August 2022

Why is that parents get blamed for their child’s anxiety?

Well, frankly I think parents get blamed for everything when it comes to their kids. It’s not just anxiety it’s everything else. Parents get blamed for their kids who tantrum, or their kids who whine, or their kids who struggle in school, or their kids who struggle in life.

Parents just get blamed period. 

It’s tricky because our parenting does have a big impact on our children and our choices do shape who they are — I mean, I think it’s a lot of nature but that nature is shaped by the nurture. Basically I believe we are born with personalities and tendencies and preferences and strengths and those things are impacted by our environment, including our parents.

That makes us awfully powerful but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot that’s out of our control.

I think it’s important, too, to recognize the two-way street of parenting. We do shape our kids but they shape us as well.

There’s a lot of research about this but the information hasn’t really drifted down to commonsense understanding of the reality of parenting.

Some children are more difficult, more sensitive, more reactive than others and we have kids like that, we learn to handle them more gently, which can look like enabling them.

For example, lots of us rock our babies to sleep for a long time. Some babies grow out of it, some babies don’t. And some of us get trapped into remaining part of our child’s sleep routine — like laying down with them or staying in the room with them — until they’re ten or even older. If you talk to somebody about that, they might say it’s your fault for always staying with them. That you shouldn’t have started that so-called bad habit of laying down with them. But if you’ve got a toddler or a preschooler who desperately needs sleep and who falls apart if you’re not with them then of course you’re going to stay with them. It works until it doesn’t. 

It’s not the parents fault that there is now a 10-year old who can’t sleep alone. I think we have to stop thinking about blame and fault and instead say, “Is that still working?” Does the parent still want to lay down with them? Is it preventing the 10-year old from gaining some new skills that they’re going to need? Are they missing out on slumber parties? Is the parent missing out on adult time? 

Basically it worked and now it doesn’t. It’s not helpful to say, “You shouldn’t have done it in the first place” because that’s not even true. You do what works until it doesn’t and then you do something different.

That’s why I say it’s not your fault but it is your responsibility. As parents, when we need or want change, we will have to upend our routines in order to create change.

It’s not our fault if a ten year old still can’t sleep alone but we will need to take action if our child is stuck and we or they are suffering for it. 

I know parents feel guilty when they realize that they are responsible for changing things up because they look back and say, “I should have done it differently.” But that’s not helpful. You did it that way — whatever way it was — because it worked or else you thought it would work. I mean, it made sense for you to do it that way. Now it doesn’t make sense. So now you get to reassess and do things differently. That’s all. No blame. It’s not your fault but it is your responsibility.

There are lots of things like that. Maybe we used to play tennis but now our knees hurt so we start taking swimming instead. Tennis was great until it wasn’t. It’s not our fault we have bad knees and it wasn’t a bad idea to play tennis. It was a good idea until swimming became a better idea. You wouldn’t beat yourself up for playing tennis? Or at least I hope you wouldn’t. So I hope you can find a way to not beat yourself up if you realize your parenting needs to change, too.

When it comes to anxiety it’s super easy to get stuck in patterns and routines that make things worse. Remember 94 to 99% of all parents with anxious kids and teens get stuck, which means you are NOT alone. But you have the opportunity to learn from these stats, to learn from the research and figure out what you’re going to do to change things up.

When we know better we get the opportunity to DO better.

And if we know better and choose NOT to do better? Well, then we need to take a long hard look at what’s stopping us.

In my work with parents I can say that the common barriers to upending anxious patterns are:

  • Lack of information, parents don’t know what to do or how to do it even if they know that something has to change;
  • Lack of support, all that blame they get isn’t helpful and is often hurtful;
  • Their child’s behavior, which tends to get worse when parents try to shift things up.

What happens is the family continues to struggle, everyone and their brother has advice to give, which only makes things more confusing, and the parents feel worse, which makes change that much harder. 

I will tell you right now, that anyone with solid training on supporting anxious kids and their families knows that you got here not because you care too little but because you care, period. You care about your kids, you’re trying to do right by them, and parenting an anxious child is confusing and exhausting. It’s hard to make the right decisions when those decisions aren’t always clear and you’re ground down by the reality of parenting an anxious child. 

But I want you to remember that you did not create your child’s anxiety, that the patterns that we fall into are ones that are common and understandable, and you can do things differently when you’re ready. Note I said when you’re ready, which might be before your child is ready but we can plan for that, too.

Just because what you’re doing is no longer working doesn’t mean you’re not doing a good job. It means that you and your child are growing and your parenting needs to grow, too. That’s all. No shame. No blame. Just the facts

Am I being protective or over protective?

This week’s question came from a parent who is trying to figure out how to support their anxious child and reached out to me with a more complex and personal version of the question, “am I being protective or over protective when I try to support my anxious child.”

Here’s the thing, one family’s protective is another family’s over protective because we can’t take a particular behavior out of the context of a particular family and say, “That is always right” or “that is always wrong.” 

Anxious children come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and developmental needs. Families, too, have different expectations and values. In one family, choosing to homeschool due to a child’s anxiety is overprotection and in another family it’s a great idea. So how do we know the difference for ourselves? Or at least how can we start figuring it out? 

Ok first we have to back up and remember what this whole parenting gig is all about and that’s raising humans to grow up and live their own best lives, right? That’s parenting in a nutshell. And we know, from just looking around us, that there are a whole lot of versions of best lives out there. So part of this parenting and growing up is figuring that out — what version? What are our children’s strengths that we can play to? What are their challenges that we can help them confront and overcome or learn to work with them? 

As they grow, we continuously reassess. Our children change, our values as a family sometimes change, and certainly circumstances can change. Any of that means we go back to the drawing board and say, “Is this still working? Are we still moving forward? Is my child still making progress however that’s meant to look?”

Back to protections, protect should protect; not limit. Overprotections limit. Overprotections keep kids stagnant and stuck whileProtections keep them safe and encourage growth. 

A general example would be making your typically developing preschooler hold your hand when you cross the street is protection. Making your typically developing 12-year old hold your hand when you cross the street is overprotection. That’s easy, right? That’s very clear. We know what to expect from preschoolers and we know what to expect from 12-year olds and we understand the mechanics of crossing the street.

Things get trickier when we’re talking about expectations that are more complicated or nuanced such as managing social media, or navigating romantic relationships, or figuring out how to deal with anxiety.

In cases like that, where it feels more complicated, I encourage you to step back and ask yourself these questions:

  • What are my goals for my child around this topic? 
  • What skills around this topic will they need when they’re adults? 
  • How can I help them to begin to build those skills now in ways that are developmentally appropriate?

If what we’re doing is not building those the skills that we know they need, then it might be overprotection. Remember, protections protect but leave room for skill building and over protection limits, it doesn’t find ways to give kids the opportunity to learn the skills they will need as adults.

This is so hard when we’ve got anxious kids who don’t want to learn those skills. Who are perfectly happy with you managing things for them. Again, step back and think about your child as an adult. Think about what they need now to get them there, to adulthood with the skills that they need whether they like it or not.

This doesn’t mean that you let an 8-year old fend for themselves when they’re scared anymore then you’d let a preschooler cross a busy street without teaching them how traffic works. But it does mean that at a certain point you’re going to ask them to do the things they need to do, knowing that you’ve given them the support and information that will allow them to do it.

For example, if you’ve got a 12 year old who reasonably knows how to cross the street but doesn’t want to, then you might insist. You might say something like, “I don’t have time to walk you to the ice cream shop to get you that milkshake so if you want to get a milkshake you’ll need to get there on your own.” And we’d say that with the full confidence that we’ve given them the knowledge and skills to accomplish that safely. 

They might be scared. They might insist they don’t know how to do it. But a milkshake might be just the incentive they need to find out they can.

When it comes to anxiety, we might need help drilling down to the small steps and small skills they need. We might need help understanding what’s protective and what’s over protective because some anxious kids are pretty dramatic. I don’t mean this in a dismissive way at all. I mean that their fight, flight or freeze is so big or so consuming that it’s hard for us to get perspective and know whether or not what we’re asking of them is reasonable. That’s all part of the planning and work of supporting and raising anxious kids.

If you are feeling stuck or your child is feeling stuck, know that this is part of the anxiety process. Feeling stuck just comes with the territory and usually means we need to stop and reassess what we’re doing and whether or not we’re off track in helping our child acquire those skills they’re going to need. If you need help with that. Let me know. 



Is my child manipulating me?

This week’s question is, “Is my child really anxious? Or are they just manipulating me?” This is one of the questions I ask in the Parenting Pitfalls quiz because it’s one way I assess for patterns of anxiety in a family — that is whether or not people tell you that your child is manipulating you or if you wonder if they’re manipulating you. So let’s talk about that a little bit.

First of all, when people use the word manipulation to talk about a child’s behavior, what I know for certain is that family is struggling. Manipulation is another word for “doing things to get what we want” but it’s a really negative word. The truth is, we all do things to get what we want. We may be extra nice to our boss even if we’re annoyed by them because we want to get a raise. Or we might pretend to like a book we dislike so that other people in our bookclub will think we’re smart. 

According to Kohlberg’s moral development, children tend to behave selfishly until around the age of 7. They are reward oriented — behaving in ways that serve them rather than because it’s the right thing to do and they are selfish — looking out for their own self interest rather than ways to serve others. Now I know you’re going to give me examples of your child’s selflessness at younger than seven. It’s not that they don’t do lovely things like give a toy to their sibling, or bring you flowers, or give up the last cookie because their friend is crying — it’s that they do those things because they want to. They want your praise, they want your approval, they want their friend to play instead of cry. This again, is developmentally appropriate. And we help them learn our moral code with that praise and approval. That’s part of the teaching we do. 

I’ll tell a story about my daughter here with her permission to illustrate this. When she was about five she figured out that if I said no to something like a popsicle just before dinner, she could get a popsicle by going to her dad and looking very sad and saying, “Gee, I sure wish I could have a popsicle” and he’d say, “Well, go have one then.” Of course she was manipulating him because she wasn’t telling him the whole truth by explaining why she didn’t have one. But that’s typical manipulation. She didn’t know that lying by omission was a thing. We had to tell her that. If anything she was showing some good problem solving and people skills. 

From 8 to 13, their moral code is still about meeting rules and getting praise. Kids want approval. They are growing into the idea that morality can be more personal and that the greater good may sometimes mean they will miss out but they definitely haven’t mastered it. Heck, we adults struggle with this so of course we can expect children to still be learning and exploring what it means to behave in a moral manner.

Back to manipulation. Manipulation, as in manipulating people to get your own way, isn’t a moral issue for kids the way it is for us. A child who is anxious and who is avoiding through fight or flight or freeze, is definitely trying to get their own way. If they don’t want to do the scary thing like sleep alone, or talk in class, or go to the baseball game then they may meltdown, cry they may threaten to hurt themselves, they may punch someone or punch a wall and then parents often give in. Is the child being manipulative? Is the child really that scared? That in danger? Or are they pretending to be to get their way?

My take is it kind of doesn’t matter. We need to take threats seriously, always, especially when there is threat of harm. They might be exaggerating their threats but exaggerated threats have resulted in real harm when we don’t take them seriously. They are trying to get us to take their fears seriously and yes, they may blow those fears up so that we will. 

That doesn’t mean we help them avoid. It may mean we need to start smaller in addressing their anxiety because the big stuff is too big at the moment. Or it may mean that we need to create a plan that keeps kids and other people and things safe even as we continue to challenge their avoidance. (I will add that when a child blows up their fears so we take it seriously, they are also blowing those fears up for themselves. I don’t know how many of you read Anne of Green Gables. But there’s a chapter where she’s imagined a haunted forest and she’s done such a good job of imagining it that she is terrified to walk through the woods. Her imagination has run away with her. Our anxious kids do this, too. And sometimes that manipulative behavior may raise things to another level not just for us but for them.)

So I guess what I’m saying is that the question isn’t helpful because a child can be both anxious and manipulative and being manipulative doesn’t mean that your child’s struggle isn’t real.

When things get to this level of crisis, it’s time to get help. This is just such a difficult place to be as a parent and as the child or teen whose behaviors have become so damaging. 

If you’re curious where your family falls in the Parenting Pitfall quiz, which is about the family patterns that keeps us stuck in child or teen anxiety, I’d love for you to come by the site and take the quiz. If you have questions about your results, let me know. You’ll also have the opportunity to sign up for the free Get Yourself Grounded email course when you complete the quiz but you don’t have to fill anything out — like your name or email — just to take it or to get the results. 

Is it ok if I miss school because of anxiety?

This is  from a message I received on the podcast page from a young teen, facing down the start of school and feeling overwhelmed. I don’t have more info from this person about their anxiety like how it started or the shape of it or how they’ve dealt with it so far. I do know that they’re going to be a sophomore this upcoming year and that they are looking for support to tell their parents that it’s ok for them to take a break when they need it.

First, young friend, I’m sorry that you’re struggling. I also struggled with going to school at around your age and used to beg my mom to let me stay home. I want you to know that I hear you and I support you in figuring this out. I hope that you will continue to talk to your parents and I encourage you to think about getting counseling. If your parents aren’t willing or able to help you connect with a counselor, I hope you will reach out to your guidance counselor at school. And if that doesn’t feel accessible or appropriate to you, there are lots of great workbooks about anxiety and you can look on Amazon at reviews or go to the library to check them out. 

The important thing for you to know is that ultimately anxiety needs to be faced. I don’t mean in a pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of way or a tough love kind of way, I mean that the cure for anxiety is learning to deal with your anxiety. That’s the crux of it. How you do that is very personal and doesn’t need to be all or nothing. Just hold it in your mind that facing your anxiety is going to ultimately help and then you can think about how best to do it.

Some of us face anxiety in the same way we get into a cold pool — we just jump right in. We let ourselves get kind of smacked in the face with the discomfort and hang in there until we acclimate. 

That is not me. That’s not generally how I do it. I’m a slow to warm person and when I get in a pool, I get in at the shallow end and creep my way towards the deep end slowly, slowly getting used to the water until it feels comfortable.

Both ways are totally legit. Both ways end up with us fully in the pool. So you get to think about the way you want to acclimate to anxiety. Most of us who are anxious are shallow end people. Our anxiety is so big and can feel so overwhelming that we need to start small. That’s just fine.

Which leads me to school. Again, I don’t know the details of your specific anxiety experience so I’m going to take about school refusal in a general way and I hope that you can make sense of it in the context of your unique experience.

Generally school refusal in the teen years is about social anxiety. For me there was some of that and also just a general disillusionment about school. It was hard to feel motivated to go when I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of it. Looking back, I wish I had reached out to the guidance counselor more and talked to them about what I needed to see if they could help me figure it out. That’s why I mention that as a first step. 

But the social anxiety piece, that was complicated by some bullying I experienced in seventh and eighth grade that colored the way I saw my peers. That may be part of your experience, too, and if so my heart goes out to you. I want you to hear and to know that school is NOT representative of the so-called real world it’s preparing you for. School is school. Yes, there may always be mean people you’ll have to deal with but you’ll have more freedom to figure out HOW you want to deal with it when you’re an adult. OK? It really does get better and the people who say that your teen years are the best years of your life, well, I feel bad for them because their best years are behind them. For most of us, the teen years are tough years and life gets better as we get older. Truly. I’m telling you being a grown up isn’t as scary as you might think and actually is a lot of fun.

All right, back to anxiety. 

Here’s the deal about missing school because of anxiety. When we avoid things because we are anxious about them, we are rewarding that avoidance so it gets harder and harder to face the scary thing. Avoidance begets avoidance. So I’m not able to advocate that as a coping mechanism.

That said, we can also consider what school is offering you. School is about academics and it’s about socializing. If a particular school experience is a poor fit for someone and that’s causing anxiety — like if the bullying is making school unsafe or a child or teen has learning needs that aren’t being addressed by the school — then pulling that person from school might make sense IF we have a plan for academics and socializing.

In other words, I wouldn’t recommend that a child or teen leave school to do fully online school alone at home without any social opportunities. And I do mean face-to-face opportunities, not just online ones.

Being online is fine, having online friends is great, but we all need the practice of socializing in real life.

We need to figure out how to manage social expectations around eye contact and back and forth conversation. That’s not to say that there is just one way to do that. I often talk to families whose children are neurodiverse and their needs are different and that’s fine. An autistic person shouldn’t be forced to mask but they do need to figure out how they want to support themselves while navigating social life. Like do they want to mask, do they want to work on specific social skills, do they want to figure out how to find a community that doesn’t demand this of them. Which is to say learning how and if you want to fit into the mainstream world is part of the job of growing up but also finding the places in the world that loves and accepts you is important, too. And those places do exist. 

For example, sometimes when I’m working with families, we’re talking about ways to find a social support system for their child that will let their child be exactly who they are without demanding that they be different. There are spaces like this. They can be harder to find especially for people who live in small communities, but they’re out there. 

Some of us do best with a wide circle of friends but lots of us are happy to have one or two people who really get us and can support us. That might mean finding a tutor who understands how we learn and can help us work with our skills and talents. That might mean finding a mentor who shares our passion for a specific hobby or topic. 

If leaving school doesn’t make sense or truly isn’t available and you’re going to have to go, I still think looking outside of school for pro-social opportunities can help us deal with the social demands of school. It’s not as painful to eat alone in the cafeteria if we know that after school we’re going to go to the library and hang with our D&D group or go to choir practice or whatever activity where we can remember that school is not the end all and be all of our experience.

I know that’s big work and we’re talking about the day to day coping in going to school when you are anxious and would rather stay home. 

Remember the metaphor of the pool. Think about ways to take baby steps. Again, your guidance counselor can be a help here. I hope they are. And parents can be advocates. And if you have one teacher who seems to get you, reach out to them. Back to baby steps. What do you need to get through your day at school. If you painted your ideal day at school — acknowledging that you’d rather not be at school but let’s just paint your ideal day there — what would help? Is it breaks? Is it being able to listen to your music sometimes? Is it being allowed to wear sunglasses or your hood up? Is there a particular class that is more challenging? Mapping our your day may help you come up with some specific coping tools to ease you into that cold swimming pool. 

But full on avoidance isn’t it. Basically you’re going to need to think about how to face your anxiety as best you can. 

I wish I could give you more specific advice but obviously that’s beyond the scope of a podcast so I hope that I’ve given you some places to start and some ideas. I’m thinking of you and know that other members of the listening audience are thinking of you, too. 

If you need crisis support, please call 988 for local resources and help.

Is failure to launch caused by anxiety?

First let’s talk about what failure to launch is. What do we mean when we use that term? Failure to launch is generally used to describe a young adult child who is struggling with the transition to adulthood.

Maybe they’re struggling to get a job, to get their own housing. Maybe they meant to enroll in school and haven’t been able to or have dropped out. Sometimes parents talk about their adult children who have difficult connecting with people their own age or out in the quote real world. Perhaps they aren’t keeping up with their responsibilities at home like cooking for themselves or their family or cleaning up after themselves.

But failure to launch in itself isn’t a diagnosis. It’s more of a cultural description about our social expectations for older teens and young adults and the way that some individuals struggle with these expectations.

And speaking of culture, failure to launch only exists in the context of these expectations. Some families may expect adult children to live at home for some time. Some parents may have different goals for their adult children. But when I hear parents use that term — failure to launch — I understand what they’re describing is their family’s frustration and worry about that adult child’s functioning. And that adult child may share that worry or may not.

So why might an adult child struggle in this way?

Well, we need to acknowledge that there are factors outside of the individual that may create these problems. For example, it’s a lot more difficult to move out on your own then when I was a young adult. Back then minimum wage in Ohio was $3.35 and my share of the rent was $187.50. Now minimum wage here is $9.30 but if I lived in that apartment today my share of the rent would be around $1200. Which is to say it was much easier to launch in the past. So let’s definitely acknowledge that.

Now back to the original question, is failure to launch caused by anxiety? And the answer is maybe. Sure, sometimes. Or anxiety may play a part. Like all things, it’s complicated.

But let’s talk about anxiety, specifically young adult anxiety that keeps that person feeling trapped at home longer than they want or perhaps longer than their parents want. Yes, that’s a thing. Absolutely. And it deserves care and attention.

One of the reasons I don’t like the term “failure to launch” is because of its emphasis on FAILURE. And my experience in working with those families is that everyone is already feeling overwhelmed with the idea of failure. Parents are dealing with criticism — why haven’t you kicked that kid out of there already? Why are you holding them back? And certainly the young adults themselves are facing their own sense of failure in not accessing whatever it is they believe they should be able to access by now. Failure just isn’t really a helpful way to frame it. Instead, like all developmental challenges in growing up, we can consider where and how people are getting stuck. 

If we’re talking about anxiety specifically, the idea of failure is going to make everyone much more anxious. I think it’s more helpful to talk about lagging skills. That is to say, that the adult child is needing to work on and improve specific skills that will help them move on and launch. 

We’ve said before that anxiety is about avoidance and it’s also about dread. I hear more and more and more from older teens who have very real dread about the future. And it’s no wonder if you glance at the news. They’re worried about being able to handle the demands and some of them become so overwhelmed that they freeze. That’s anxiety. What they need from us is help to face those fears, tolerate the distress of stepping out of their comfort zone, and adults who believe in them.

As parents, when children — even adult children — are struggling or have struggled or have faced very real challenges and setbacks, it’s hard not to steel ourselves for more of that. We may unintentionally send a message that they are not prepared to handle the quote “real world” end quote. We may do this by rescuing them or by second guessing their choices when they do make an attempt to reach out. We may try to take charge by calling their bosses or college instructors or making ourselves necessary when really we’re supposed to be making ourselves obsolete. 

These are hard lessons for parents. Again, with anxiety, it makes sense that we fall into these parenting pitfalls where we mean to help and instead perpetuate the anxiety. If we do too much caretaking, too much interfering, too much helping we end up sending the message that they can’t handle things on their own.

What I’ve heard some parents say when we talk about this is, But what if they CAN’T handle things on their own. What if they really can’t? Well, then we work on creating baby steps to move them forward and to put ourselves out of a job. It’s not an easy 1 – 2 – 3 kind of plan. It’s a tricky, sticky, deeply individualized plan.

I’d recommend that the adult child get their own counseling and that the parents get education and support, too, separately but complementary. The adult child has their own work to do but the parents will need to learn and understand how they can best support them in reaching their goals. If the adult child is unwilling to get counseling, the parents can still do their part and get their own help.

The SPACE program, which Child Anxiety Support is partially based on, has been shown to be effective in helping families who are struggling with launching. You can see what I have to offer or go to spacetreatment.net to find other practitioners doing this work.

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