Sit, Don’t Fix, When Responding to Student Anxiety

When you seek to understand a student’s thoughts and beliefs, you'll get a glimpse into the depth of their struggle.

I don’t know about you, but I think most of us were hoping when the calendar turned to 2021, all of our problems would magically go away—including, you know, that pesky global pandemic. Months into the new year though, many of us still find ourselves quarantining, working virtually, schooling virtually, and finding workarounds to accomplish all of our “normal life” responsibilities.

Our problems and obstacles didn’t disappear on January 1, and as much as we all wish it did, our anxiety didn’t disappear either.

It also didn’t disappear for our students.

Anxiety has not only not gone away for our students, it also seems to be evolving and trending in new and different ways—in part thanks to the pandemic we’re all still facing.

Start With Thoughts & Beliefs

And as our culture quickly shifts and changes, as adults it may feel increasingly difficult to relate to students’ new anxieties. But the good (and bad) news is that, although anxiety may look different, we can still empathize and help combat anxiety in our students in a similar way—whether you’re 24 or 74.

Regardless of how anxiety is evolving and trending, anxiety at its core is fear. And the greatest catalyst of fear? Our thoughts. Which is why thoughts can be a great place to start to help students navigate their anxiety. Seeking to understand a student’s thoughts and beliefs will give you a glimpse into the depth of their struggle. Now, students will rarely just offer this kind of depth—which is why you have to ask questions, be patient, and leave plenty of space in the conversation for them to process and open up. But given enough time, a student will lay down the façade and share some of what’s really going on in their minds.

Sitting In Student Anxiety

After a student shares some of the anxiety they’re facing, comes the toughest step: Sitting in it. At this point, you want to allow the anxiety and emotions attached to those thoughts to bubble up in the conversation. And we can do this without believing and feeding into the lies and thoughts our students are wrestling with. 

For example, you can empathize and sit with someone who is anxious about being judged by their peers without affirming the lies that tell them they are worthless or less than.

Of course, feeling is not fact. This is the logic and truth most of us want to rush to when talking with students in these moments. But we have to hold back. We can’t lead with this, because in order to start seeing and believing what’s true, all of us—students included—have to sift through the feelings first. Once a feeling is seen and heard, it can quiet down, which then allows logic and more rational thinking to come into play. But if we do these steps out of order, to our students, it’ll feel like they’re talking to someone in a different language. In other words, integrating rational thinking before feelings have a chance to be felt and heard tends to create an “in one ear, out the other” situation. No one benefits, and both you and the student will leave frustrated.

Offer Hope And Remind A Teenager Of Their Value  

Once you have listened to a student’s thoughts, sat in the feelings, and held back your logical reasoning, you finally get to reward your patience by giving hope to a student—which has a far higher probability now to not only be heard, but believed as well. In this moment, you get to remind a student that their value is not based on performance. Ever. In other words, their performance—or lack thereof—does not “save them” or “screw them.” No matter what, when they bomb a test, when a friend ditches them, when there’s a big family fight at home . . . it does not change how much God loves them or limit how He can redeem or use a piece of their story.

Now before you get too excited, let’s reset our expectations a bit. This approach to help students navigate anxiety might not be an all-in-one conversation. It might take several conversations before you really find out what a student is thinking. There might be a lot of “sitting in it” with a student before you can remind them of what’s true.

You’re Not There To Fix Them 

And while these might seem like steps to just “get through” for us, they can actually be the most powerful steps for students. When you’re with a student in the depth of their thoughts, lies, and fear, you are building trust that is difficult to build in any other way. And it proves to a student that you aren’t just there to fix them. You are there for them.

You’re there for them through any anxiety they experience—and through ups, downs, good times, bad times, and even pandemics. You’re there, walking with them, ready to remind them of who they are in Christ and how God loves them no matter what. You get to be the light God uses to show them that they aren’t alone, they are seen, and they are heard.

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