September 2022

Does co-sleeping make separation anxiety worse?

Co-sleeping for anyone not in the know is also called bed sharing or family bed and basically it describes parents who sleep with their kids. That’s it. That can mean anything from kids who climb into their parents bed after a nightmare to kids who start out in their parents’ bed or whose families have one big bed made up of a lot of mattresses and everybody piles in.

How we sleep is a cultural decision. Not just the whole broad culture, although obviously we are impacted by our social mores, but also a family culture decision.

Lots of families co-sleep and I have no opinion whatsoever about that as long as everyone is more or less happy and is getting enough sleep.

This is one of those parenting decisions that I don’t think you can take out of context of the family functioning and say it is GOOD or BAD. It’s neutral.

It’s good if your family likes it and it works and it’s bad if your family doesn’t like it and it doesn’t work. OK?

So just to be clear about that. I have no bias about whether or not you should co-sleep with your kids, it’s a personal decision.

But. Does it cause separation anxiety? Well, there I have some thoughts and I’m gonna share them.

First let’s define separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety describes kids who struggle to separate from their parents beyond when it is developmentally appropriate. We except kids to go through periods of separation anxiety. We know that older infants — around 8 months or so — start to cling to the parents. This is the age where babies that were perfectly happy to get passed around stop liking it. 

The rise in separation anxiety in infants goes along with their developing object permanence, which means that your baby is learning that things continue to exist even after they can’t see them. That gives them the ability to hold their parent in their mind even after that parent has left, which gives them the ability to miss you thus separation anxiety.

This continues into toddlerhood but we shouldn’t be surprised when it crops up later when kids are challenged in new ways. For example, it’s not atypical for a preschooler or even a kindergartener to cry when they’re left at school for the first time. Generally they’re growing out of it so even if they are upset, they’ve learned how to tolerate their discomfort long enough to acclimate to their new environment. 

Separation anxiety disorder is when the child is not able to acclimate. A 4-year old who is a little tearful and doesn’t want their parent to leave that first week of school may be typical but a 6-year old who is struggling might need some extra consideration. Or a 4-year old who doesn’t eventually get comfortable but stays distressed. We’d also want to make a note of that. That’s a sign of true anxiety, not just a developmentally appropriate reaction.

And yes, we see separation anxiety at bedtime when those kids need to separate from their caregivers. It’s one reason some children struggle to go to bed. Not always, of course, some kids just want to stay up where the action is but children who insist on parents lying down with them or who won’t stay in bed unless their parents do, that can be a sign of separation anxiety.

Now let’s be clear, co-sleeping doesn’t cause this. Co-sleeping may happen in reaction to it. If a parent feels unable to leave their upset child or gives in to tears and let’s them sleep in the big bed, that’s a reaction. The parent is reacting to the child’s distress. 

So co-sleeping doesn’t cause it but you can see that it can perpetuate it.

Again, if the whole family is happy with this scenario then there are no worries. But if the family is unhappy with the scenario then something needs to change.

That’s the thing about anxiety. Some of it is situationally dependent. For example, it’s common in other countries for adult children to continue to live with their parents. This doesn’t cause separation anxiety but some adult children live with their parents because of their anxiety.

Or think about a city like New York City. Lots of people there don’t have driver’s licenses because they don’t need them. It’s got nothing to do with anxiety about driving a car. That said, sometimes not having a driver’s license as an adult may be an anxiety symptom. How do we know the difference? It’s about how people feel about it. If someone wants more independence but is afraid to drive that’s an anxiety issue. 

If an adult child wants to move out of their parents’ house but is afraid they aren’t capable, that’s an anxiety issue. Or if a parent wants an adult child to move out of the house but the child is afraid that they aren’t capable, that’s an anxiety issue AND it’s a boundary issue for the parents.

Likewise, if you don’t want to co-sleep and your child is insisting on it, that may be an anxiety issue and it’s definitely a boundary issue for the parents. In other words, the parents are going to have to figure out how to set and hold boundaries in ways that are appropriate for themselves, for their child, and for the family as a whole. Which is, as I said, very personal.

Sometimes I work with families where there is definitely separation anxiety present particularly around bedtime, which is what brings the family in to the program. I also work with families where there is definitely anxiety present including around bedtime, but they’re not concerned about that and are more concerned about the presentation elsewhere like getting the child off to school or going to playdates or letting mom pee with the door shut. That’s fine. We can focus on the issue that is causing the family grief. We do not need to start with areas where the family has not identified a problem. I do think it makes sense to consider it — are we ok with the co-sleeping? is there a point when we might want it to shift? — but ultimately the family gets to decide what works best for them.

What I have found is that when we’re doing good work around separation anxiety that the family is able to make appropriate individualized decisions about things like co-sleeping and babysitters and homeschooling. Every family has different expectations and limits around those things but when things are generally becoming more healthy, it becomes easier to know what to do in those situations.


What causes child anxiety and how do you fix it?

This week’s question isn’t one that has been sent my way. It’s one I’ve ginned up to give me an excuse to address a bunch of smaller questions.

I’m using this question to explain that there are a lot of reasons why your child might have a brain that is more prone to anxiety and so there are a lot of ways to address is. 

Anxiety is a helpful, healthy part of being human but some of us, as you know, are more prone to dysfunctional anxiety than others and that might be because of genetics. We can inherit the shape of our brains from our parents. 

It also can be learned. We may learn how to be anxious by watching our caregivers. 

There might be a trauma history and not just big T trauma — like a cataclysmic event or an act of violence — but also little t trauma, which might be harder to identify or not generally recognized as a trauma. This might be something like a difficult birth or an early separation. 

Anxiety can also be part of another diagnosis such as ADHD or autism. 

It might be caused by other health issues. For example, sometimes children with gut issues or celiac are more anxious and that can be a chicken and egg scenario where it’s difficult to tell if anxiety caused the stomach problems or the stomach problems caused anxiety. 

Children may have allergies or sensory issues that make their bodies feel more anxious. It’s hard to feel calm if we’re itchy or if we’re struggling to know where our body is in space or if our vision or hearing is overwhelmed.

The reason this is so complicated is that we complicated. We are mind and body and spirit and we are also our relationships. We exist in community and this is especially true for children who spend their growing up leaning on us — asking their parents to complete them — until they are old enough to stand on their own. And that takes longer than you think, especially for anxious kids. 

The many different treatments for child anxiety depend on how the professional is conceptualize what’s going on, which depends on their training and their theoretical mindset. 

As someone trained in child development and clinical mental health, I see things through the lens of mind and relationships. More specifically the family system and the relationship between parent and child. That is my go to, that is where my research and understanding is, and that is where my skills lie. 

But what I do is not the singular answer. It can be. For some families that’s where the healing begins and end but for other families — in fact I’d say for most families — it’s just part of the puzzle.

This is one reason why I host Eve Hermann, of Source Embodiment. Eve is a licensed massage therapist, cranial sacral practitioner and somatic experiencing professional in my Child Anxiety Support membership each month. She understands the body and the brain from a perspective that is different than my own. Her training is different, her background is different, and the solutions she offers are complementary because they are different. There’s tremendous value in having more than one way of considering your experience and your child’s experience with anxiety.

Your family’s healing — and your child’s journey — might include working with someone like her. It might include medication, working with an allopathic doctor. It might mean working with an occupational therapist or a pediatric chiropractor. It might mean examining your child’s physical surroundings whether that’s school or your home to see if there are things you can do to make it a better fit. You might bring in an executive functioning coach or a professional organizer to create a more supportive environment.

I don’t want this to seem overwhelming. Instead I want you to understand that helping your child, helping your family, and helping your self is an opportunity to explore what works. It’s not just about some magical fix; it’s about finding opportunities to grow and learn about what we need and how we can flourish.

Often what families need is a mix of services or supports. For example, a child with an auditory processing disorder needs this identified and addressed as part of anxiety treatment. Or a parent who is completely stressed out can’t focus on the kind of intervention we plan in the program. They may benefit from starting an exercise routine or learning to meditate or getting a weekly massage. When we are anxious we can’t access that higher order brain that lets us plan, that lets us follow through, that lets us offer our children the regulation they may need to borrow to get through their anxious challenges. Again, that’s why I’m so grateful that Eve is in our site. She offers a monthly exercise to guide us towards calm.

I think it’s important to understand that no single professional, no particular modality is a silver bullet. Child anxiety can’t be cured in one session with any particular expert or healer; It’s more of a long commitment to healing and growth and every family has their own particular pathway.

I met with a pediatric chiropractor here in town the other day. Her name is Dr. Gabby and she’s at the inside space here in Columbus. I’ll link to both her and Eve in my show notes. Anyway, Dr. Gabby says that working with her families is like a dance where she is participating in the experience with her clients, trusting them to show her what they need. She observes and listens and brings her expertise in choosing how to respond. I totally get what she means here. We meet our clients wherever they are at, we trust who they are in the moment and are curious about how they will show us what they need. 

We don’t see our clients as broken. That’s not helpful and it’s not true. We all have specific challenges but there isn’t a perfect version of ourselves or of our children that we need to chase. Perfection is not the goal. Right here, in this moment, you are who you are. Your child is who they are. That’s enough and it’s always the right place to start.

I think about this because I can remember introducing my newborn son to a relative who gazed into his eyes and said, “It’s a shame that someone so perfect is going to be messed up by the world.” My gosh, I was devastated. And that’s how I parented for the first few years, from this place of fear. Everything felt like a threat to his perfection and I felt like I was in a losing battle to protect him from harm. I know that some of you are having that experience, too.

Let me tell you, now that my kids are grown I see how wrong I was and how much that point of view caused me unnecessary sorrow and insecurity. We are meant to experience the world and we are built to withstand it especially when we have the loving support of committed, attentive and attuned parents.  

None of us are projects to be fixed or perfected; we are here to grow, learn, and discover.

One of the ways I approach anxious kids is to talk about the great adventure that is life. We talk about their heroes — fictional or not — and how those heroes go through difficult times. That’s what makes them heroes, right? I tell those kids, This is your adventure tale. You are facing dragons. You will have stories of survival to tell and to inspire people. It’s hard work. That’s why we write books about it.

If you are parenting an anxious child know that you are writing your own story. Parenting this child at this time is part of it. I am here to help you with the mind part, the relationship part. I am here to address the family systems part. There are other wonderful practitioners who can be a part of your journey, too. 

If I had my way, I’d assign every family a whole team of supporters, and cheerleaders, and educators, and service providers. But you only need to start with one. Just start at the start that is most accessible to you and through that particular path, you will find other helpers, too. Remember, no silver bullets but with those people who come alongside you, you — and your child — can overcome anything.

Why does my child’s anxiety make my anxiety worse?

This is such a good question and gives us the opportunity to do a deep dive into anxiety in general and child anxiety in particular so let’s go ahead and do that, let’s dive in.

Ok first of all, anxiety is catching and it’s meant to be. We are meant to live in community and if something is threatening the community — like if we are all sitting around together, around the fire, relaxing after a long day hunting and gathering — and a lion creeps up on us and one of us hears a sound and sits up all alert, the rest of us are supposed to catch their tension so we get on high alert, too. It’s a safety issue.

You know how sometimes you’re sitting in your car at a red light and you turn to look at the person in the car next to you and they feel you looking and stare right back at you? We are all attuned to each other. We are sensitive to the people around us and most sensitive to the people to whom we are closest. 

I thought about this a lot over the past few years when things have been scary for a lot of people. Our society is more anxious right now and has been for some time. We catch anxiety from each other and even if we’re having a particular experience that isn’t very anxious for whatever reason, we might find ourselves feeling on higher alert, a little more tense, a bit more irritable when we go out around other people. 

This is another reason why I expect to field more phone calls from parents about their anxious kids during back to school time. It’s not just the transition, although there’s that. It’s not just the greater demands of school, although there’s that, too. But there is also the fact that anxiety is catching and kids catch it from each other and we catch it from them. 

Anxiety, in other words, begets anxiety.

So that’s one reason why your child’s anxiety makes you anxious is that it’s supposed to. 

Beyond that there are a couple of other reasons why your child’s anxiety might make you anxious and these are super important to unpack when we’re planning how we want to address their anxiety. 

The first is that maybe you’re anxious about the same things. So say your child is really worried about passing their test. Maybe you worry about grades, too. Maybe you worry about their ability to pass the test. Maybe when they say, “I think my teacher doesn’t like me and is going to be extra hard when they grade my essay responses” we start to worry that this might happen.

We might know we’re worried about the same things they are but we might not know it. We might be so caught up in their worry and whining or tears or asking for help that we don’t notice that we share their worry. That can make it difficult to address it. We might start problem solving, like encouraging them to study harder when studying harder isn’t actually the issue. The issue is the worry. This can be especially true for perfectionist parents — because perfectionism is a symptom of anxiety — whose response to their own triggered worry is to run from that worry. That is to say, your child is afraid of failing, we are also afraid of their failing, and so we run from the idea of failure whether or not that is a realistic fear.

Our anxiety may make it difficult for us to recognize it as an unrealistic fear. 

Ok, so that’s two reasons. 

Now there’s another one and this one is the most common reason parents reach out to me for help. And that is that their child’s anxiety triggers their own anxiety not about the fears the child has but about their fear that their child can’t handle it. 

Parents don’t always recognize this as anxiety. They experience it as frustration, anger, overwhelm, or discouragement. They tell me things like, “I’m afraid that my child can’t handle their anxiety” or “I’m afraid my child’s anxiety will derail them” or “I’m afraid my child will be traumatized if I I make them do the thing they’re scared of” or even “I’m afraid of my child’s behavior when I push them about the thing that makes them anxious.”

In those cases it’s our worry — the “I’m afraid …” part that we need to address first.

What we know about anxiety is that it’s a family systems issue. The child does have anxiety, that is not the family’s fault, it’s not the parents’ fault, it’s not the child’s fault. It’s a fact and what happens is that the system of the family starts to shape itself around the child’s anxiety. This is normal and generally speaking it is healthy for systems to shape themselves to support its members. It’s only an issue when the system is supporting dysfunction and we don’t always know that this is happening until we look around and say, Shoot, our family is really stuck. 

Starting with the parent doesn’t mean we’re blaming the parent, it means that we’re acknowledging that the parent has the position and the power to adjust their own reactions and behaviors in order to adjust the system, which shifts to support the child in growing instead of keeping the child stuck.

It’s big work, I won’t lie. It’s not easy and it’s important that the parent takes care of themselves while they’re doing it. To take care of your child’s anxiety means understanding where your anxiety has become part of the issue so that you can address it and so address your child’s. It’s one of those things where when you start to see it, you can really see it. And that makes it much easier to address it. 

What should we do about our anxious child’s negative self talk?

Negative self talk looks like, “I’m terrible, I’m stupid, I’m the worst player ever, etc.” My child is incredibly talented and none of what he says is true, but no amount of positive reinforcement seems to help. 

This is a great question because it’s really common. I often get calls from parents looking for help because this kind of negative self talk is getting more and more worrisome. 

The first thing I ask parents to consider when they contact me about this behavior is when its occurring. Anxious children will often say these kinds of things when they are trying to confront their anxiety in some ways but are failing. For example, a child who is worried about failing a spelling test might say this when they try to study. Or a child who is struggling to go into school alone is sitting in the car unable to get out and go in. They may also say it when they realize their parent is frustrated or unhappy with how things are going or if they think their parent is frustrated or unhappy with how things are going. And many many kids who are on the fight end of fight/flight and freeze say it after their meltdown. They look around at their trashed room or at their unhappy family and feel pretty terrible about it and then say, “I’m the worst. I’m a bad kid.”

If your child is saying these statements in the context of their anxiety then this is part of their anxiety. 

Anxious kids are anxious, right? And one of the things they’re anxious about is being able to measure up. They are worried that they are not good enough, not strong enough, and not capable enough.

They are anxious about their anxiety. And they are confusing their anxiety with themselves. Because of course they are. The more anxious a child is, the more their anxiety is ruling their lives and may feel like the most central, most important thing about themselves.

Anxiety tells us lies. It tells us that all the dogs will bite, and that thunder storms will turn into tornadoes and whirl us away, and that our friends are just waiting to laugh at us and that we aren’t good enough. That’s a pervasive lie of anxiety.

Anxiety robs us of our self esteem. The more that we are limited by our anxiety — the more that we are avoiding or limiting ourselves and our loved ones — the worse we feel about ourselves. Other kids can spend the night places. Other kids can speak up in class. Other kids —maybe even our siblings — aren’t driving our parents crazy. No wonder anxious kids often feel bad about themselves.

And this is true, even for the kids who are successful. Perfectionist, anxious kids may be performing at a very high level of functioning, but they still feel bad about themselves. That’s because their best is never good enough and they always feel one mistake away from everything falling apart. Perfectionist, anxious, kids are all or nothing kids. That means that they’re absolutely 100% fantastic or they are abject failures. 

And this is why it’s so important that we and our children get support around anxiety. Anxiety tends to go hand in hand with depression in large part because anxiety does such a number on our sense of self. It tells us the lies that we are not good enough. That we must remain small to stay safe. It tells us that we have to avoid adventure in order to stay protected. Or that we must be perfect in order to deserve love.

If you have a child who is saying rotten things about themselves there are a couple of things to know.

The first is that reassuring them that they are wonderful is unlikely to help in the moment. If you’ve taken the Parenting Pitfalls quiz, which you can find at my site child anxiety support dot com, just look in the menu at the top then you know that reassurance is one of those pitfalls. That means that reassuring our children when they are anxious actually makes them more anxious. That reassurance feels good for a minute but then our children acclimate to it and need more of it. Yes, it’s good to tell our kids how great they are but when they are feeling anxious and beating themselves up, we can remind them that this is their anxiety talking. We can say things like, 

“Your anxiety is is trying to keep you small right now.” Or even, “Your anxiety is not being very nice to you right now.” When they are not feeling anxious, we can explain how this all works. The first part of helping our anxious kids is teaching them how anxiety functions. We should explain that anxiety is our safety system working over time. It’s good to be concerned about our safety but it’s not good to be so concerned that we’re missing out or beating ourselves up. 

We should teach our kids to talk back to their anxiety. Your child says, “I’m stupid” and we can say, “That’s your anxiety talking. What would you like to say back to it.”

Sometimes this is no good in the moment. When our kids are at their most anxious they are in survival mode and can’t access the higher order thinking that logical reasoning requires. In those cases we should wait until their calm and process the negative self talk later. 

Again, negative self talk is in itself a form of anxiety in anxious kids and reassurance is going to make things worse.

Which brings us to our own anxiety. It’s really really difficult to hear our kids trash talk themselves. It is painful and it can be scary. Of course we feel anxious when we hear their anxiety coming out this way.

So how do we handle that? In much the same way. First we learn about how anxiety works — ours and our child’s. Second, we learn how to manage anxiety — ours and our child’s. We learn to think in two modes — in the moment, dealing with what’s right in front of us and big picture, dealing with anxiety as a whole. That means having a plan for in the specific anxious moment that feeds the larger plan of helping our anxious child long-term.

In short, if your child is full of negative self talk then:

  1. Educate them about anxiety and how it shows up including making us think mean things about ourselves that are supposed to keep us small and safe but really end up keeping us small and unhappy;
  2. Make a plan for what we’ll say to them in the moment, which might be something like, “Your anxiety has its mean voice on today.” Or “Sounds like your anxiety is really trying to keep you small.”
  3. Create a long-term family plan to support your child in dealing with and facing they anxiety.
  4. Create a long-term plan to support you in dealing with any anxiety you have in parenting an anxious child.

Have questions about this topic or something else you want to ask? Let me know.

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