about what you can do to get it turned in or make it up. That’s the very worst thing that can happen, but remember, you almost never forget stuff, and when you have, it hasn’t been a big deal. Put the time in when you are doing your homework. Check off the list of your classes, and then trust yourself.”
She gave a little smile and nod, pulled her covers up to her chin, and looked more at ease. We said our good nights and she went to sleep fairly quickly.
Does she still struggle with nightly anxiety? Yes. Does her brain still think thoughts that go against reason? Absolutely.
Changing the patterns of thinking that don’t serve us doesn’t happen overnight. It isn’t easy to break these cycles. My daughter will probably always be prone to anxious thoughts. My goal with her (and my clients and myself) is to raise awareness around not only how we are thinking, but the idea that we can change how we think. Unchecked, our brains will run wild with thoughts that hinder our ability to live happy and productive lives. But once we start tuning in, we can put some resistance in the well-oiled gears of those thoughts and start building a pathway for better and more helpful thoughts to run in our minds.
A few nights ago, I was sitting with my daughter at bedtime and talking about the day. I saw her eyes cloud with the familiar worry. She looked at me and when she made eye contact, a light of memory struck and she smiled, somewhat grimly, but it was a smile all the same. Then, quietly and with determination, she started chanting, “I trust myself, I trust myself, I trust myself, I trust myself.”