July 2021

Anxiety Whack-a-Mole

boy in yellow shirt

Learning to manage anxiety means playing the long game. For kids and parents who have the kinds of brains that tend to get anxious, we’re not talking about a one-and-done effort. Anxious people need to learn how to live with anxiety because it’s not something to be cured. Instead we need to learn how to cope with worries in productive ways.

When we teach kids how to face up to and manage their response to their worries then they can face being nervous without becoming completely undone. But it’s just not realistic to say, “Hey, if you do this thing then you’ll never be anxious again.” Of course they’ll be anxious again and that’s not a failure. That’s not a failure of theirs or a failure of yours; it’s part of the reality of being a person with anxiety.

Anxious people see the world in a particular way. Their brains are looking and preparing for things that might go wrong and that’s not likely to change with therapy or meds. The issue is not the anxious brain; it’s the way the anxious brain learns to handle being anxious. Instead of going straight to worst case scenario, we want to slow the anxious brain down to be more realistic when assessing the situation. Instead of becoming physically undone by anxiety symptoms, we want to teach the anxious brain to breathe through the sweaty palms and calm the fluttering stomach.

But new situations, new developmental stages, and new challenges are likely to bring an anxious person back to anxiety and they will need to walk themselves through the process again. With practice it will get easier but to expect our anxious children to be cured, well, that’s not realistic.

Preparing for relapse (a step back to anxious behaviors) is part of being an anti-anxiety family. It’s not negative to acknowledge that lessons will need to be practiced and even relearned. It’s not failure to have to go back to the beginning and revisit our early lessons and skills. It’s part of the process of being a person with a sensitive, thoughtful, cautious and yes, anxious brain.

The curving path of treating anxiety

boy playing plastic balloon inside inflatable pool

Many parents hope that they will be able to teach their children how to be less anxious in the same way that we might teach a child to read but this isn’t how deep, emotional growth and learning works. Learning to manage anxiety is a process — generally one that lasts a lifetime. Anxiety cuts across all aspects of our experience — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual — and so it must be learned and re-learned many ways as a child grows.

It’s important that parents adjust their expectations and see their child as someone who is always and forever actively learning rather than viewing this hard work as something to be completed. We can consider various stages of understanding such as exploring how our body reacts to anxiety and how our thoughts chase after and vice versa. But also we need to accept that learning this in one context (first day of school jitters) is different than learning it in another (confronting the death of a pet) or another (dealing with conflict is an important friendship). Each confrontation with a worry is an opportunity to explore each concept and those confrontations continue through a lifetime.

A 5-year old learns to swim but is still afraid of monsters under their bed. They then learn to face the monsters but must contend with the barking dog at the park. And when they manage the dog they will confront a substitute teacher at kindergarten. Each of these must be faced anew but each is an opportunity to get stronger, smarter, more in control. Parents will need to recognize that being afraid in each situation is the same but also different. It’s not a failure to do well with one but need to start from scratch with the other. (Only it won’t be from scratch when we call on the hard won strengths and skills they are still learning.)

That nervous 5-year old may learn to conquer their fears about the swimming pools and substitutes but that doesn’t mean they won’t be a nervous 14-year old facing down a difficult history assignment. This is not backsliding; it’s progress. Children, like all of us, need to relearn things at each stage of development. When we see this as part of a healthy learning process then we won’t treat it like backsliding and in turn will model for them acceptance and understanding of facing trials.

When we know and accept that learning to cope with anxiety is lifelong, we will then be able to focus on our skills as support people. How do we get them through? How do we know when to push and when to rest? This is the job of parents through all of growing up and particularly when it comes to anxiety.

How Parental Anxiety Impacts Kids

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Anxious parents, understandably, are anxious about how their anxiety impacts their children.

Anxiety is a lot of nature and some nurture but you have to have the nature first. In other words, if a child doesn’t have the kind of brain that tends to anxiety then they may learn to be a little worried now and then but they won’t develop anxiety. Studies bear this out. Parents can parent in the exact same way and have one child with an anxiety disorder and another one that sails on through to adulthood without issue.

There is also a chicken or egg conundrum, meaning that it can be difficult to know who is training whom in the anxious family pattern. An anxious parent may indeed model anxiety for a child but an anxious child may demand extra sensitive attention from their parents. That is to say that a parent who is nervous about a child falling down may hover more, sending a message to the child that they are less steady than they feel. But a child who is intensely afraid of falling down may fuss to keep a parent close. We can look at that pattern and hazard a guess about which came first but I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful.

Trying to figure out where the anxiety comes from is much less important than figuring out what to do to get everyone out of the anxiety provoking pattern. We need to focus on how we can help parents to best cope themselves and how to give their child the ability to cope as well. Both parents and children need psychoeducation about anxiety; coping tools for managing their anxiety; and an understanding of how to reset family patterns to help everyone get unstuck.

On Being Held Hostage by Anxiety

mom and son hugging

It tends to creep up on you. The bedtime routine that becomes a prison. The pattern of the morning that becomes ever more complicated.

Children like predictability. They like to know what’s going to happen and what’s going to happen next. That’s true for all kids but for some anxious kids any variation in a routine feels like a car careening out of control.

“Good night, honey,” You say. “I love you.”

“No,” says your child. “Say it right.”

“Good night, I love you, honey,” you amend.

But then they want you to say it the way you did the night before when the lights were still on. So you have to turn the lights back on and start over. You have to fix the bed just right again because the sheets got “broken” when they wriggled. You have to turn around and come back in. But now they’re crying. Now they’re sobbing, they need you to do it again because it was wrong.

Or the child who freaks out because there was a traffic detour so you turned a different way to take them to school and they don’t know this way. Are they going to be late? They demand to know, they start yelling that they cannot be late. They’re kicking the back of your seat while you’re trying to get oriented and yeah, you’re a little worried about being late, too, but now they’re screaming and your head is pounding and you’re wondering how on earth did you get here?

Anxiety can look like tantrums and meltdowns. Anxiety can look like throwing or hitting and screaming.

Those are the kids who let their anxiety out outwardly. They run away, literally. They leave classrooms without asking. Or they follow you throughout the house haranguing you because they don’t want you to leave or they don’t want to go to school or they’re upset that the playdate didn’t happen the way you told them it would happen.

Oh gosh, these kids are rigid.

So many families look around and don’t know how they got there. They don’t know how to make it stop. People tell them to discipline those kids! “I wouldn’t let MY child get away with that!” But they don’t know what it’s like. They don’t have a child whose anxiety is so big and so overwhelming that the whole family is trapped by it.

But it is possible to take your home back. IT IS POSSIBLE. No, it’s not easy and it will take a lot of loving care and work. Yes, it might get worse before it gets better (in fact I can almost guarantee that it will) but it CAN GET BETTER. With help and good information, you absolutely can untangle the anxious knots that keep you and your child and the rest of the family tied up and held hostage.

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