How To Support Your Child Through Gym Class Anxiety

Gym class can be nerve-wracking for kids. Here's why physical education can be a frightening place and ways parents can help their kids through it.

An image of children in gym class.
Photo: Getty Images.

Growing up, I would constantly come up with ways to avoid gym class. I remember faking stomach aches in hopes of sitting out of the class. The goal was to never be picked last for a sports team again. I simply couldn't handle the inner pain that came with it or the feeling that I wasn't "good enough."

I'm not alone in those feelings. While physical education, also called PE, is important, it's a class that can lead to bullying, body shaming, and exclusion. Athletic abilities are often in the spotlight, and unflattering attire may be mandatory. This can be stressful for children who aren't as athletic or confident in their bodies.

"I hear about this all the time from kids themselves and from teachers who are aware that this is happening in the school system and want to do a better job of creating safe and encouraging gym class settings," says Ann Douglas, a best-selling parenting author and mental health advocate and speaker.

Experts explain how a negative physical education experience can impact children and how parents can help them maintain their self-esteem if they are struggling through it.

How Gym Class Can Affect Kids

Physical education can be a way for kids to enhance their physical and mental health, as well as social skills, especially during the pandemic. "In the current COVID climate, PE is often the only time during the school day that students experience a sense of 'normalcy' where they are able to interact with each other in a social and physical environment," says Francyne Zeltser, Psy.D., a child psychologist, certified school psychologist, and mom of two.

That's not all. Children also learn problem-solving skills in PE, and "sportsmanship, which is the sports version of empathy," adds Dr. Zeltser.

But to reap those benefits, kids need to feel good about PE class and that's not always the case. A 2018 study from Iowa State University looking at more than 1,000 adults 18 to 45 years old found 34 percent of their worst memories when thinking back to PE class related to embarrassment, 18 percent was no enjoyment, 17 percent was bullying, and 14 percent was social-physique anxiety. Another negative memory was being criticized by a PE teacher who told students they needed to lose weight or gave them extra physical assignments. These issues were found to have long-lasting effects including negative attitudes toward physical activity and sedentary behavior in adulthood.

Thankfully, schools across the country are attempting to make the PE environment more inclusive and positive. Kerry Brady, a physical education teacher in New York with nearly two decades of experience, says, "In the past, it was only the athletes who earned the A's or higher grades in PE; however, things are changing." Brady says there's been a shift in what's being taught too. "It's not the usual kickball and basketball games—cooperative games are also played," she says. "Often, peer mediation may be involved, as well as the use of calming corners and break stations."

But gym class can differ depending on a school's funding and policies, as well as an educator's style of teaching. "We see dance and yoga as alternatives in some progressive and independent schools, but most public schools still focus on traditional athletics," says Brian Platzer, a New York City-based English teacher, co-founder of NYC Teachers Who Tutor, and co-author of Taking the Stress out of Homework. He has seen more attention on skill building and less on competition though. "Captains choosing teams has fallen out of favor in order to spare the feelings of those picked last, but there can still be a degree of discomfort for those compelled to play sports in which they don't excel," adds Platzer.

How To Support Your Kid Through Gym Class Issues

While school policies and teachers are critical in making gym class more enjoyable for all students, parents can also play an important role in helping their kids through a difficult PE experience. Here's what experts recommend.

Listen to the issue

If your child mentions a problem in PE class or says they don't like it, it's important to take the time to really hear their concerns. "The first level would be connecting with your kids and listening to them. Don't talk them out of it, and don't try to cheer them up," says Jennifer Kolari, a child and family therapist and founder of Connected Parenting, a therapy and parent coaching platform.

It's common for parents to want to immediately fix the problem, but Kolari urges that children need to feel seen and heard before any solutions or conclusions are made.

If your child hasn't mentioned anything about gym, it's a good idea to check in on how all their classes are going and include PE in the conversation. This can be a casual conversation taking meaningful interest, the same way subjects like math or English are discussed.

And experts agree parents should maintain a non-judgmental attitude when kids begin to open up.

Validate their emotions

After your child lets you know how they feel about PE class, it's important to validate those feelings. "You'd say something like, 'it makes sense that you felt overwhelmed and afraid because gym class hasn't felt like a great place for you,'" says Douglas. "And then you can go into figuring out what the underlying issues are." Parents can ask questions including, "Is it that you're last to be picked?" or "Is it that other students make fun of you?"

Help rebuild their self-worth

Depending on what took place in class, chances are your child may be feeling insecure about their athletic abilities, appearance, or even sense of belonging. Experts say children need to be reminded that they are good enough, they are likable, and whatever takes place in gym class does not determine their self-worth. Parents can focus on where their strengths lie rather than fixating on weaknesses or solely trying to improve their sports skills.

Kolari explains that when children feel secure overall, it can minimize the pain from certain stressors. "Have them in activities that they're really good at, that they feel safe in," suggests Kolari.

Playdates with friends who the child is comfortable with are also recommended. The American Psychological Association found that positive relationships with peers and a sense of belonging increase an individual's self-esteem.

Come up with a plan of action

It's beneficial to help your child come up with strategies on how to react to potential gym class bullies. Having a script in a child's mind can create some ease if they know the right thing to say or do if they are in that situation. Kolari recommends parents guide children through using statements such as "I don't care" or "It doesn't matter." This can be practiced with parents at home so the children can then "go to school with some tools."

There will, however, be times when a parent may need to step in and speak with the school to facilitate change in the gym class practices. This is especially critical if negative effects are showing up in the child's learning and overall well-being. Speaking with school administrators and coming up with a solution on how to make gym class an emotionally safe environment is strongly encouraged.

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