Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Archive for October 25th, 2010

Middle School Applications

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 25, 2010

     Lily, age eleven, is in the sixth grade, which I imagine for most children, is a relatively low-stress time in their lives, unless they live in a major city where the competition for private seventh grade education feels like their world will tilt towards success or failure depending on this admissions process. Childhood anxiety, or rather, household anxiety, for these children is an experience which, to the unfamiliar, would seem bizarre and unnecessary, yet to those who live through this phase with multiple children, and/or in a professional capacity, begins to seem like a normal growth phase. “I want to wave my wand and make all your anxiety go away,” I say to Lily’s parents. Lily is bright, creative, fun-loving, with lots of friends and multiple academic and non-academic interests. Yet, Lily’s parents are fretting over a math test: “she could have done better,” Lily’s mom, Sophia,  says with impatience and fear. “And so,” I respond. “And so, she might be screwing up her chances,” Lily’s mom replies, as if I missed the obvious. “You mean her chances for going to a good school for seventh grade,” I say out loud so that Lily’s mom can hear how her fears sound when they are repeated back to her. “I know it is not logical,” Sophia replies. “Lily is going to go to seventh grade and she is going to make the school work for her. She is just that kind of kid,” I say, knowing that by emphasizing Lily’s adaptability, Sophia might be able to relax.

   One challenge in child psychiatry is that I need to manage Sophia’s anxiety to help Lily, but Sophia is not my patient. Sophia has given me permission to help Lily thrive in her world, but she has not given me permission to help her (Sophia) manage her stress. Navigating these waters is my challenge. Sophia encourages me to see Lily as “anxious” and I urge Sophia that although that maybe true, it might also be true that Lily is echoing Sophia’s anxiety, and as such, Lily will calm down when Sophia does. Sophia understands, but she is not interested in her own personal treatment; she only wants Lily to calm down. In essence, she understands that by changing her attitude she can help Lily, but she does not feel that it is worth her time or money to explore her issues around Lily’s middle school applications. Maybe I am stuck, but maybe I can keep working with Sophia to help her to see that indeed, it may be worth her time and money to look at the meaning of Lily’s academic achievements for Sophia. At the same time, I can work with Lily to cope with the multitude of stressors which go with this transition time in her life. Having said that, I wish that eleven year olds were not faced with these pressures. I wish that schools were seamless; children matriculated based on personal accomplishments, rather than the number of slots open versus the number of applicants. If my wish came true, the mental health of these families would improve substantially. I won’t go so far to say that it should be a public health mandate to have more options for seventh grade, but I would like to.

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