Therapist and student psychologist Kevin Kemelhar offered coping strategies for student anxiety at a PTA-sponsored presentation at Orange High School last month.
Mr. Kemelhar told parents that with the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, now is an ideal time to talk about anxiety. He had held a similar meeting at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, and now that President Joe Biden stated that the pandemic is over, this is a good time to reiterate the symptoms of anxiety to parents.
“When I did it before COVID, okay, it was totally different,” Mr. Kemelhar said. “The anxiety part wasn’t, because anxiety is anxiety, but post-COVID there’s been a pretty increased rise in anxiety in school and out of school.”
Mr. Kemelhar identified some new factors such as isolation during the pandemic, and more typical anxiety over an upcoming test. His solution for parents was to resist the urge to protect their kids from feelings of anxiety, or else they may never learn how to work through the discomfort, and become too dependent.
“When is it okay to step in? What should I protect my kids from?” one mother asked.
Another mother asked what would one do if a student from Ukraine came to the school.
Mr. Kemelhar happened to have an anecdote about a student from Ukraine, who told him that he had seen the Army going door-to-door in his country handing out guns and ammunition to families so they could defend themselves from the Russian invasion.
Mr. Kemelhar agreed that the recent local attempted school shootings weighed on the parents.
“I don’t think we can ever eliminate along the way, before the actual, attempted shooting, that there’s been anxiety over certain things. So I always go, what if there was an earlier intervention, right?”
He seemed to think that the younger generation has higher rates of anxiety because of its attitude toward mental health in general.
He told parents to try to avoid using clinical language when talking about anxiety with their children because he has noticed kids diagnosing themselves with an anxiety disorder when their anxiety is normal.
“They do self-diagnose,” Mr. Kemelhar said. “They do it all the time, but they really don’t know what goes into the diagnosis. A lot of them don’t understand the true meaning of what they’re talking about. And they come to believe that what they’re experiencing means “this,” and most of the time, it doesn’t. That’s why I say stay away from clinical terminology because they’re listening, and they’ll Google.”
Researching information about anxiety, while it may seem helpful, ends up hurting students and contributes to overthinking.
“I think they want to know, ‘Why am I doing what I’m doing? And I need to define it. I need to give it a name so I think I can understand it,’” Mr. Kemelhar said. “But what happens most times is they get too much information intake. They self-diagnose, and then they crumble because they’re taking all this in, like, ‘Oh my God, what’s wrong with me?’”
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