He'd finish a coughing jag and immediately ask me if any teachers had emailed assignments, even though he didn't feel well enough to do them. Here he was trying to heal, and the anxiety was making things worse.
Here's the two-step mindfulness tool I used to lighten his load of overwhelm. Give it a try when your kids get caught up in stressful thoughts.
Separate the worries.
First, I asked him to separate each of his worries, and say them out loud. One at a time.
Here's what he came up with:
"I'm worried that I have so much work to make up."
"I'm worried that the new stuff will just keep piling up on the stuff I haven't made up yet."
"I'm worried that I am falling behind."
"I'm worried that I won't have time to go around to all the teachers and get the assignments."
Separating the worries helps break what feels like a giant lump of stress into smaller, more manageable chunks. Picture breaking apart an orange into separate, defined sections.
When you speak the worries out loud, you're acknowledging them. You're naming the struggle. And when you can name it, you can claim it.
Giving voice to each separate worry is the first step. Here's the second:
Become a worry observer.
After my son separated his worries, I asked him to move on to step two: Seeing those worries projected on a screen, one at a time.
"I'm worried that I have so much work to make up," for example, becomes a sentence projected onto an imaginary television, tablet or movie screen.
Encourage your child to watch the worry from a safe distance.
The mindfulness technique of observing your thoughts allows you to detach just enough to avoid getting caught up in those thoughts.
Research shows this type of mindfulness exercise can increase children's concentration and focus, while decreasing their anxiety. They become less triggered, and more objective.
Google's mindfulness guru, Chade-Meng Tan, describes the process of observing your thoughts and emotions from a distance in his book Search Inside Yourself.
"It is almost like living that cool scene in the movie The Matrix, in which Keanu Reeves's character, Neo, dodges bullets after he becomes able to perceive the moments the bullets are fired and see their trajectory in slow motion," Tan writes. "Well, maybe we're not that cool, but you get the point."
The point, according to Tan, is not to slow down time, but to precisely watch our emotions as a careful observer.
Choose your own image.
While my son said he liked the idea of being able to separate from his thoughts, he said he preferred to use the image of a volcano, shooting the worry up in the air like lava. Or a geyser, with the worry exploding out the top.
So go ahead and invite your child to come up with his own creative scenario for observing the worry.
The goal here is not to eliminate the stress, but to make it more manageable.
"I'm still worried, it didn't get rid of that, but it feels better because it made the worry something I could see," my son reported.
Seeing the worries put him in a more grounded position to work with his teachers on a concrete plan to make up those missed assignments.
As a parent, I felt like I'd given him a helpful tool he can use going forward.
Research shows mindfulness increases children's self-awareness, resilience, and well being. When kids have the tools to become more present, they feel more in charge of their choices.
I know I can't, and shouldn't, protect my son from the stress of being a teenager.
But like Keanu Reeves dodging slow-motion bullets, I can teach him mindfulness techniques to help him clearly see that stress, acknowledge it, and decide what to do about it.