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Empowering Your Child to Hold The “Worry Ball”

Consider the following two hypothetical Bialik students:

Arnold is a kind and bright boy in Grade 6. He loves to play sports at recess and is the captain of his double A hockey team. His favourite aspects of the school day are gym and lunch. In Senior Division, he struggles to stay on top of his work and his teachers remind him that he is capable of more. While his parents are invested in his success, they have been relatively uninvolved in his school experience since the end of Grade 5. In Grade 8, Arnold experiences some anxiety as he realizes that, if he wants to be successful at TanenbaumCHAT, he will need to work on his study skills. Although he failed a math test and a Tanach test because he forgot to study, Arnold ultimately graduates Bialik with a B+ average. When Arnold reaches high school, his adaptive anxiety enables him to start managing his workload more effectively. 

Gary is a warm-hearted, social and intelligent Grade 6 boy. Although he has the potential to be at the top of his class, he doesn’t love school work and feels unmotivated. His parents are upset that he is a B+ student, as they know that with a little more effort, he could do better. They review his homework agenda every day, reminding him of every test and assignment and communicating weekly with his teachers to monitor his progress. When he doesn’t feel like studying, his parents take away his phone until he has studied for at least two hours. Gary feels like his parents are always on his case. When he failed his Yiddish quiz, he was distraught, fearing that his parents would take away his phone permanently. In high school, Gary begins experiencing severe anxiety. In Grade 9, he has a panic attack and ends up in the Emergency Room. 

What went wrong for Gary and why did he end up in the ER? How was Arnold able to succeed with limited involvement from his parents?

Recently, Toronto-based clinical psychologist, Dr. Alex Russell, addressed our Bialik faculty and parents, offering a fresh perspective on raising children. The heart of his message was that children learn through the experience of non-catastrophic, painful failure. According to Dr. Russell, “It is through the process of these failures that they mature into resilient, resourceful and emotionally balanced individuals. Parents should see failing, whether it’s a test, a course, or a tryout for a team, as a normal part of growing up and not a sign of parental incompetence.”

Using Alex Russell’s model in the two scenarios above, one can see that Arnold’s parents allowed him to experience painful, non-catastrophic failure, while Gary’s parents did not. Arnold experienced the natural consequences of failing tests due to not studying. While this was certainly a setback, Arnold’s adaptive anxiety eventually kicked in at high school, and, as Dr. Russell frames it, he was able to carry his own “worry ball.” Using his anxiety in a positive way, Arnold was able to engage in the learning process, challenge himself and even ask for help from his parents when he needed it. 

Gary, on the other hand, did not have the opportunity to develop adaptive anxiety. Each time things became difficult, his parents held the worry ball for him, not allowing Gary to do his own worrying. His parents’ micromanagement meant that Gary did not experience a healthy dose of non-catastrophic, painful failure. When more independence was required in high school, he couldn’t activate his adaptive anxiety, leading to a lack of resilience and the skills to manage his responsibilities.

How can you help facilitate the development of adaptive anxiety in your child?

  • Allow your Grade 5, 6, 7 or 8 child to experience healthy doses of non-catastrophic, painful failure. This might mean easing back on monitoring their study time, not checking homework as regularly, or not requesting extra review packages for your child. While it might get worse before it gets better, with the right level of emotional support, your child will have the opportunity to get anxious on their own behalf.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk behind your child’s back. It’s in your child’s interest for you to form a positive relationship with their teachers and share relevant information with the educators. If you’re making a change at home, let your child’s teachers know so that they can adequately support your child at school. Allow teachers to “lower the boom” when necessary. Working together, teachers and parents can help children through important moments in their educational careers.
  • Be minding parents. Just because your child is carrying their own worry ball does not mean you are not there for them. You can listen and empathize without having to find solutions to any school issues. While you may not regulate or even monitor daily homework, being around and minding when a poor test comes home is certainly okay. Be present when a child needs help with homework (only if they ask!)

Once you’ve tried the tips above, you may want to find out more about the way Dr. Alex Russell helps kids develop resilience. Here you can read an article about the changing trend in parenting (turns out he was right!) and how to gradually release responsibility to your child. You may also want to check out his book Drop the Worry Ball, a terrific read on developmental psychology and how we can parent our children for future success. 

Good luck, and please know that we are always here for support and guidance.

Jake Gallinger
Principal, Viewmount Branch