12 May, 2023

Counselor's Corner

Counselor's Corner - Counselors Corner

The following body safety skills can be taught throughout your child’s life and can be included as part of daily conversations.

1. Teach your children the proper names of their body parts. 

As soon as your child begins to talk, name each body part correctly including the genitals, i.e. penis, vagina, vulva, buttocks, breasts and nipples. Explain to your child that their ‘private parts’ are the parts under their bathing suit. Note  : a child’s mouth is also known as a ‘private zone’. Avoid the use of ‘pet names’ to describe the genitals. This way, if a child is touched inappropriately, they can clearly state where they were touched. 

2. Make sure there is a clear understanding of the word ‘private.’ 

Explain the terms ‘private’ and ‘public’, i.e. ‘private’ means just for you. Talk about a toilet as being a private place but the kitchen, for example, is a public space because it is shared. Relate these terms to both spaces and body parts. 

3. Explain to your child who they should talk to if they feel unsafe. 

Teach your child that no one has the right to touch or ask to see their private parts, and if someone does, they must tell a trusted adult straightaway. Teach your child that if someone (i.e. the perpetrator) asks them to touch their own private parts, shows their private parts to the child or shows them images of private parts that this is wrong also. As your child becomes older (3+) help them to identify three to five trusted adults they could tell anything to and they would be believed. These people are part of their Safety Network.  Note  : at least one person should not be a family member. 

4. Talk to your child about all different types of feelings. 

At the same time as you are discussing inappropriate touch, talk about feelings. Discuss what it feels like to be happy, sad, angry, etc. Encourage your child in daily activities to talk about their feelings, e.g. ‘I felt really sad when … pushed me over.’ This way your child will be more able to verbalize how they are feeling if someone does touch them inappropriately. 

5. Make sure they have a clear understanding of ‘safe’ vs. ‘unsafe.’ 

Talk with your child about feeling ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’. Discuss times when your child might feel ‘unsafe’, e.g. being pushed down a steep slide; or ‘safe’, e.g. snuggled up on the couch reading a book with you. It is important children understand the different emotions that come with feeling ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’. 

6. Discuss what it feels like to feel unsafe. 

Discuss your child’s Early Warning Signs when they feel unsafe, i.e. heart racing, feeling sick in the tummy, sweaty palms, etc. Let them come up with some ideas of their own. Tell your child that they must tell you or a person on their Safety Network if any of their Early Warning Signs occur. Reinforce that you will always believe them and that they can tell you anything. 

7. Discourage secret keeping. 

Talk about ‘happy surprises’ instead such as not telling Granny about her surprise birthday party. Compare this with ‘unsafe’ secrets such as someone touching their private parts. Make sure your child knows that if someone does ask them to keep an unsafe secret that they must tell someone on their Safety Network straightaway. 

8. Empower your child to speak up if something feels wrong. 

Discuss with your child when it is appropriate for someone to touch their private parts, e.g. a doctor when they are sick (but making sure they know you must be in the room). Explain that if someone does touch their private parts (without you there) that they have the right to say, ‘No!’ or ‘Stop!’ and outstretch their arm and hand. Reinforce to your child that they are the ‘boss of their body’ and they do not have to kiss or hug a person if they don’t want to. Explain that we all have a ‘body boundary’. This is an invisible space that surrounds our body, and that no one can enter another person’s body boundary unless they allow it. 


Health & Well-Being: Reframing the Anxiety Conversation By Elaine Griffin 

Like many schools across the country, University School of Milwaukee (WI) has seen an uptick in anxiety among students since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other well-resourced independent schools, we have a counseling team well-versed on the topic, and we’ve brought in experts to provide guidance on how to support students. As a middle school head, I am seeing something unusual take hold, however: Before attending a first dance or giving a major speech, our students used to say that they had butterflies in their stomachs or that they felt nervous. Now they say, “I have anxiety.”  

My colleagues and I believe that some of our students are conflating the nerve-wracking feelings that accompany stressful events with a clinical malady. Students are invoking the word “anxiety” in the clinical sense because they fear that their worry isn’t normal. We’ve even seen students self-diagnose after watching wellness gurus on TikTok list the symptoms of anxiety disorders. Witnessing this phenomenon led me to ask new questions about anxiety. How can educators help their students uncouple clinical disorders from ordinary worries? How can we normalize anxious feelings and teach students healthy coping strategies? How can we help students be less anxious about being anxious? 

These questions led me to Tracy Dennis-Tiwary’s book: Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good For You (Even Though It Feels Bad). She makes important distinctions between debilitating anxiety and the anxious feelings we all experience and presents a radical new idea: We should embrace anxiety and view it as a vital source of wisdom that can help us navigate life’s uncertainties. I reached out to Dennis-Tiwary to explore this more, and she shared with me some advice for educators and parents about how to support anxious children.  

Reducing Stress About Anxiety 

In her book, Dennis-Tiwary argues that we need anxiety. When I asked her more about that, she told me that “anxiety is not a disorder but an emotion. We cannot avoid it.” Anxiety is the brain’s way of dealing with uncertainty about the future, predicting that something negative could happen, even when something positive is still possible. Anxiety allows us to navigate the in-between. Yet anxiety is broadly defined as a medical disorder, often undermining our ability to engage and address everyday anxiety in healthy ways.  

Dennis-Tiwary says the way we think about anxiety can block our ability to cope with it. Having a lot of anxiety every day isn’t enough to have a disorder, she says. There must be functional impairment, which occurs when anxiety gets in the way of a person’s ability to work, go to school, or have healthy relationships. Similarly, thinking of the emotion of anxiety as a disorder can lead to avoidance behaviors, which then exacerbate the feeling and create a cycle of anxiety. “If we don’t allow kids to struggle with difficulty and uncertainty, they won’t learn to cope,” Dennis-Tiwary says. 

While the rates of anxiety disorders among prepubescent girls and boys are the same, girls are more likely than boys to be diagnosed at puberty—a result of biology, some say. “But it’s more acceptable from a gendered-socialization standpoint for girls to experience and express vulnerable emotions like anxiety,” Dennis-Tiwary says. “Girls are also socialized to be more perfectionistic than boys.” Perfectionism creates more risks for anxiety disorders. 

In her book, Dennis-Tiwary suggests that perfectionism needs to be replaced by excellencism. Trying to avoid failure or judgment from others—holding ourselves to standards of flawlessness—stokes feelings that will only lead to problematic anxiety. Instead, we should strive for excellence, she writes. “You must know that excellence is going to be less than 100%. You will fail along the way, but doing great work is a journey. When you allow yourself to make some mistakes, you are more creative and dynamic.” 

She reminds parents that their job is not to protect children from life’s inevitable challenges but to prepare them to meet such challenges. When parents try to remove all obstacles to their children’s happiness—becoming snowplow parents—they make kids more vulnerable and less resilient. Adults need to lean into antifragility—systems that increase one’s ability to thrive because of encounters with adversity—to help our children better handle stress.   

Parents can initiate the conversation around anxiety by introducing kids to healthy ways for working through—not around—their emotions. Dennis-Tiwary uses a rubric she calls the three L’s: listen, leverage, and let go.   

  • Listen: Start to treat anxiety as information. Negative emotions give us information about how we are doing and what we need. Ask kids to write down worries that are concrete and specific (i.e., an upcoming test and particular concepts they don’t understand). Articulating anxieties in this way gives them information. 
  • Leverage: Young people can then attach the information to a goal that can be articulated. For example, they can use that test anxiety to make a study plan and focus on the difficult material. As soon as they make a plan, anxiety starts to decrease. Leveraging involves future thinking. When anxiety is identified, an action can almost always make things better. 
  • Let go: This is where people usually start, using avoidance as a coping mechanism. But in an ideal progression of this work, an individual has deliberately tried to listen and leverage. Yet sometimes anxiety doesn’t reveal its secrets all that easily, or other things in our lives need attention. “Sometimes we just have to go to bed,” Dennis-Tiwary says. “We must rejuvenate. For some of us, that means turning to a wellness or spiritual practice. For others, it means having coffee with a friend. I love writing poetry because it absorbs me in the present.”

In Practice

After reflecting upon Dennis-Tiwary’s research, I have two big takeaways that I hope to put into practice at my school. First, we need to start using different language to describe anxiety because the word carries such a heightened, clinical meaning right now. Using words like “worry,” “nervousness,” or “apprehension” can deescalate students’ fears and help them distinguish between anxiety disorders and anxious feelings.

Second, we need to normalize anxious feelings so that students who experience them can interpret them as ordinary. When we assign a project or a speech, we should tell students that feeling nervous is to be expected. Their nervousness indicates that they care and want to do well on the assignment. We can advise them to harness that nervous energy to make a plan for tackling the task ahead. Before speeches and performances, we can teach students how to do deep breathing that will slow their heartrates and provide a sense of calm.

Being intentional about helping our kids manage the anxieties that are a natural part of growing up will build more resilient, self-assured adults.