February 2022

How do I help my anxious child?

If you're parenting an anxious child, I'm sure you've already been subjected to the advice that is rarely asked for rarely helpful. And often critical and leaves you feeling worse.

Dawn Friedman MSEd

This is a version of a question I get in so many different forms. Sometimes it’s about a specific age, like how do I help my four year old? Or how do I help my 14 year old?

Sometimes it’s about a specific symptom like how do I help my child who gets anxious stomach aches? And sometimes it’s about a specific diagnosis like how do I help my teen who has social anxiety?

Those all might make future posts, but for this one we’re going to stick with the bare bones question, which is how can I help my anxious child.

Because no matter how your child is experiencing the anxiety or how you’re experiencing your anxious child there are a couple things that you can do across the board.

The first thing you can do is something you’re already doing by reading here and that’s to get educated about anxiety.

The more you learn about anxiety, the better you can understand your child’s experience and your own experience, too. So listen, you’re amazing. Thank you for doing that. Getting educated about anxiety will help you make better decisions for your child and better decisions for yourself. That’s great.

Now the other thing you can do is to start putting together your village. You know that “it takes a village to raise a child” motto? Yes, absolutely and every parent needs a village. But the parent of a child who has special needs — like a child who has anxiety — well, we need a special village.

This might include grandparents and other loved ones; friends you made at the park; or other parents at the daycare center. It might include your childcare provider or your child or teen’s teacher, or coach.

And I really hope it does. I really hope that those people are there for you and your child. But sometimes it doesn’t include those people.

Anxious kids are harder to parent. Anxious kids either act out with meltdowns and arguments and big behavior, or they act in with depression and perfectionism and stomach aches and headachesAnd of course some anxious kids do both. Big loud, difficult behaviors and dark, scary thoughts and feelings.

Not everyone understands this. If you’re parenting an anxious child, I’m sure you’ve already been subjected to the advice that is rarely asked for and rarely helpful yet is often critical and leaves you feeling worse. I can’t tell you the number of parents who have reached out to me after being knocked around a bunch, being sent to parenting classes that don’t address what their child’s issues really are, being told, “It’s a discipline issue” and being handed behavioral charts. Or told to read certain books that don’t really seem to make any sense for what they’re going through.

If you’ve ever had to drag your sobbing child out of an event or had to cancel at the last minute because they won’t let you leave or admitted to being exhausted because your 12 year old won’t sleep alone, then I’m sure you know how it feels to be judged or criticized by the people you turn to for support.

If this has happened to you, I am truly sorry. Please know that those people may be your friends and they may be your family, but they are not your village. Your village is the people who will hold you up and cheer you on. So if people can’t do that, they’re not your village.

Having a child whose needs are different means you might have to look harder for that support system. For one thing, you might have some practical barriers. You might not get to chat with other parents very often because your child refuses to go places or refuses to leave you once you get there. Look around at the playground and the moms who are standing on the edges, trying to negotiate with their little kids, they’re not getting to talk to friends and connect.

Or your child may be so quiet and well-behaved at school that their teachers don’t even know who they are let alone that they’re having meltdowns when they get home over homework.

Grandparents and other relatives might see your struggles but decide to tell you that it’s all your fault. And of course it’s NOT all your fault.

If you spend time with people who make you feel bad then those are the wrong people and we need to find you the right people.

So, where do you find them? You can start asking around. If you’re a member of a neighborhood Facebook group or a mom’s day out group, or you volunteer with the PTA then instead of asking about behaviors, ask about anxiety.

Anxiety is incredibly common, but we don’t always talk about it. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders impact 25% of children between the ages of 13 and 18. Twenty-five percent! Now that doesn’t mean that every child who meets criteria is going to get diagnosed (because there are lots of barriers to getting diagnosed, which I’ll probably talk about in another post).

But if you start speaking to parents about anxiety, with a goal to find your people, you can find them.

One reason you need to do this, and this is probably obvious, is that going it alone is hard and emotional. Having friendships that support you is just hugely important. But there’s another reason too, which is that parents are the best resource for other parents.

If you need to know who sells the underwear that are most comfy to sensory sensitive kids ask another parent. (And by then way I hear it’s Hanna Andersson). If you want to know which therapist has a special gift working with teens struggling with social anxiety, ask another parent.

That’s going to be a lot more useful than browsing Psychology Today listings.

Parents who have been there and done that parents who are a little further down the road. Parents who make it a hobby of over researching can make your life a whole lot easier. And if you are the parent who has been there and done that, if you were the parent a little further down the road, or if you’re the parent whose hobby is over researching then getting to be the expert for a parent who needs your help can make a real difference in your self-confidence.

We all do better when we don’t have to go it alone. As a therapist, I’ve worked with a lot of anxious children and it’s their parents who inspired me to build Child Anxiety Support.

Over and over again, those parents would tell me, “I just feel so alone. I feel like the only one. I feel like a bad parent.”

I built this program so that parents who are struggling can find each other. I wanted them to be able to come to a safe, private space and be able to talk about the challenges and know they are with people who get it. And who aren’t going to judge and aren’t going to criticize but are going to hold each other up.

I wanted a place where parents could brainstorm and come up with solutions that make sense for their families, but without feeling pressured to do any particular thing, any particular way.

The membership is an unasked-for-advice-free zone. I’m explicit about this because every parent — whether they have an anxious child or not — should be able to vent without getting an avalanche of well-intended, but unasked for advice.

But at the same time, I wanted a space where parents could do more than just commiserate. I wanted there to be a culture of growth and change and progress. I wanted parents to be able to learn about anxiety, how to manage it, how to help their children face their fears and grow through it. I wanted them to be able to help each other as they moved to a better place but also to still be able to complain, cry, laugh, and to share.

If you are feeling alone in the big work of parenting a child or teen with anxiety I hope you will come and check the site out

Have a question?

How do I calm down my anxious child?

Let me right here right now say that if your child's anxiety is out of control, this is not because you have somehow failed to calm them down.

Dawn Friedman MSEd

This week’s question is how do you calm down an anxious child? Actually, it was much more specific. So I’m going to read the whole thing. “How can I help my anxious child calm down when they get upset? I remind them to practice their breathing tools and mindfulness and try to reason with them. But instead things escalate, they insist that only getting rid of the perceived source of anxiety will help.”

With this question we’re starting with the assumption that we should calm down an anxious child, which is not always true. That’s not always our job, but we’ll get to that in a bit. There’s also another assumption, which is that we have the ability to calm down an anxious child, which is absolutely not true, or at least not always true.

Sometimes we know just the right thing to say or do, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes our child or teen is just going to spiral beyond where we can help them. Let me right here right now, say that if your child’s anxiety is out of control, This is not because you have somehow failed to calm them down.

So let’s reconsider the question. First hat’s off to this parent for teaching their child coping tools. Because that’s certainly part of what we need to do as parents. We can’t make them use them, but we can teach them those tools and encourage them to use them. We can create a family climate where people are practicing calm, and it is a practice.

Meaning we need to be doing it on the regular and not just when it’s needed. Remember last week, we talked about ways to model anxiety, but we can also model calm that’s in our control. We can choose to learn those things and to model those things and to overtly teach those things. Calm shouldn’t be a separate event that happens only when people are anxious.

Calm needs to be built into the everyday functioning of our families. So when you’re sitting with a cup of tea, listening to your favorite podcast, that’s you modeling calm. Good for you. 

Or when you say, “Listen I had a bad day at work so I’m going to need to go for a walk.” That’s you modeling calm. Fantastic. 

Or when you’re having a conflict with your child and you stop and take a deep breath,  there you are modeling calm like a boss again.

(As an aside, one of the arms of my Child Anxiety Support membership is CBT family, which is a collection of ideas, resources, and activities to bring those cognitive behavioral tools to your family. So I encourage you to check that out if you’re interested.)

Okay. Back to the question. So this parent is already doing the most important thing, which is empowering their child.

The other piece of this question is the part that says, and I quote, “They insist that only getting rid of the perceived source of anxiety will help.” Yes, absolutely. And this is what we mean when we talk about accommodations.

Think about it. If there’s a tornado coming, you want to get away from it. You run down to the basement and you hole up. That’s how healthy anxiety is supposed to work. It’s supposed to protect us from danger.

Unfortunately, if we are sensitive and prone to see danger when there is no danger then that appropriate want to get away from danger isn’t inappropriate. It’s not working for us and we need to learn how to tolerate feeling like we’re in danger so that we can assess the situation and make a more accurate decision.

The way we learn to live with anxiety is twofold. One, we learn how to tolerate it long enough to acclimate to it. Two, we learn how to tolerate it long enough to acclimate to it so we can think our way through it. Basically, we need to hang in there long enough to get out of our survival brain that’s got us in fight flight or freeze so that we can access our higher order thinking brain.

A child who is prone to anxiety will probably always be someone who is sensitive to the idea of danger, but they will get better and better at accessing their higher order brain so that when they’re feeling scared, they can think, is this a tornado? Or am I just worried about tomorrow’s work presentation?

Of course, this sounds a lot easier than it is. When your child is in fight flight or freeze, that’s just where they are. And they’re expecting us as their parents, their protectors, to protect them. I want you to know, and to remember that you are protecting them, okay? They are safe. They don’t feel safe, but they are safe. You may need to tell yourself that and to sit on your hands. So you don’t react.

When we take action we’re telling them that they’re right to be afraid because we’re matching their level of urgency.

I encourage you to remember that your presence, your literal presence, if you’re able to tolerate enough to stay in the room with them. Or your figurative presence– because you have been a loving, supportive parent all of their lives– is a help. You are helping. Doing nothing is helping even if they don’t think so.

If you can stay calm, then you are helping by raising the level of calm in the room. If you are able to practice your own CBT tools, then you were helping by modeling practicing CBT tools. Please remember that. In other words, you don’t always need to do more; doing more when kids are already agitated can add to the agitation or prolong it.

Again, doing nothing can be a help.

I’m going to add here that sometimes in my therapy practice when I feel the urgency of my anxious clients and they want me to do something, fix their pain or worry, I picture a big sign behind them that says, “Don’t just sit there, do nothing!” as a reminder that being present and calm is my job in the moment.

You can tell that doing nothing is doing something because it’s so hard, it’s work. Right?

Now there are nuances in the answer to this question, depending on your child’s age, what’s upsetting them and what you’re trying to do, like if you’re trying to get out the door and you’ve got a timeline that you’re stuck with.

But right now for this episode, I really want to give you a new way of looking at support. Next time your child is flipping out and you feel the urge to calm them. Take a step back, even if it’s just for a few seconds and remember that sometimes the only way out is through and learning to tolerate the distress of anxiety is a skill that our anxious kids need to learn and that we need to learn. We also need to learn to tolerate the distress of their anxiety.

Let me know your thoughts!

Have a question?

Does an anxious parent make an anxious child?

I think when parents are asking this question, what they're really asking is is it all my fault? My answer is no, it's certainly not all your fault.

Dawn Friedman MSEd

Hi, everyone. Thanks for tuning in. This week’s question is one I get asked a lot, probably more than any other question. Does an anxious parent make an anxious child? Short answer. No. Twin studies show us that you can take two children who are the same age, who are growing up in the same family, and who are having more or less the same experience and one may have anxiety and the other won’t.

This is because you can’t force someone to be anxious who is not prone to be anxious. I think when parents are asking this question, what they’re really asking is is it all my fault? My answer is no, it’s certainly not all your fault. I know that historically the psychiatric community blamed parents, particularly moms, but we’ve evolved beyond that. Right?

I don’t blame parents, and I don’t want you to blame yourself. Blame is not helpful or useful, and it has no place in helping parents figure out how best to support their anxious kids. Now the research does tell us that anxiety disorders can be inherited. If a parent has a brain that is prone to anxiety, that is a brain that is already predisposed to spot potential danger, because that’s really what anxiety is. They’re more likely to have a child whose brain is also prone to anxiety.

Now anxious brains make evolutionary sense. If we’re all hanging out together in the zombie apocalypse, we are absolutely going to want some anxious people on our team.

They’re going to know not to go down into the dark basement. They’re going to remember to pack a can opener with their end of the world supplies. They’re not going to take foolish chances. We know our Darwin, right? We can see why anxious brains have stuck around. So, yes, anxious parents are more likely to have anxious kids, but that’s because that’s how genetics work.

A better question might be: can an anxious person influence an anxious child. And that answer would be yes, absolutely. Parents influence their kids. So then we can ask how can an anxious parent influence an anxious child? That’s a much more useful question. One thing we need to understand is that anxiety is catching.

If you find yourself tensing up around certain nervous people then you already know this. I know for myself, I can often diagnose a client with anxiety just by the way I feel around them. When I’m sitting across from an anxious client, I catch their anxiety. I notice myself worrying that I’m not going to do a good job for them.

That my interventions are going to be useless. That I’m going to fail them as a therapist. And. That tells me. They’re anxious and I’m tuning into it. You yourself might find yourself getting irritated or annoyed or just more on edge around certain people, including your anxious child.

Or you’ll notice that your child acts up more with one parent than the other. And maybe it’s the more anxious parent. Maybe they’re catching anxiety from us and we’re catching anxiety from them. And we’re all revving up together. Children rely on their caregivers to tell them when it’s safe and when it’s not. And so they’re highly tuned into how we’re feeling. Think about it.

Children are literally dependent on us for their survival. No wonder that some of them are extra tuned in to make sure that their surroundings are safe.

Sometimes our modeling is subtle and sometimes it’s more overt. An example would be, if you jump, when you see a spider, while you’re teaching your child to jump, when they see a spider. That’s explicit modeling.

In the same way they watch us say, please, and thank you. And they learn to say, please, and thank you. Or they watch us carry a dish to the counter and they carry their dishes to the counter, or at least we hope they will eventually. And so in the same way, if they see us be afraid of something, then they are learning that thing is scary. That thing is dangerous.

But in a more subtle case, we might just maybe tense up a little bit when we’re talking to a person in authority, say, or a boss, a landlord. And our children, especially our most sensitive children. Will note the change in our voice and in our posture. And they’ll file that away. Oh, Okay. They’ll say to themselves, I need to be on my toes with that person.

Note that I said our most sensitive kids. Not all of our children are going to be as highly attuned. And that’s why I’m saying again, that you can’t cause your child to have anxiety. Your child is either prone to it or not. And then we may influence them through our own behavior.

If you have a highly sensitive anxious child and if you were a highly sensitive and anxious person, Again, you are likely passing some anxiety back and forth. It’s doesn’t make it your fault. It doesn’t make it your child’s fault. The patterns that appear in anxious families appear because it makes sense at first to accommodate your child. The child without anxiety will grow out of those accommodations naturally. Those accommodations make sense.

However, if we have a child with anxiety, those accommodations may become a trap. And then in hindsight, people might say to us, well, it’s your fault. You created it, you started it.

You never kicked him out of your bed. You never left them with caregivers, all of these things and that’s simply not true. It’s much more complicated than that. Because again, a child without anxiety will grow out of those accommodations. They may even push us to stop those accommodations and the child with anxiety may just become more entrenched.

Here’s an example. Many many kids are going to cry when they first get dropped off at preschool. Children without anxiety will acclimate and grow through it no matter what we do. They truly are the kids that you can leave and they’ll stop crime in a few minutes. And get right on with their playing

those are the ones. When the preschool teacher says, go ahead and leave. He’ll calm down. They really will. Children who are prone to anxiety may not calm down. They may rev up. They may cry more. They may cry so hard. They throw up and so their parents naturally will stay with them longer, or even pull them from preschool and say, you’re just not ready yet.

And for some kids that might be true, they might just not be ready yet. A child with anxiety though, may never be ready. Children with anxiety may need an extra push or extra different kinds of support. The things that we naturally do, like stay with them until they’re ready for us to leave will work for non anxious kids.

But for those kids who are anxious. Well, they might never feel ready for us to leave. And then we need to do the hard dance, the push and the pull of getting them to grow, even when they don’t want to. This does not come naturally to most of us. Especially, as I said, if we are also highly sensitive and anxious.

We may struggle to see our child’s ability to get past this anxiety sticking point. Again, no blame here. This is so complicated. And finding support that honors what is developmentally appropriate for our individual child, what is anxiety and informed and understands the patterns, and what lets us care for ourselves and our children.

Can be difficult. The thing I tell parents is that your parenting isn’t the problem. Your parenting is the solution. Just like you can model jumping when you see a spider. So you can model ways to manage and overcome anxiety when you see a spider. And so that child that is struggling to be left at preschool or that parent who is struggling to leave them.

They can be successful. Absolutely. But they will need help that honors, who they are and where they are in the moment.

This is good news, right? Dr. Ross Greene, when talking about parenting challenging kids always says kids do well when they can. Well, so do parents. We do well when we can. And sometimes we need tools to learn and practice new skills and do better. We can always level up.

If you would like help with your anxious child. Let me know

Have a question?

What are some signs that a child has anxiety?

Our first question for the Child Anxiety FAQ podcast is, “What are some signs that a child has anxiety?” I think what this questioner is asking is how we can tell if a child is having a problem with anxiety because we’re all going to suffer from anxiety.

When I first started offering trainings, I definitely suffered from anxiety before every single presentation. Shaking, sweating, lots of worrying about things that could go wrong. In that case, my anxiety was productive because it made me prepare for those trainings, you know, and inspired me to plan ahead, plan for disaster. I’d print out two copies of my notes and I’d practice and time my PowerPoint. I’d pack extra connectors for my laptop because it seemed like the hotels were I’d present never had the right one for my Mac.

By the same token, a child who is worried about doing well on an exam is more likely to study for it than a child who is not worried about doing well.

Being alive means we’re going to have anxiety and we can’t protect our children from that. Right? So the question is, how do we know if that anxiety is a problem.

So first, the most important way to know is if that worrying is trapping the child. So in my presenting if I was worried about presenting so much that I refuse to do it or canceled at the very last minute or couldn’t go on because my nausea was so bad that I was enabled to take the stage. That would be an indicator that my anxiety was no longer productive.

A child who is so worried about their exam, that their relationships or their functioning are disrupted in some way is by definition having problems with anxiety.

How does anxiety disrupt things? Well, let’s look at that. Maybe there are sematic symptoms and this is often the reason why people contact me is their child is having somatic symptoms like stomach.

Butterflies in their stomach, a pain in their stomach. Maybe they’re asking their parents to come pick them up from school because they’re getting stomach aches at school. They’re going to the nurse’s office. Maybe they have difficulty eating because their stomach is bothering them. Maybe they’re having a lot of headaches.

Uh, maybe you’ve had them to get their eyes checked and their eyes are fine. And yet they’re still having. Maybe they’re having a lot of bathroom accidents. It’s really common to need to go pee or poop when you’re very, very anxious and maybe their wedding, their pants. Maybe there are behavioral symptoms and that’s the other most common reason.

These are the two most common reasons why people contact me either their child was having somatic symptoms and the pediatrician says this might be anxiety, or the child is having behavioral symptoms. And the behavioral symptoms that we’re looking for are ones that are outside. What is developmentally appropriate and what is culturally.

So let’s dig into that little bit. So developmentally we would expect a toddler to have separation anxiety. We would expect a three-year-old to maybe struggle getting dropped off at preschool, at least at the beginning. But if that continues for longer than. Let’s say three to six months depending, or if they’re eight and having trouble separating that tells us that’s outside of what is developmentally expected for that child as for culturally appropriate?

Well, a lot of people point to, uh, my child won’t sleep alone and that might be an issue for your family, but for another family that would not be an issue in many family cultures. It is not reasonable for a child to sleep alone. And so we can’t. This behavior always means anxiety. It’s an issue if it’s an issue for your family.

So if you were needing your child to sleep alone or that’s important to you, and they’re unable to do that, it, it might make sense to look into anxiety. Now, the other behavioral issues that we see in anxious, kids are Melton. So falling apart before or after school for the child who is struggling with school refusal, a child who melts down before or after visitors or playdates, many, many, many families tell me that my kid does great at school.

They do great with other people and then they come home and they are just a mess. Those are the kinds of meltdowns that we see in anxious, kids who are holding it together for as long as they can, and then coming home and unleashing it on the family. Many anxious kids are also very rigid for some kids.

This is a personality trait, uh, a child who has a preference. They like things to be this way is different than a child. Who’s rigidity is a necessity. So the child who might whine a little bit because their shoes aren’t fitting right, or their brother or sister did something out of order or. Something out of order versus the kid who completely falls apart.

So for example, you show up to pick them up in a car they’re not accustomed to, and they can barely get in the car or they scream and cry the whole way home, that kind of rigidity. And in older kids, perfectionism is often a sign of anxiety. And of course the child may say, I feel anxious. I’m afraid I’m worried.

Or they might not have the language for it. And instead you just see a lot of reluctance or they are verbalized in a lot of reluctance. I don’t like that. I don’t want to go. They don’t always have the language to explain their feelings, but if they’re often resistant to new things or even accustomed things it’s worth considering whether or not this is anxiety.

And remember we said developmentally or culturally appropriate. So if you have a child who doesn’t want to jump on a trampoline, but you’re not a trampoline jumping family, that’s not a big deal. If on the other hand, you’re the flying Melendez and jumping on a trampoline needs to happen. Well, maybe you need.

Dig in a little bit and see why that child is resistant. It’s complicated. Right? So remember when I said that one way we know when a child or teen is having anxiety issues is if the relationships are disrupted, I want to talk about that a little bit, because that includes their relationship with you and other families.

Now it’s certain times in their development, it is normal and expected for us to be knocking heads with our children. So how do we know when it’s beyond what is developmentally appropriate? How do we know when our arguments with our 13 year old are appropriate for a child who is at the stage where they’re learning to separate and how do we know when something bigger is going on. Well, the biggest indicator is you. If you feel stuck, if you are feeling ground down by the relationship, if you feel trapped in it or start to dread spending time with them. If you are so worried that your functioning is disrupted, if you’re being interrupted at work or when you’re out, if you are getting repeated phone calls or texts, when you’re grocery shopping, if your world has started to get smaller, because you’re trying to manage your children, child’s react.

If you feel like you’re walking on eggshells, worried that you’ll set them off by bringing up the wrong topic, asking them to do the wrong thing, then that’s a sign that anxiety may be an issue for your family. So often I’m talking to parents who think that they are doing something wrong because they’re feeling unhappy in their parenting.

They feel guilty. They often feel ashamed. Let me tell you something. When you don’t feel good in your relationship with your child, that’s a symptom and symptoms are useful because in symptoms we find answers. If you are struggling, that doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong, but it does mean that there is something that might need to change.

Parenting is not stagnant. You grow up. Your child grows, your circumstances change and what might have worked before may no longer work. The only way we know that is when we start struggling or a child starts struggling. It’s like when your back starts to hurt, because you need a new. When your relationship is hurting, you might need a new approach.

My experience has been that parents often hold back from getting help because they think that they just need to try harder, be more patient, do more. They blame themselves a lot. When it comes to child anxiety, a new perspective makes a big difference. It really, really helps to have someone from outside.

Looking in to help you figure out what’s happening and support you in figuring out how to extricate yourself from the patterns that are making your child more anxious or keeping them and you stuck. All right. So let’s go back and look over our answer to know how do you know if your child has anxiety?

So one sematic symptoms, stomach aches, headaches, et cetera, behavioral symptoms, meltdowns, rigidity, uh, Lots of arguments. Uh, if they tell you that they’re having a hard time, you can believe them. And what I think most importantly, if you are having a hard time with them.


Have a question?

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