June 2022

How do I help a child with separation anxiety go to sleep?

How do I help a child with separation anxiety go to sleep?

I like this question because the person answering it already knows something that a lot of parents miss, which is that sometimes our bedtime challenges with kids have to do with separation anxiety.

Now remember anxiety is more than a preference. Lots of children would prefer to sleep with their parents or have their parents lay down with them to help them fall asleep. And this is absolutely fine as long as it’s fine for the family. Bedtime routines and co-sleeping are personal family choices and if it’s working for the family, great. The concern is when it’s not working for the family. The concern is when

—A parent wants time alone in the evening and can’t get that time because they have to lay down with their kids

—Or when parents and kids are losing sleep

—or when a child would like to go to a slumber party or sleepovers at a grandparents house but they’re afraid and so are reluctantly missing out.

It’s also ok to focus on change because the parents want change. MaybeThey’re sick of laying down with their kids, they’re sick of tantrums when they try to leave, they want their beds back to themselves and can’t get their kids to move out. 

Often the parents I talk to feel guilty because when they push their children to sleep on their own, the kids seem truly unhappy and afraid. the parents may worry that their own need for space or time alone or privacy is selfish.

To that I say, if it’s not working then it’s not working. And the answer isn’t always that parents  just have to suck it up, buttercup. No. This is especially true when we’re talking about anxiety — if we’ve identified separation anxiety as the issue — then it needs attention because anxiety does NOT get better without a plan. 

If you’re not sure whether or not it’s separation anxiety you can look to see if worries about separation are present in other areas for the family 

For example a child who struggles with playdates or getting dropped off at school. Perhaps the parent has trouble leaving the house without the child. I’ve talked to parents whose kids will chase the car down the road because they don’t want their parents to leave.  

Sometimes parents report to me that they aren’t able to go down to the basement to do laundry or that their child will check in if the parent is in the shower for too long. 

But often the problem starts with sleep issues. (I’ll say as an aside, if it’s not anxiety and is a preference — if separation anxiety isn’t present anywhere else — it’s still ok to change things up if you need things to change. It’ll probably just be a bit easier.)

Starting with sleep can make sense for anxiety intervention because it is a regular routine for the family. Remember that anxiety is about avoidance and what the child wants to avoid is separation from you so what you’re going to need to do is separate. 

This sounds simple but of course it’s complicated. In the child Anxiety Support program, specifically the Strong Kids, Strong Families course, we talk about the way to design a personalized plan to address your child’s anxiety. 

The plan needs to include what to do when things go badly. This isn’t pessimistic, it’s realistic. Children who don’t want to do things that scare them will try not to do them. They will cry, they will beg and plead, they may meltdown and get destructive. We need to know what to do when this happens. We need to recognize it as an anxiety response and prepare to care for our kids through it. And for ourselves. 

It’s not easy to see our children struggle and it’s not easy to be the target of that struggle. Not only will we feel impatient and even angry, we also are likely to feel guilty or worried that what we’re doing will somehow harm our child. When we plan for the worst case scenario then we are ready to lovingly, respectfully and supportively address the anxiety.  We know what to do. We already have a response plan in place.

Every child and family and parent is different so your plan needs to make sense for your child and for you and it needs safe for everyone. 

I remember talking to a parent about addressing sleep issues with their child and as they talked through their fears about what might happen, they recognized that some of their fears were unrealistic. 

They also realized that like their child, they were avoiding their own anxiety. Just as their child was avoiding separation because they were anxious about being alone, the parent was avoiding upsetting their child because the parent was anxious about their child’s meltdowns. 

This is why the process is so important; not only are you helping your child to face their anxiety, you are learning to address and manage your own anxiety about your child. This is good stuff. It’s why facing child anxiety heals the whole family.

You might notice here that the first step in helping a child with separation anxiety go to sleep — which was the original question — is not focusing on sleep. It’s focusing on the anxiety. Sleep comes later. Sometimes much later. Sometimes much later that night — I would assume people were going to get to bed late the night that start their intervention — and sometimes much later in the process.

But not always. Often when kids get a taste of their ability to face their fears, they do better. They get stronger. They grow more quickly. It depends on the child, it depends on the plan, it depends on the parents ability to execute that plan, and it depends on how entrenched the family is in their child’s anxiety. The longer the family has been avoiding dealing with the anxiety, the harder it might be to get unstuck. But what a great motivator to deal with it now, right?

If you need help for an under five and getting them to sleep, I’d encourage you to check out Macall Gordon’s work at LittleLiveWires.com. But if your child is five or older and you’re still struggling with bedtime separation, please reach out to me. If you go to my contact page you can reach out to me via the form or even schedule a quick free consult to learn more about the program and see if it’s a fit for your family.

Is social anxiety disorder caused by traumas and bullying?

First let’s talk about what social anxiety is and how it’s diagnosed.

Social anxiety is not being introverted and it’s not being shy. Social anxiety is when a child struggles to function in social situations. An introvert may prefer their own company and a child who is shy is a child who is slow to warm up in social situations but they’re able to get there. In social anxiety, the child’s anxiety prevents them from participation. 

There are two aspects to social anxiety. The first is what you might call stage fright where the child’s anxiety is centered around the fear of performance. This isn’t just being afraid of being on stage or public speaking, this is fear of raising their hand in school or ordering at a restaurant or answering the phone or being at an event where they will be seen. The focus here is on the performative aspect of being observed. Most of us don’t want to be the first person on the dance floor, right? Perhaps you can imagine how that feels. The stage fright part of social anxiety is that feeling — that feeling of being first on the dance floor — in any aspect of social performance. So these kids might have trouble getting up in class to sharpen a pencil. They may have bathroom accidents because they can’t ask the teacher to be excused. They might struggle in sports of gym class because they have to practice in front of their classmates or team members. You know, like when your coach lines you up and you take turns running up to kick the soccer ball into the goal. 

The second aspect to social anxiety is about the interaction. This can be present with the performative aspect or may show up on its own. In this case, there is intense worry about disappointing other people or making people mad or having people judge them. They may have trouble making eye contact (and this is separate from children who are on the autism spectrum — social anxiety is often co-diagnosed with spectrum disorders but lack of eye contact is not always an indicator of social anxiety). We all have had those middle of the night worries about having said something stupid after a social event. Most of us can shrug it off; we know people are forgiving and also most people aren’t paying that close of attention to us. But when social anxiety is present, those ruminations about possible social gaffes can be overwhelming. 

Kids with social anxiety fear negative judgment. Their avoidance is around this perceived negative judgment. To avoid it they may limit their socializing or withdraw from social interactions, basically going along to get along. 

In severe cases of social anxiety, the child might also meet criteria for a diagnosis of selective mutism where the child’s anxiety is so great that they are unable to speak to people outside of a select few, usually family members. The child is able to speak — they have no physical limitations — but their fear stops them from speaking.

Our children may ask us to reassure them that no one is mad. They may need to process the event over and over. They may apologize for perceived slights or insults, taking responsibility for things that aren’t an issue.

As an aside, I see so much of this in middle schoolers — such a socially anxious age — where conversation between two kids may halt entirely because they are both so caught up in apologizing for each other. Of course middle schoolers can also be incredibly thoughtless and cruel to each other. It’s a complicated age and the same child who is ultra sensitive in one social context may be clueless in another. There are estimates that up to 30% of adolescents experience some measure of social anxiety — I think it might be under diagnosed since I meet lots of adults who don’t realize that they have social anxiety but instead report that they are just very introverted. 

Which brings us to the original question. Is social anxiety disorder caused by trauma and bullying? The answer is yes, it may be but it isn’t always. 

Some children have a difficult experience in school and this contributes to their understandable fear of continued bullying and unkindness, i.e., social anxiety.

Other children develop social anxiety without a clear precursor. Although there is research showing that children who have separation anxiety when younger — that is struggle to separate from caregivers for longer than is developmentally expected — are more likely to develop social anxiety. 

Interestingly some children with social anxiety who do not have bullying in their background may still perceive some of their social interactions more negatively than they actually were. This is not because they are liars; it is because some children are more sensitive to negative reactions — real or perceived. What this means is that a child may tell you that someone doesn’t like them and even have examples but this is more about their perception than what really happened. So another child might casually say, “Wow, your shoes are really bright blue.” And the child may hear that as critical or mean when the other child was simply making an observation.

All right, so what do you do for a child with social anxiety? 

Remember that anxiety gets worse with avoidance so we want to encourage those children to have more social interaction. Now this doesn’t mean just sending them off to school and saying, “go make some friends!” That’s not going to work for every child. For some? Sure. Kids who are more motivated, who have already built some emotional muscle in overcoming social anxiety, who have some measure of social support — they may be able to simply push through it. But lots of kids need help with skills building.

You can reach out to the school counselor and ask them about social opportunities. Some will have groups — a lunch bunch or a more formal group — that the child can attend. Some may have ideas about getting the child more involved with extracurriculars that interest them and might feel safe. They may be able to connect the child with appropriate peers.

You can also look for social opportunities that are a better fit for your child. Girl Scouts, a church group, 4H. If your child has a special interest you could see about connecting them to peers that way. If you’ve got a child or teen who does a lot of online activities, head to the local comic book store and see if you can get your gamer nerd to open themselves to other nerdoms like D&D or Magic the Gathering. Our little neighborhood library used to host gamer meet-ups to get the kids off-line and talking to each other while still honoring that gaming was an important interest to them. You can try that, too. 

The reason I bring up computer games, is that kids who are social anxious are more likely to have what the researchers call problematic internet usage. That is to say, avoiding real world social interaction by increased used of online social interaction.

I do want to pause here and say that I believe that online relationships are real and important and they matter. But they are not a substitute for real world relationships. It’s great to have good social keyboarding skills. But we also need to be able to interact with people off-line. It doesn’t need to be one or the other and we can encourage real world friendships without denigrating online friendships. This is important when we’re talking about supporting our kids since many will feel rightfully defensive if we turn it into an either/or discussion instead of a both/and. 

If you can’t find the right social environment, you could consider creating one. Social media makes it easier to network with other local parents and perhaps you can find or create the social group that would feel welcoming to your child. It doesn’t have to be a large group. It can just be a couple of kids who are willing to hang out.

You can also talk to counseling practices and occupational therapy practices, which sometimes host social skills groups. Sometimes these are specific to a diagnosis — for example, for autistic kids. But some are open to any child who is needing opportunity and practice in learning how be with other kids. The leaders of these kinds of structured groups know and expect that the kids may be awkward and may struggle. Talk to the facilitators and see if your child is a good fit for the group and that the group is a good fit for the child. Some of the will organize around a particular theme. 

Getting intervention sooner rather than later is important. Sometimes we figure middle school is just awkward and they’ll grow out of it but social anxiety leads to depression if it continues through the teen years. Social anxiety tends to create dependence as children increasingly rely on their parents’ support and intervention. Parents naturally start assuming their kids can’t function on their own, which leads to more parental control, which leads to greater social anxiety. It’s basically an echo chamber. As in all things, parents need to recognize when what they’re doing is hurting more than helping — always a tricky thing with anxiety — and learn to step back.

If you need help with that, I encourage you to check out my program.

How can I be more patient with my anxious child?

When I heard this question — and I hear versions of it a lot — is what exactly do you mean by that specifically? Are you asking in the moment when you’re getting impatient with your anxious child who’s right there in front of you? Or are we talking big picture? How can I be more patient as we work through our anxiety?

Let’s answer both versions of the question and let’s start with the first one and that’s, you’ve got an anxious child in front of you and you’re feeling impatient. Maybe it’s because you’re trying to get out the door and your child is whining because they’re afraid of whatever’s coming next whether you’re trying to get them to school or to an activity, maybe you’re trying to get them to go to sleep and they don’t want you to leave the room and you’re getting impatient because you really need a break from parenting.

The thing about getting impatient is that there are two things at play here.

One is that we need to remember that when your child is anxious, you’re going to catch their anxiety. You’re going to catch it in part because you’re human and we are meant to catch each other’s anxiety as a way to stay safe.

Anxiety alerts us to danger and so if you’re feeling anxious when your child is anxious, that’s because their body and their energy is alerting you to danger even though there’s no danger there.

And you may feel that as being angry, being irritable, being impatient. So there’s that. You might be catching it from them and that’s normal. That’s part of anxiety.

To that end. I would say that, remember, one of the things we’re trying to teach our children is how to tolerate uncomfortable feelings so we need to tolerate our uncomfortable feelings.

When we’re feeling impatient that’s a really great opportunity to stop and say, oh yeah, this is, this is that uncomfortable feeling I need to learn to tolerate.

Because it’s hard, that’s why we need to practice it.

There are tools that you can do to help bring some more calm (and I’ll mention those at the end of the post because I have an offer for you), but there are tools to create more calm and just as anxiety is catching, so is calm.

As you calm yourself, you’re going to be changing the energy of the interaction between you and your child, which isn’t necessarily going to change how they behave but hopefully we’ll change things for you a little bit.

So there’s that part of impatient when you’re in the moment and you’re feeling impatient.

The other one is more big picture, which is impatience is a really useful parenting tool actually. I know we beat ourselves up a lot for not having the best, most perfect, most greatest calm and patient feelings with our kids.

It’s what we do as parents. But I am a huge believer in your inner wisdom and when you’re feeling big picture impatient with your child, which means, “I’m getting impatient that they never unload the dishwasher. I’m getting impatient because they’re not figuring out how to use the potty. I’m getting impatient because I feel like they’re ready for a developmental milestone!” Part of that is a sign that, yeah, something needs to change.

Your instinct, your impatience tells us that something needs to change. Maybe your child really is ready to grow, and there’s something that’s getting them stuck that needs to be examined, or maybe your expectations are unrealistic and you need to figure out what is realistic to expect of a child at that age.

If you’re not sure whether or not your expectations are developmentally appropriate, it’s pretty easy to find out. You can ask friends who have kids the same age. You can check in with the teacher, the school counselor, a general kid counselor. You can ask the pediatrician and you can look at books. I’ll add that in the child anxiety support membership, we do have a nitty gritty child development course that’s just really quick, easy, almost like information cards that you can just look and say, what’s going on with my kid at this age that could be driving some of this behavior. As kids get older, their, their development gets more and more individualized, which means it’s not like when you know an 18 month old should be doing X, Y, and Z. A nine-year-old is a much more complicated person developmentally than an 18 month old, but there’s still some general things that you can expect of your 9-year old

if you are feeling impatient, that’s one of the first places to look. Instead of saying, what’s wrong with me? Why am I so impatient? What’s wrong with my kid? Why aren’t they behaving first stop and find out, is this a developmentally appropriate expectation? And if it is, then it’s a sign, this impatience that you’re having with your child, that they need your help, they need your help. They’re stuck.

And this is definitely true with anxiety. That’s what we know most about anxiety is that anxiety gets families and gets kids stuck. So naturally you’re going to feel impatient. It’s, it’s sort of how we do an assessment if things are going okay. So don’t beat yourself up about it instead. Say, okay, my impatience is telling me things need to change.

Back to that offer, this is what I want to share with you. I have a quiz at my website. It’s a Parenting Pitfalls quiz. And it’s about that impatience. It’s about that stuckness. The quiz is based on the research that tells us 94 to 99% of families are doing things that get everybody more stuck.

94 to 99% that blows my mind! And that 1 to 6%, frankly, I think we just caught them on a good day. Because if you have an anxious child, chances are you’re going to get stuck periodically. When there’s needs to be new growth, if you’ve got an anxious child, they’re going to get anxious about it.

And they’re going to do things to slow down that growth because it scares them and anxieties about. Unfortunately, as parents we’re trying to help our kids. And instead what we do tends to get them more stuck. We get more impatient, we feel more guilty about it. We feel more stuck because we’re sort of overcompensating since we’re feeling guilty. And that’s how you get patterns of anxiety that impact an entire family. So this is what the quiz is about. When you take it and you don’t have to give me your email to take it, you don’t have to give me your email to get your results. It’s going to give you 10 questions.

And those questions are the common pitfalls that families get stuck in. In other words, if you answer yes to any of them, you are so not alone. So you take the quiz and then it gives you your results and it will tell you exactly how stuck you are.

You will also get an offer for a free gift from me, which is the seven day, Get Yourself Grounded email course. Absolutely one hundred percent free. The point of the course is to give you tools that you can use in those moments when you’re getting impatient with your kid right there in the moment where you’re trying to get them out the door, where they’re whining about the exam tomorrow.

Where you’re both kind of fed up with each other. It gives you tools to unhook from your child’s anxiety and to bring calm to the interaction. Once you’ve taken the course you’ll know me a little better, and that will help you figure out whether or not you feel like your family is a good fit for the child, anxiety, support membership.

If you are feeling stuck, then I’d say you’re a good fit. The child anxiety support membership is asynchronous courses, which means you take them on your own time and community support. And also I’m there too. If you need help, you can reach out to me. There’s message boards, there’s private messaging, and I can help direct you.

I can give you very specific information related to your specific challenges or direct you to other resources on the site to give you a hand. There is no ahead or behind in Child Anxiety Support. There is a central course, Strong Kids Strong Families, and that is very structured, but you don’t have to do it all at once.

You can dip in, you can dip out, you can take a minute. There’s other things you can work on too. The thing is about child anxiety is it’s going to require big structural systemic change in your family. Now that sounds overwhelming, but it’s really not because we tease it out bit by bit to help you figure out what you need to do in the moment.

It builds your skills and teaches you how to build your child’s skills so that you know what to do later on down the line. If you’re dealing with a five-year-old, who’s struggling to sleep alone. And then later on, you’re dealing with a 12 year old, who’s worried about middle school. Those tools will work, whatever the situation is.

So. Bringing tools that will last a lifetime of parenting. You can start just by taking that quiz. Let me know what your answers are. I would really love to hear about it, and I’d really love to hear if taking the quiz brings anything up for you.

Is there anything that you didn’t realize was a pitfall? Did you think it was a help and now you’re discovering it’s a hindrance. How do you feel about that. What do you think? I look forward to hearing from you and I’ll see you all next week.

Why doesn’t validating my anxious child work?

This was actually a much longer question and I’m going to read it in its entirety here (with some personal information deleted).

“I’ve been following your instagram and listening to your podcast for sometime. You tell people to validate their child’s feelings but this does not work. It doesn’t calm down my child or make her less anxious so why are you recommending it?”

Listener, thank you for following me and thank you for coming to me directly with this question and giving me permission to answer it here as well as through our email exchange. 

I usually think about this podcast during my run and I was thinking about this one after my long run last Sunday when I was walking up this absolutely gargantuan hill. I dread this hill every time I run that route because it’s a monster and I’m already tired since Sunday is my longer run day. 

I was very whiny in my head because I was also thirsty and my icy cold water bottle was at the tippy top of the hill sitting in my car just waiting for me. It got me to thinking about going on long walks with thirsty kids. And it also got me to thinking about being a thirsty kid, which made me think about validating.

Validation is magic. It really is. And sometimes it does work if we’re defining work as helping a child calm down and move on from whatever is bothering them. It works with kids and it works with adults because validating says, “I hear you. I am with you. And I believe you.”

As parents we tend to want to problem solve or teach, to pass on an important lesson. Our child is struggling and we point out the ways that their struggle is due to their choices or the ways it’s inevitable — like, yup, welcome to reality. I know I am often guilty of this with my own kids. There is something just kind of pulls us toward turning everything into a learning opportunity. I mean, that’s what parents are for, right? Raising kids which means teaching and guiding.

So it’s good to validate. It’s good to stop in the moment and just say, “I hear you. I am with you. I believe you.”

Back to that hill. If you have ever gone on a walk with a thirsty child and forgotten your water bottle then you are familiar with whining. 

Children whine out loud for several reasons.

1. It works. Whining works. It gets our attention, we usually want it to stop so will look for ways to make it stop.

2. The younger the child is the more they see us as an extension of themselves and so whining is part of processing. Children process out loud. They process to their parents because it’s part of processing to themselves. 

3. And finally again, the younger the child is the more powerful they think we are. If they are thirsty and they tell us that they are thirsty, they expect us to give them something to drink. When we don’t — perhaps because we are at the bottom of the hill and the water bottle is at the top — they think we’re holding out on them. Or that we don’t believe that they are thirsty.

This is what I was remembering on my own slog up the hill earlier this week. I was thinking about being a child and being thirsty and feeling like my mom must not get how thirsty I was or else she would be giving me water. So I kept trying to explain.

I also remember when I was a preschool teacher and I used to babysit for some of the kids in the class. And I remember taking care of twins and putting them to bed. One was wearing a purple nightgown and the other wanted her purple nightgown but it had chocolate milk spilled all down the front so she was whining and I was explaining, logically as you do, and she then laid herself down on the stairs and just wailed and I was standing there flabbergasted, like what did she expect me to do? I said to her, “I am not magic, I cannot make your purple nightgown clean” and as I was saying it, pretty frustrated, I realized that yes, she thinks I’m magic because she is three and she is so unhappy about the nightgown and she thinks I’m holding out on her. She thinks I do have the power to make instantaneous clean nightgowns or the power to lift her sadness and frustration.

That is being three.

That goes on for a long time. Heck, as an adult there are times when I think, “This is just not possible.” You know, the car breaks down, the check bounces, it all happens on a particularly terrible day and we think, “C’mon, how am I supposed to tolerate this?” And we’re grown people who have a sense of time, who have been through good times and bad. 

Now consider being a kid. And time seems to stretch on forever. Remember how long summer vacation used to be? And how short it is now as a parent? Now think about slogging up that hill.

In other words validation is not magic. Validation will not make the whining stop, it will not make the anxiety stop. Validation is a tool that says, “You are not alone.”

So much of parenting is about repetition, which is why the experts are always talking about consistency. The more often we response in the same way to the same circumstances, the easier it is for our child to understand how the world works. Now that doesn’t mean you need to be a robot. We’re all going to be inconsistent sometimes. But if we are generally predictable our children learn that they can more or less, kind of sort of predict the world.

They will whine their way up hills both literal and metaphorical but eventually they will learn that hills end. There is water at the top. It will take a lot of whining to get there. 

This is all to say that when we talk about certain parenting choices “working” — remember the original question was about how validating doesn’t “work” — we need to redefine working.

No it doesn’t work if your main goal is to get your child to stop whining or stop being anxious.

No it doesn’t work if you’re hoping to cure your child’s Anxiety.

Validating works as part of big picture parenting. It works in helping your child learn that they are not alone. That you do understand them. 

If we believe that validation should work, then we may over validate. We may join our child in their suffering, which perpetuates their suffering. If we sat down and wailed with them about the lack of water on the way up the hill, we’d never get to the top of the hill.

You’re not failing your child when you can’t fix things immediately. They may think you are – I’m pretty sure that twin felt betrayed by me in holding out that purple nightgown she obviously thought I could magically produce at will. And feeling their sense of failure is painful for us. It hurts — it can make us angry or weirdly feel guilty. Maybe guilty because we forgot to wash the nightgown or pack the water bottle or guilty because the whining catapults us into anger. So I encourage your to step back. 

Parenting is a long game. It’s lots of busy work and boring tasks and a daily grind that all leads up to helping grow a full fledged person. We get lots of chances to get it right, lots of room for course correction.

The other thing I was thinking as I dragged myself up the hill, which as you can tell from the long convoluted thinking I did, was a very long hill. Or maybe I’m just slow but likely a little bit of both. Is that this impatience with wanting to find a tool, wanting to find a fix is an awful lot like your child’s demand for water when there is no water yet.

This yearning to help our kids and to make things better immediately is a reminder of how they’re feeling. We’re echoing their experience.

They want water and we want to give it to them. And we both need to tolerate how uncomfortable it is to have to wait.

By the way, I want you to know that the very sad twin lying on the staircase and wailing is now an MD. I found this out when one of my clients mentioned her doctor and I recognized the twins name. I said, “next time you see her, tell her your therapist used to change her diapers.

Ok, have a great week. 

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