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Yesterday, while I was still at work, I got a phone call from my 13 year old who had come home from school very stressed out because a teacher had told the entire class to improve presentations they were doing about their summer reading assignments. (This was in spite of the fact that my kid had not yet made their presentation, but that's another matter.) The teen feared that they would get a 0 (zero, i.e. no credit at all) grade on their presentation if they didn't spend the 4-5 hours they had left before bed time to totally overhaul their presentation. They were ready to cancel all other evening activities - including skipping their first practice in a new sport league - to do this.

During a 25 minute conversation, I learned some of the details already mentioned. The teacher was disappointed in the presentations already given and asked the students to improve them, mostly asking for more detail to be provided. A brief part of the conversation was with my wife who said that the two of them had already spent 20 minutes talking before calling me. Eventually the three of us settled on a plan that one hour would be given to the additional re-work and we would proceed with other plans. (Eventually approximately 2 hours of re-work were done; I allowed this extra time partly because I thought it would lessen the overall stress, partly because it didn't impact our evening plans, and partly because it seems to me that the kid is now at an age where they should take some responsibility in deciding how good is "good enough".)

This afternoon I called home after school to inquire about how the presentation went. "Fine" was the answer. No grade received yet.

While this is the first time this new school year that this sort of catastrophizing has occurred, it is far from the first time it has happened. Generally, my child doesn't seem to suffer a lot of anxiety in other areas of life, even though both my wife and I do (although not to the level of a disorder). However, school assignments often seem to trigger a great deal of worry.

How can I help my child avoid this sort of thinking that terrible things will happen, or at least come to have a more realistic viewpoint and reduce the stress when it happens.

  • The two of you spend 45 minutes of your worktime dealing with the issue. How do you want to convince your child it's not a big deal when you treat it like one? – user3819867 Sep 24 at 13:13
  • @user3819867: Perhaps I've not described the situation well, but I feel your mis-characterizing what happened. That said, your point has already been made in an answer. If you have something to add, please say it in your own answer. – GreenMatt Sep 24 at 13:41
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While this is the first time this new school year that this sort of catastrophizing has occurred, it is far from the first time it has happened.

People often think in a yes/no manner (called bifurcation or black and white tinking) but catastrophizing is more commonly associated with significant anxiety, because the consequences are perceived as severe and even life threatening, e.g. "If I get a zero, I will never get into a good college and will not be able to be (what I want to be.) I will be a failure."

If one or both parents are professionals or have placed high value on academic success, I suspect school is particularly prone to anxiety because that places a significant amount of pressure (wittingly or more likely unwittingly) on the child to do well.

Since this is a pattern well practiced in his mind, you'll need to work at teaching him to think between the extremes. I am a great believer in teaching kids about both logical fallacies and cognitive biases. Knowing them can help us identify our thought patterns and may help us to cope better.

You do not need a therapist certified in cognitive behavior therapy to begin training yourself (or your child) to think differently. In extreme cases, though, it helps.

Just start questioning. For example, has any teacher ever given him a zero? If not, why not? What is different about this situation (new teacher?) Does he have any reason to think this teacher is a particularly harsh grader? What were the teacher's exact words, and what do they likely mean? etc. These are the in-between steps that he should learn to ask himself with time.

Talk to your child about your failures in life, and how you overcame them. No single failure defines an entire life, and better yet to learn that failure is always an opportunity to learn and adjust actions accordingly. Look at how many lightbulbs Thomas Edison made before he got it right. Adopt an attitude that failure is always an opportunity to learn.

Talk to your child about priorities. Is success in school defined only by grades? What about learning about different people, cultures, lifestyles, how to engage with those different from ourselves, having empathy for people, and treating all people kindly? What about the importance of non-academic pursuits?

I hope you get the gist of what I'm saying. It takes time and practice to learn to solve seemingly extreme problems into manageable parts. Start now; he's got a fair amount of schooling to get trough.

20 Cognitive Distortions and How They Affect Your Life

How to stop catastrophizing

a humor based website on catastrophizing

  • I think we are pretty much on the same page, but you're breaking it down better than me. Good last paragraph. – Pascal Sep 12 at 6:06
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I'm of a somewhat divided mind about this. As a teacher, I'd appreciate a kid who is willing to

  • take school work seriously
  • listen to the teacher when he asks for more effort
  • actually put in said effort

So your child's propensity to worry a lot likely leads to better performance at school. But you're asking how to reduce the worrying and the stress that comes with it. Note that there are several psychological models which assume that the propensity to worry is an inherent property of a person's personality and is therefore hard to change (a well-known — and disputed — one being the OCEAN or "Big Five Factors" model).

Assuming that you can influence that trait in your child (I think it's plausible because the problems seem to be mostly schoolwork-related, so it might not actually have to do too much with your child's personality in general) , maybe the following things might help:

  • Talk about the different worries with your child. Separate the ones that are clearly impossible from the far-fetched, and the far-fetched from the realistic. Explain the difference. For example, the teacher probably can't give out a 0 grade because that's simply not allowed. It's also unlikely that he'll hand out a grade that's vastly below what he's given out in the past for the same effort. Trying to determine the likelihood of the worries actually becoming real might help to put some of them to rest.

  • Point out that you've noticed he/she worries a lot but things usually turn out fine, so it's important not to give the worries too much importance and not to dwell on them. To help calm down, reason with your child, for example about his/her own capability of producing acceptable work, and about reasonable expectations of how much work a teacher can expect students to do on short notice. Again, past experiences could serve as an indicator. If you make it a pattern to try and deconstruct worries with reasonable arguments about past success, your child might start doing that on his/her own.

  • Be a good role model. I might be assuming too much here, but I find it interesting that you get called at work in order to deal with your child's worries about a school presentation. You say that your wife had already spent 20 minutes discussing this with your child before he/she called you. This makes me think that at least your wife was also quite worried. And the fact that you spent 25 minutes on the phone leads me to think it didn't quite pass you by unperturbed, either. You also state that both you and your wife tend to suffer from a lot of anxiety. So... my assumption here is that if your child comes home and worries about something, and you then also worry about it for 45 minutes, it reinforces your child's belief that there actually is good reason to worry.

    So I suggest that you try to involve yourself a bit less. You don't have to become indifferent, of course, but instead of getting the whole family together to make a plan on how to deal with the new requirements for the presentation, maybe what would have worked better was to have your child call a friend and ask him/her how they intended to handle the new requirements. If your child sees that neither one of his parents feels a need to involve themselves in this, then obviously there isn't all that much reason to worry, right? Otherwise, they'd say something more than "why don't you call [nice classmate] and see how he handles it?". Also, if you call home to inquire how it went, on the one hand you're demonstrating interest in your child, but on the other hand, you might also communicate that you're worried about the outcome. It might be better to wait with the inquiry until you're home from work and it feels more natural.

  • Continue what you're already doing in respect to adhering to plans: don't change your plans too much to accomodate overblown worries. I think its good you didn't have the child cancel sports practice and your other plans - that shows him/her that there are other priorities. School is important, but not the only thing (and most teachers I know realize this, too).
  • Nice answer, and really helpful to hear from a teacher, so +1. But I'm not sure I agree with all of it. – anongoodnurse Sep 12 at 1:13
  • Even if you can't change the underlying trait, you can teach coping strategies. – Paul Johnson Sep 12 at 9:31
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I've struggled a fair bit with anxiety, and did at school too, and one of the things my therapist recommended to me is a 'worry book'.

Every time I worry about something, I write it down in my book. And below that, I write down a response to that worry.

For example, if she's worried about getting zero, the response would be a reminder that the teacher doesn't usually grade that harshly, and she did put work into it, and there will be other projects, etc. etc. I try to keep the response as logical as possible.

And then whenever she thinks about that worry again, she can go back to her worry book and be reminded of her logical response, and that helps to focus not on the worry, but on the solution or the response.

I write down every thing I worry about in this way, and it's really nice to look back on the book at things I worried about a year ago, and realise that I don't worry about them anymore!

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