Empowering Your Child to Hold The “Worry Ball”

By Jacob Gallinger, Principal, Bialik Hebrew Day School

Consider the following two hypothetical Bialik students:

Arnold is a kind and bright boy. He loves to play sports at recess and is the captain of his double A hockey team. His parents have been relatively uninvolved in his school experience since Grade 5. In Grade 6 and 7, he struggles to stay on top of his work. In Grade 8, Arnold experiences some anxiety as he realizes that, if he wants to be successful, he will need to work on his study skills. Arnold graduates elementary school with a B+ average. In high school, his adaptive anxiety enables him to begin 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. They review his homework agenda every day and communicate weekly with his teachers. 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 and support from his parents?

When Toronto-based clinical psychologist, Dr. Alex Russell, addressed our Bialik community, his message was clear: children learn through the experience of non-catastrophic, painful failure. According to Dr. Russell, “It is through the process of failures that [children] mature into resilient, resourceful and emotionally balanced individuals. Parents should see failing … as a normal part of growing up and not a sign of parental incompetence.”

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, but his adaptive anxiety eventually kicked in at high school, and, as Dr. Russell frames it, he was able to carry his own “worry ball.” 

Gary, on the other hand, did not have the opportunity to develop adaptive anxiety. Each time things became difficult, his parents micromanaged and held the “worry ball” for him, not allowing Gary to do his own worrying. 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.

It seems counterintuitive to parents who are looking out for their kids’ success to leave them to struggle with self-management and “non-catastrophic, painful failure” — allowing them to carry their own “worry ball.” But if parents follow Dr. Alex Russell’s advice, they will become “minding parents,” present for their children but not taking over and doing all the worrying. He advises parents to listen and empathize without finding solutions to school issues. 

Parents may be surprised to see the long-term changes as their children take charge, learn from their mistakes, and become more resilient.