The Literacy Institute Newsletter:
Facing the Anxiety of Uncertainty
March 2016
Penny Moldofsky, Director of 
The Literacy Institute
Dear Woodlynde Families, Friends, and Colleagues,
"I don't know what will happen!" "I better not try that new club because I'm not sure who will be there." "You can't make a change in the plans - it will ruin everything." "But...what if...?"

These are the voices of children and teens (and probably many adults) who can't tolerate uncertainty and who are plagued by the accompanying stress and burdensome coping behaviors. On February 25 as part of Woodlynde School's Literacy Institute Speaker Series, Dr. Deborah Ledley and Dr. Lynne Siqueland shared examples of their cognitive-behavioral approach to helping children and teens deal with the uncertainty that is an integral part of living a full life. Unlike some other forms of therapy, the CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) involves:
  1. Educating children and teens to be experts at understanding how anxiety makes them feel/think/act
  2. Guiding them to notice and label anxious thoughts so they can be challenged
  3. Gradually exposing them to feared situations so they can gather evidence about what actually occurred. This allows them to test their beliefs.
Straight Talk About Worry and Uncertainty
Children need to know that their brains like information and that not knowing is uncomfortable. Dr. Siqueland lets teens know that using exposures to tolerate uncertainty is something they will most likely hate, but will result in an improved quality of life. Dr. Ledley guides children to understand that if you plan too much for the least  likely situation, you may not prepare for the more likely situation.

Children and teens with anxiety also need to learn to understand that worry is not the same as being in danger; feeling anxious is unpleasant, but it will pass. Worry can sabotage the fun of life and messes with your "big picture" goals.

When parents allow children to avoid things because of worry, the lesson for kids is often, "I can't handle a challenge. I'm not capable." Along with that, providing continuous reassurance (or answering a steady stream of questions) for a child or teen actually feeds the worry so it gets worse, not better. Worry, sadness, boredom, and fear are parts of our emotional range. While they can be uncomfortable feelings, they are rarely dangerous or life threatening.
New Language for Parents and Teachers
Instead of allowing anxious children and teens to avoid their worries or reassuring them constantly, parents and teachers can utilize some of the following tactics:
  • Restate with empathy but without providing reassurance or solutions: "That sounds uncomfortable." "I can see that lots of things happened at once."
  • Convey confidence, but keep it brief:   "I don't know exactly what will happen, but I believe you can handle it."
  • Set reasonable expectations and don't back down: "It's important that we follow through with a promise." "Everyone in this family has a job, and I know you can handle taking out the trash cans."
  • Regarding "homework freakout," parents and teachers should safeguard downtime for all kids, but especially for anxious kids: "When you work for 20 minutes on this homework, stop and put the time and initials on what you completed." "Remind yourself that this is your 'homework freakout' talking. You get your work done even if it doesn't feel like it."
  • Teachers who have anxious, perfectionist students who worry about uncertainty can help greatly by letting this child know: "I know that you are a hard worker. When I tell the class to do a better job, the message is not for you." "I have great respect for you as a student. Everybody has trouble on some assignments. I'm fine with that."
Exposure Coaches
Both Dr. Ledley and Dr. Siqueland feel that parents and teachers can be "exposure coaches." (Make sure to first check with the child's therapist to make sure they are ready for this follow-up coaching and so that the exposures are agreed upon between parent, therapist, and child in advance.)

For example, if a child or teen is working on coping with the uncertainty of going to school, participating in an after-school activity, or taking a test, the parent, teacher, or coach could say:
  • What do you think will happen?
  • What has happened before?
  • Let's give it a try and see.
  • You're going to feel anxious, but you can use your strategies. I know you can do it.
Then, choose one thing each week to "walk past no." This is Dr. Ledley's strategy for kids whose response to any worrisome situation is "no." They may begin with a few minutes of activity that is worrisome after practicing the exposure with the therapist, but the parents/teachers can support by making sure the child or teen is coached to "walk past no."

Furthermore, don't always tell kids the plan. Say things like, "on Saturdays, we will each have a turn to pick an activity. Let's see how it goes. I know you can do it." Accept that the child or teen will feel anxious, but keep going with the activity. Praise the child or teen after they get through it.
Dr. Ledley's and Dr. Siqueland's words resonated with me last Saturday when I caught a performance of Pippin  and Pippin's grandmother sang to her very anxious and uncertain grandson:
"For fortune and fate you're secure of 
For there's one thing to be sure of mate:
There's nothing to be sure of!..."
Along with this feisty grandmother, I'm sure Dr. Ledley and Dr. Siqueland would agree: "Oh it's time to start livin/Time to take a little from the world we're given." It's time to learn how to bounce back and embrace uncertainty so our children can live a very full life.
Both Dr. Ledley and Dr. Siqueland can be contacted through the Children and Adult's Center for OCD & Anxiety in Plymouth Meeting, PA. Learn more at,, and
Penny Moldofsky, M.S.
Director of The Literacy Institute at Woodlynde School
Upcoming Speaker Series Events
All Literacy Institute Speaker Series events are FREE and open to the public.

Lost in the Tech Effect: Strategies for Successful Work-Family-Life Integration
Presented by Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair
April 28
7:00 p.m.

School Summer Program
Exploring Latin America
June 27-July 22
For students entering grades 

About The Literacy Institute
The Literacy Institute is one of only five Wilson® Accredited Partner Schools in the country. As such, it provides research-based instruction for Woodlynde students in the Wilson® Reading System as well as high quality professional development for the Woodlynde community and the greater Philadelphia area. Throughout the year, The Literacy Institute offers a free series of nationally-recognized speakers in the field of learning differences for area parents and professionals.
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