Supporting Student Mental Health Learning Series

Cracking the Anxiety Code

Now available on the NLPS YouTube channel - "Cracking the Anxiety Code" - a series of four videos with Dr. Caroline Buzanko.

Watch the videos, then submit your questions in this Google Form.

Dr. Buzanko will answer your questions live on May 23 from 7-8 p.m. in a Google Meet

Our Supporting Student Mental Health Learning Series is being led by  Dr. Caroline Buzanko, a psychologist who works with children, teens, and their families to maximize confidence and resilience. 

The learning series includes three sessions in spring 2024. One of these will be for staff and two are parent-focused. Each session consists of a video that can be watched at a time that is convenient for the viewer, followed by a scheduled live question and answer session.

The first video was for staff and focused on "The art of effective behaviour management." A followup Q&A session was held on April 18th.

To kick off Mental Health Week, on Monday, May 6, NLPS hosted a live question and answer session with Dr. Buzanko on Google Meet. For those who were unable to participate, highlights from that session are available below.

On May 7, we shared a series of 4 videos focused on "Cracking the Anxiety Code." Parents will have two weeks to view the videos and reflect on what they have learned. On May 23, Dr. Buzanko will host another live Q&A on Google Meet from 7-8 p.m. Questions can be submitted in advance using this Google Form.

The third session will focus on "Co-regulation to promote self-regulation." The video component will be shared with parents at the end of May, with the question and answer session taking place on June 11.

The Supporting Student Mental Health Learning Series is presented in partnership with Pathways of Hope, a joint initiative between NLPS and the Bonnyville Primary Care Network.

You can learn more about Dr. Buzanko at

Mental Health Week Q&A

The difference between normal worries and nervousness and anxiety is that there's an ending. Usually there's a situation like maybe that I'm worried about an upcoming test or my daughter actually just had a date. So the few days before you could just see she was super nervous,  but then as soon as that event's over, the worrying stops. It's just done. 

With anxiety, there's ongoing worries about the future. It just never seems to stop and there's not necessarily one specific situation. Kiddos with generalized anxiety, they're just sort of nervous about everything and it's all the time it never really stops. 

There's a lot of proactive work that needs to be done. A lot of the skills that I talk about, regarding emotion regulation and being able to understand what's happening in my body when emotions are coming up, that proactive work of mindful awareness of the internal feelings is really, really important. Just generally we should all be working on that all the time anyway.

When it comes to exams it's really about preparation. Kids will feel more nervous if they didn't really study very well in the first place or they were cramming right before, so when it comes to combating test anxiety the best approach is regular review all the time leading up to the test. I would get your child to review notes now all the time and create a study guide for themselves.

One tip is to go back through notes and tests and highlight anything you are confident you know or could explain to someone else in green. And then anything else that I know in my head but have a hard time articulating to somebody else in yellow. And anything that I have no idea and couldn't explain it and maybe don't remember even reading before in pink. And now you've got your study guide. You can start studying all of the pink stuff and then the green and yellow. to make sure they understand it.

The other one I always say is priming the brain. Just like when we work out we want to warm up the body, warm up the muscles, we want to warm up the brain for an exam. for Anxious kids might know it and they might have studied and done all the things but then their mind blanks the minute they come into a test and so we just want to get over that initial blankness. And so we almost want to give them a framework. So every test you do the exact same thing. So maybe it's write my name, write the date.

Maybe if you can bring in scrap paper so that they can just write for two minutes just to get their brain warmed up to writing. Maybe it's a brain dump. If everything I can remember all the equations I need for science or all of the facts that I was holding on. It's just a big brain dump just to get over that hump.

And then maybe I just look to see how many questions there are. So it's kind of like, if you look at athletes, tennis is a great example. There's a lot of OCD types of behaviours in different types of sports, but it's to help them focus and zoom in. So Serena Williams, for example, I don't know her exact routine, but she wears the exact same clothes. Maybe I'm probably making this up, but she does have her routine. I just don't know what it is, but you'll see them move their water bottle here and then over here and they might do it five times and then they put their racket down in one spot and they line their other stuff up in the exact same way every single time. And then they go to serve and they bounce the ball every time three times. So it's that routine, that structure, that helps the brain stay focused on what's next, rather than panic. Having some sort of routine or structure like that just to help the brain know what I'm doing and what I need to do.

It's so hard. I think it was a problem before and now since COVID, I know it's even harder. I think getting kids off of screens and off of social media is the number one thing. We think that they're connected. We think that we're supporting them, but we're actually making it worse. They're more disconnected the more connected they are. They need real interactions with real people. The biggest thing is just creating that supportive safe environment at home. I mean, that's the best that we can do. I can't force kids to be friends with our kids or we can't necessarily get them engaged that way, but we can look at how we can foster some of the relationships in our own home.

My daughter's graduating Grade 12 this year. She still loves hanging out with us. She gets home at noon everyday because she's got two spares in the afternoon, but she just wants to come and hang, and at nights she'll still go out with friends when she's got the opportunity. But she never feels lonely and isolated because we're here too. So even when they get to high school, parents are still the most important relationship. We think it's peers, and peers are certainly important as they get into teenagers, but he family relationship is still very important. 

I wouldn't try to reassure them and console them. It's just a matter of how can we create some of those positive experiences and then getting them active into stuff. Maybe it's trying something new every month. If they're not into sports, maybe try an art class or something else.

For younger kids, it's way harder to take it away if they already have it than to give it in the first place. So your younger kids, just don't give it to them if that's still an option.

The screen talk is really tricky and I find that people end up fighting when you try and take them away. But do you know that screens affect the exact same part of the brain just as quickly as cocaine? So if they were coming home with a little bag of cocaine, would you take it away? Truly we need to think about that, and it's so addicting. It's just as impairing an addiction as substances. If you've ever tried taking a screen away from a kid and you've seen all sorts of behaviour, those are withdrawal behaviours.

It's going to be hard. It's going to disrupt the relationship, but it's crucial because it's really affecting kids. If they are older, I would want to collaborate and say hey, this really is a problem and let's work together. Maybe we can start creating some boundaries around it. 

Just getting it out of their room at night to start. That's maybe where you can start if that would be the better approach to collaborate with them. We're going to make a plan for where we are going to start and whatever rule that you put in place, you have to make sure you are going to follow through with it too. So if you're going to say no screens in the bedroom, you have to do it too. 

Just start working on the relationship. It's never too late. It does take a lot of work, I would expect months, and if it's to the point of complete withdrawal and contempt it might even be longer than that. It's not just a one and done, but it really is just planting seeds. Think of planting a tree, it takes a long time. So we need to establish those roots and it really comes down to effective listening.

You listen and just try to find truth in what they say. Don't try to give advice or anything like that. It's just acknowledging. It's really just listening and validating their experience. You could do little things like, love notes or just and I've got two teenagers and they're like, Mom, you're so embarrassing all the time, but I know they love it, So just getting a little card and with a little note and slipping and under their door, just I was thinking about you or when you go to a grocery store by their favorite chocolate bar. Hey, I was just thinking about you those little seeds that we can start planting can be really helpful.

Like my husband his sort of love language is he finds little memes or funny videos. He doesn't send it to the girls. But as soon as they come home, hey, I want to show you this quick little video, right? It takes five seconds, but they're next to him looking at so there's lots of little ways like that just finding what your kids love languages and trying to every day make sure we're planting those seeds.

We also need to look at what we are modelling. I know I kind of struggle with this a little bit with one of my girls because I'm a self-critical model and so it's around certain things like cooking for example when I burn something  and say something like I'm so stupid. I don't do that anymore because I saw how much they pick up. You're sending the message that if it's not perfect, it's not good enough.

Even things like telling kids to put their coats on because it's cold and they tell us they're not cold. We're telling them that they can't handle things right or aren't smart enough or whatever enough. We're always correcting them. And so that's really going to affect their self-esteem. So just pay attention to how much corrective feedback that you're giving your kids.

We also don't want to negate what they say and go "no, no, no, you're beautiful" or "you're so smart" or "everybody loves you." If they say I have no friends, nobody likes me, we do those things as parents intending to make them feel better. But it's not helpful, it's just negating how they feel.

There's a lot of research that when we're always telling our kids to focus on the positives and find the silver living around different things, it actually makes them feel worse about themselves and makes them feel worse off. So we want to kind of have a balanced view. It's okay to identify those areas where they don't feel strong, but we also want to make sure to break it down, but not in the moment when they're being hard on themselves. We just want to listen. We don't want to try to convince them otherwise because they're just going to hold on to that story even more because you're not listening and they're just going to not even listen to anything else we have to say, but maybe it's another time when they're in a bit of a better mood.

And then you can say, hey, I noticed the other day you're really bumming about how you look or whatever and I just wanted to sit down and let's look at all the positives and the things that are a little bit harder. That can be really helpful.

It's just giving them lots of opportunities to feel successful. So maybe it's giving them important jobs that it's their responsibility to plan Grandma's birthday or to do something important and meaningful and that they're contributing those opportunities are really important and just trying hard things like those at the types of things that actually builds self-esteem. The harder the challenge, the bigger the boost in self-confidence and everything else.

I bet there's more emotions, but we really probably only notice the angry ones. At the end of the day there's probably lots in between.

First we've got to make sure we're ruling out anything underlying medically, any discomfort. Whenever I see big angry or disruptive behaviours, I actually ask about bowel movements. If you've got a constipated kiddo, you've probably got a behavioural kiddo. So I would want to make sure we rule that out and sleep as well. It doesn't matter what strategies we put into place if they're not getting enough sleep. It's going to be so hard for them to be able to regulate any emotions or frustration. So all of those things first, we've go to address and any sensory things because sometimes when we're in pain, we actually react angrily too.

So just making sure that we're looking at those types of things and any basic needs like if they're hungry.  It it's always happening at 4:30 right after school, may let's try giving them a snack. 

And we also want to make sure there's no bullying happening or underlying learning challenges or attention challenges because, again, we can put in all the behaviour supports in the world, but if we're not addressing the underlying needs, it's going to be really difficult. 

Then it really comes back down to, I think the root of everything that we need to do is effective communication where kids are feeling heard and understood. So I'm always saying to ask your kids on a scale of 1 to 10 how much to you think I understand you, and if they say anything other than 10, I ask okay what am I doing that's making you not feel heard and understood? What can I do a little bit better? How can we work together?

I see a lot of behaviours when kids just are feeling misunderstood and they don't feel the unconditional love a lot of kids feel,  like they only get love under certain conditions and we want to make sure that's not true. We want to make sure we're not only giving their bad behaviours attention. We often say we're giving them lots, but really we're just nitpicking at them nagging all day go put your shoes away and go put your dishes away and where's your homework and get off your screen, it's time to go to bed. We really got to start looking at how many positive interactions do we actually have and for these kiddos? It's like a 15 ratio - 15 positive pieces of attention to every 1 corrective feedback. So we have to be really careful with that. It's important to think about because punishment doesn't work. We know that. 

It's just a matter of making sure at the end of the day that underlying needs are met and supporting them and giving them lots of opportunities to feel like they're doing something important and meaningful, even volunteer work can be so empowering and really helpful for a lot of kids. So we just want to start focusing on bringing more positive emotions and it could even just be like, half an hour every day they get to play their playlist whatever their favourite means music is we're going to have a dance party. Just use your creativity to have some of those positive moments through the day.  

Yeah, so kids are just so over scheduled. Part of it is just do they actually need to do all of those activities. I didn't bring this book, but it's called Thrivers by Michele Borba. She talks about how we've built this society of strivers. Our kids are always striving to be the best at their sport and the best volunteer and the best in school, but they're not thriving, they're just getting crippled under all of the stress of everything that they need to do. 

Look at the schedule and do we actually need to do piano and soccer and baseball and a summer camp and you know what? I mean, we got to look at those developmental things that every person should be doing every single day.

You read 30 minutes a day. I mean it helps with empathy and they're exposed over two million words a year. That's so much more compared to a kiddo who might read 10 minutes a day and they were only access a few thousand words a year. So that developmentally is so important. We're seeing a lot more narcissism and a lot of it's connected to a lack of reading.

Kids need to play and have fun. When is play in there? That's more important than piano lessons to be quite honest.

And they need physical activity at least an hour every single day and outside time. I mean, it doesn't have to be running for a 10K marathon or sprint or anything.

So we've got to make sure that they're doing those kind of basic things and then as a family if there's things for you that's really important as well on top of that.

So it really is just looking at our schedules. What do we absolutely need to do? And if you are doing it, make sure that you're scheduling downtime to do nothing. Our brain wants to be in default mode. It should be in default mode 50% of the time. Our kids need to learn how to manage boredom too. That's important.