Flying Lessons

In an age of anxiety, Sidwell Friends teachers and staff learn how to embrace struggle—not avoid it.

“The kids are not okay,” said Jonathan Dalton, the founder of the Center for Anxiety and Behavioral Change, at a special address to all Sidwell Friends faculty and staff ahead of the start of the 2022/23 school year. “When you have children with intelligence, creativity, and compassion, the universe throws in anxiety for free.”

Indeed, rates of mental health crises among kids—from reports of clinical anxiety to suicide, suicidal attempts, and suicidal ideation—are at all-time highs, particularly among sexual minorities. Students are feeling more anxious now than they did during the Great Depression and World War II. And though the reasons are complex (everything from illicit substances to social media plays a role), Dalton said a huge number of kids are operating under the “illusion of a narrow path to success”—that is, the idea that one must achieve specific accomplishments at specific moments or else face certain failure. It’s what he calls the “cult of competitive suffering.”

But there is good news, too: Anxiety is among the most treatable of all mental health ailments. In fact, Dalton says, he doesn’t even treat anxiety per se: He treats anxiety avoidance. “When we avoid anxiety, we fire our mind’s best teacher,” he said. Resilience comes from learning how to do the hard things, not avoiding them. That’s why it is critical for parents and teachers to reinforce effort over outcome. “Making an effort and struggling,” Dalton said, “is pregnant with meaning and purpose.”

To that end, helping students adapt and find creative solutions to anxiety—without avoiding it—is key. That can mean making accommodations (like having a student with public-speaking anxiety start with a one-on-one presentation or via Zoom as they build up to a larger public-speaking event); fostering connections between likeminded students; teaching students to be “anxious and…” (anxious and strong, anxious and smart, etc.); and starting conversations acknowledging the challenges ahead (I see something in you and I think this will be hard, but I also think you can do it).

Large eagles on flimsy branches are not scared, Dalton said. Not because the birds think nothing bad will happen, or a storm will never come, or the branch will never break. They are not scared because they know when something bad does happen, they can fly. That’s why we have to teach our kids not to avoid the branch but to learn to fly.

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