Understanding Family Patterns That Perpetuate Anxiety in Children and Teens

Hey everyone! I’ve been thinking a lot about how family dynamics play a role in the anxiety our children and teens may experience. It turns out there are three categories of family patterns or responses that keep families trapped in the parenting pitfalls of child anxiety. I’m eager to share these insights because recognizing them is the first step towards change.

So, let’s dive in! First up is avoidance. It’s when your child shies away from the things that make them nervous. This could be anything from ordering in a restaurant to avoiding going outside if the weather looks iffy. If we, as parents, facilitate this avoidance, we’re actually reinforcing their anxiety. It’s like we’re saying, “It’s okay, you don’t have to face your fears,” which prevents them from learning how to cope.

Next, we have safety-seeking behaviors. These are the moments when our kids look to us as their personal shield against the world. They might say things like, “I’ll only go upstairs if you come with me, Mom,” or “Please don’t leave the house at night, I don’t feel safe.” While it’s natural to want to protect our children, constantly being their safety net can prevent them from developing their own resilience.

Last but not least are rituals. Does your child insist on having things done ‘just so’? Whether it’s drinking from a cup of a specific color or demanding routines be followed to a T, these rituals can be a way for them to manage their anxiety. But, when we cater to these demands, it can reinforce the idea that the world is a scary place that needs to be controlled meticulously.

These patterns—avoidance, safety-seeking, and rituals—can keep our little ones stuck in their anxiety loops. It’s important for us to recognize these behaviors and learn how to gently disrupt them. This way, we can empower our children to face their fears and grow out of these patterns, ultimately freeing both them and ourselves from the cycle of anxiety.

What do you think? Have you noticed any of these patterns in your family? Let’s chat about it in the comments below! Your experiences could help another family out there.

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Guiding Anxious Children Towards Positivity

In my experience as a child therapist, I’ve often observed that children who struggle with anxiety can exhibit more irritability and negativity. It’s crucial for us, as caregivers and educators, to support these children in fostering a more balanced and positive self-identity. Today, I want to delve into how we can utilize feelings literacy to achieve this transformative journey.

The Power of Feelings Literacy

Many parents excel at feelings literacy, adeptly helping their children to identify and articulate their emotions. When a child feels downcast or exhibits anger, it’s common to hear affirmations such as, “I can see you’re sad about that,” or, “I know that you’re afraid.” This practice is extremely beneficial, as acknowledging and validating a child’s emotions can often be the first step in regulating those difficult feelings. Such validation facilitates a calming effect, enabling children to recover and continue with their activities.

For instance, when a child lashes out physically, a parent might respond, “I know you are angry, but hands are not for hitting. Please use your words.” This approach is commendable because it doesn’t just reprimand but also acknowledges the child’s emotional state, guiding them toward better ways of expressing it.

Stretching Beyond the Negative

Children who experience heightened levels of anxiety are frequently caught in a web of negative emotions. Consequently, we may find ourselves reinforcing this negativity by using language that focuses on anger, sadness, or fear. It is essential that we assist these children in stretching their self-perception to include more positive or at least neutral aspects of their identity. This doesn’t mean discounting their negative emotions—something that would fall into the realm of toxic positivity—but rather, recognizing and naming the moments when they are experiencing positive or neutral emotions.

Take, for example, a child who is quietly engaged in building with Legos. You might comment, “You really seem content when you’re playing with your Legos.” This not only introduces them to a new emotional descriptor—content—but also helps the child view themselves as capable of experiencing such a state. Anxious children can often feel guilty, believing they make life more challenging for those they love. Highlighting their moments of contentment allows them to see themselves in a different, more positive light.

Connecting to Calm and Happiness

It’s not enough to simply redirect children away from their negative emotions; we need to help them connect with feelings of joy, calm, and focus. For instance, when you notice your child completely absorbed and happy while scootering, you could say, “You’re really in your flow. You seem so happy when you’re scootering up and down the driveway.” Or, when they hum to themselves as they color, you might observe, “You have a lot of calm as you are coloring.”

By doing this, we are helping children recognize that they are not solely defined by their anxiety or anger. Instead, they are multifaceted individuals capable of experiencing a wide range of emotions. More importantly, we’re helping them to identify activities and states that evoke positive feelings, broadening their ability to find peace and happiness in their day-to-day lives. This is critical because telling a child to “calm down” is ineffectual if they haven’t learned to recognize what calm feels like. Hence, it’s our role to guide them in discovering these positive states within themselves.

Let’s ensure that we celebrate the full spectrum of our children’s emotions, not just the negative ones. By doing so, we empower them to build a more positive self-identity and better cope with the complexities of their inner world.

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Understanding and Alleviating Anxiety in Children and Teens: Gentle Parenting Strategies

Gentle parenting, with its superpower of communication, offers an empathetic, supportive, and effective way to help our young ones navigate their fears and anxieties. Today, we’re going to explore three specific techniques that embody this compassionate philosophy.

The Power of Conversation: A Double-Edged Sword

Let’s start with the core strength of gentle parenting – talking. It’s a powerful tool that enables us to connect with our children, understand their world, and help them process their emotions. However, when it comes to anxiety, we can sometimes inadvertently heighten their fears by focusing too much on the subject.

Imagine you’re in a situation that triggers your anxiety. Constantly discussing your fears can reinforce those emotions, keeping you fixated on them instead of allowing you to move forward. The same happens with our children. While it’s essential to acknowledge their feelings, we must avoid over-processing.

The key is balance. We should provide a space for our kids to express their fears without making their anxiety the center of attention all the time. By doing so, we allow them to understand that while their fears are valid, they don’t have to dominate their experiences.

Encouragement Over Fixation: Fostering Resilience

Now, let’s talk about how we can better support our children as they face their anxieties. Instead of fixating on the fear, let’s shift our focus to empowerment and resilience. Tell your child, “I know you’re afraid, but I also know you can handle it. I’ll be there with you every step of the way.”

This statement does two things: it acknowledges the fear, so your child feels heard, and it instills confidence, reminding them of their inner strength. It’s a subtle but powerful change in approach that can make a significant difference in how they manage anxiety.

By affirming their capability to overcome challenges, we’re not dismissing their feelings. Instead, we’re guiding them towards a mindset where they see themselves as capable and resilient, which is crucial in developing long-term coping skills.

Building Coping Skills: A Guided, Yet Subtle Approach

Finally, let’s consider how we can help our children build their coping skills without making them overly conscious of their anxiety. It’s essential to teach them techniques like deep breathing, visualization, or grounding exercises, but we must introduce these tools in a way that feels natural and non-intrusive.

For instance, practice deep breathing exercises together during calm moments, not just when they’re anxious. This way, it becomes a part of their routine, and they’re more likely to remember to use it when they need it – without you having to remind them in the midst of their anxiety.

Incorporate these techniques into daily life as much as possible. The goal is for these skills to become second nature to them, so when they do face a situation that causes anxiety, they have a toolkit of strategies already in place, ready to use without it feeling like a big deal.

In conclusion, gentle parenting offers a compassionate framework for helping children and teens manage their anxiety. By conversing thoughtfully, fostering resilience, and subtly integrating coping skills into everyday life, we can empower our young ones to face their fears with confidence. Remember, it’s about guiding them to understand that while anxiety is a part of life, it doesn’t have to define their experiences. As parents, our unwavering support and belief in their abilities can make all the difference.

Thank you for joining us on this journey towards understanding and nurturing our children’s emotional well-being. Keep embracing the power of gentle parenting, and let’s continue to create a supportive environment where our kids can thrive, even in the face of anxiety.

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Nurturing Calm: Gentle Parenting for Anxious Children

As parents, we often find ourselves in a delicate dance of nurturing, guiding, and setting boundaries for our children. This dance becomes even more intricate when you have an anxious child or teenager. Gentle parenting approaches can be incredibly effective in these situations, but how do we establish healthy boundaries while still providing the support and understanding these sensitive souls need?

Understanding the Reflective Nature of Anxiety

At the heart of the matter lies an essential truth: our children are mirrors to our own emotional states. The most important thing we can do as parents who respect, love, and are attuned to our anxious children is to take care of our own anxiety about them. Anxiety can be contagious, and as gentle parents who prioritize the relationship, we are especially susceptible to this emotional contagion.

When our child’s anxiety begins to ramp up, it is not uncommon for us, as parents, to follow suit. This isn’t just because of our attunement to our kids; it’s also because anxiety naturally tends to spread from person to person. Therefore, we must become adept at managing our own emotional responses. Learning to calm ourselves becomes crucial not just for our well-being but for the well-being of our children as well.

Cultivating Self-Calm to Foster Stability

Anxiety may be catching, but so is calm. The more we can ground ourselves, the less likely we are to be swept up in the anxiety and reassurance loop. Imagine yourself as the anchor in the stormy seas of your child’s emotions. By maintaining your calm, you provide a stable point of reference for your child. This stability is essential because it offers them a chance to tune into your calm instead of spiraling further into their anxiety. This is, perhaps, the most crucial boundary we can offer our anxious children: not joining them in their anxiety.

It’s not about being a stoic or emotionless figure; it’s about demonstrating that emotions can be managed and that calm is achievable even when anxiety is knocking at the door. This silent lesson in emotional regulation is one of the most powerful tools in a gentle parent’s arsenal.

Setting Boundaries with Love and Consistency

Establishing boundaries doesn’t mean erecting walls. Instead, it’s about setting consistent expectations and maintaining a space where your child knows what’s acceptable and what isn’t, all while feeling supported and loved. Communicating clear boundaries in a gentle but firm manner teaches children self-regulation and respect for themselves and others.

Boundaries are not just for behavior; they’re also for emotions. We can teach our children that while all feelings are valid, not all responses are appropriate. We can guide them towards healthy outlets for their anxiety and help them to understand the importance of self-care and self-soothing techniques.

In the end, gentle parenting is a balance of empathy and structure. It’s about being a compassionate confidant while also being a guide who sets limits. By modeling calm, staying consistent with boundaries, and offering unwavering support, we can help our anxious children navigate their emotions and the world around them with confidence and resilience.

Parenting is no easy task, and it becomes all the more challenging when anxiety enters the equation. However, with patience, understanding, and a commitment to self-regulation, we can provide the nurturing environment that our anxious children need to thrive. Remember, the calm you cultivate within yourself isn’t just for you—it’s a gift to your child, a beacon of peace in the tumultuous journey of growth.

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Are there techniques for teaching emotional regulation to anxious children?

 Hey everybody. This week’s question for the Child Anxiety FAQ is, “are there techniques for teaching emotional regulation to anxious children?” And of course there are techniques teaching emotional regulation for all kinds of kids, including anxious kids. It’s going to be a little bit different for anxious children, because we tend to focus on their anxiety.

We tend to focus on when they are not regulated and that makes sense because that’s what we’re trying to fix. So let’s take a step back and look at our anxious child and let’s think about when they are emotionally regulated. Let’s look for those times in the day where both of you are feeling a bit calmer, where they’re experiencing some contentment or pleasure or joy. And let’s start with that. Because when we ask children to do something like calm down, they’re not going to be able to do that if they don’t even know what calm is. So let’s find the places in their day where they are calm. For lots of anxious kids this means finding specific things that make their bodies feel better. So that could be swinging; that’s super regulating. It can be going for a walk. It can be building with their Legos.

It can be listening to music. It can be reading. What is it that your child likes to do?

Are they very active? Are they getting enough activity in their life? Are they kids who like to slow down and focus and curl up on the couch? Are they getting enough time with that?

Just for the next week, I would encourage you to look and see when is my child finding calm. Is it in the car ride with you on the way home from school? Is it when they’re curled up in bed and telling you about their day at the end of the day. Is it when they’re eating lunch and chatting with you. Start talking to them about their feelings in those good moments. Also observe yourself.

When are you getting moments of calm and clarity and contentment? Because this will also help you figure out what do you need more of? When we’re looking at anxiety, of course, we have a laser focus on those anxious moments, those problem moments. But when we only focus on those, we start to think in that way. We start calling attention to those only, and we’re not going to ignore them.

I’m not saying it’s all in your head because it’s not. I’m saying that we need to shift some focus.

If your child is calmer when they get activity, how can you get them more activity? If they’re calmer when they get more quiet time. How can you help them get more quiet time? As they tune into those, you can start using that as their coping tools for anxiety. Before their anxiety is out of control when you’re approaching something that creates anxiety, how can you bring more of that calm coping in?

It’s not just take a deep breath. It might be, “I know you’re worried about the spelling test. Why don’t you go take a break and go play with your Legos for a little bit, because I know that helps you calm your mind down.” Or “why don’t you go out and pitch to the pitch back…”. I tell you those pitch backs, you know, those square nets that you can put in a backyard and the kids can throw or kick a ball into it and bounces back. For some kids that is incredibly regulating.

You get to throw really hard. You get the satisfaction of catching and it’s rhythmic. So maybe you say. “Why don’t you go and play with your pitch back for a little bit, and then come back in when you’re feeling better.”

you might teach them to make themselves a cup of tea when they need to have some quiet, calm downtime. Or kids might need to chew gum as a calm down tool.

I’m thinking about some kids that I’ve worked with, who are maybe stressed about homework or times tables. Chewing gum while they’re doing it can actually stave off some of the anxiety because it lets them work out some of that nervous energy.

Now here’s why it’s important to look beyond the anxiety for other things that help our child regulate it’s because our child is more than their anxiety.

Their anxiety is just a part of them that they need to learn how to manage. If we look at the rest of their functional life to find places that we can build on and grow with and bring that to the anxiety, that is often more helpful than thinking of the anxiety as a discrete event in their life that we are trying to eliminate.

Does that makes sense? I hope that makes sense.

The other thing to know is that emotional regulation is a skill and it takes practice. This is not going to work right away. And for children who are accustomed to going into their emotional dysregulation and exploding, and that’s the way that they manage it, we are going to have to work a little harder to help them turn that around. We can let them know that this is part of growing.

That there’s nothing wrong with them. That they are a person who is learning how to be a person, just like we are all learning how to be people. Very often anxious kids think of themselves as people who cannot handle things. They think of themselves as people who disappoint the adults around them, they think of themselves as out of control. Shifting that image of themselves is going to take time. We can’t give up on them.

We just need to keep leaning in to helping them learn how to regulate. And also help them learn how to stay safe and keep other people safe when they are dysregulated. So that might mean if you have a child who really is going to melt down, how can we help them be safe when they do that? There was one family that I worked with that I encourage them to build an outdoor space that their child was free to flip out on.

That family built something that they called an anxious garden and when their child is feeling dysregulated and needed to yell and scream, They were allowed to go out there, hit that tree with sticks, stomp around, even throw rocks at the fence. The family told the neighbors, “Hey, if you see our kid out there flipping out, it’s okay.”

That’s an agreed upon way for them to manage their big feelings and the child felt safe to do that and was able then to feel less attached to that behavior.

This is fine to navigate and negotiate with our kids because we are all learning how to handle big emotions. It may be messy until you come up with solutions that work for you and likely as your child grows and develops, you will need to revisit those solutions because they’ll stop working and your child will need new things. There’s something else I wanted to say about the dysregulated anxious child is it can be helpful to keep a journal of how things are going, because it’s easy to miss progress when you’re in it. I can remember working with another family who their child used to punch holes in walls.

And for a long time, we were working on that and their child very successfully stopped punching holes in walls. It was fantastic. But one day during a meltdown, after many, many months of not hurting things they punched another hole in the wall and the family understandably was really worried. Is this a slippery slope?

Is this our downfall? And because we had been keeping track, they were able to look and say, Nope, this is a one-off and our child is usually doing a great job. And we are continuing to grow, and this is not a sign of anything, except that we had an especially bad day. If you’ve got questions about this, please let me know.

And if you have questions, you’d like me to address on the podcast. Please reach out to me.

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What do I do if my anxious child is bullying their siblings?

Addressing Anxiety and Sibling Bullying: A Parental Guide

Managing a child’s anxiety while maintaining harmony among siblings is a delicate balancing act. It involves understanding the nature of anxiety, recognizing the impact of behavior, and fostering an environment that encourages personal growth and responsibility without sparking shame. This post aims to provide parents with insights into handling situations where an anxious child might be bullying a sibling.

Understanding Anxiety in Children

Children experiencing anxiety are often not in a state of mental wellness that empowers them to control their behavior fully. This isn’t much about lacking the intention to behave well but more about lacking the ability to manage their responses effectively. According to Ross Green, “Kids do well if they can.” By recognizing that behavioral issues stem more from incapacity rather than unwillingness, we can approach the situation with more empathy and patience.

Recognizing the Struggles

Anxious children may not feel great about themselves; their actions, as much as they seem outwardly directed, are often reflections of their internal conflicts.

“This identity crisis exacerbates their anxiety, making it a cycle of stress and negative behavior, which might include bullying siblings.”

Addressing Sibling Bullying

Bullying is a serious issue and even more delicate when it involves siblings. First, it’s critical to ensure that the child being bullied feels safe and supported. Immediate comfort and assurance to the bullied child affirm your role as a protector, helping to restore their sense of safety.

Approaching the Anxious Child

Once safety is addressed, it’s time to approach the child with anxiety. It’s important not to confront them with accusations or labels that might trigger shame. Phrases like “You’re being a bully” or “You’re bad” can be very harmful. Instead, focus on the behavior and its unacceptability, framed by their emotions:

  • “I know you are anxious and I know you are struggling, but you may not treat your sibling this way.”

  • “I understand you are upset, but that doesn’t justify hurting others or breaking things.”

By acknowledging their feelings while also setting clear behavioral expectations, you’re not only guiding them towards better behavior but also validating their emotions, which is crucial for children dealing with anxiety.

Holding the Line Without Shaming

The goal is to help the child improve their behavior without making them feel worse about themselves. This can be a challenging line to walk, but it is necessary for their emotional and psychological health. Focus on the behavior as something they have control over, rather than something inherent to their character. This distinction helps the child feel capable of change at the same time as they understand the boundaries they must operate within.

Strategies for Positive Reinforcement

  1. Set Clear Expectations: Clearly state what behavior is acceptable and what isn’t.

  2. Reinforce Positives: Catch them doing good and praise them for it. Positive reinforcement can motivate them to continue good behavior.

  3. Model Empathy: Show empathy to all your children. Let them see firsthand how to express concern and understanding.

  4. Consistent Follow-Through: Be consistent in your responses to both negative and positive behavior to avoid confusion about what’s acceptable.

  5. Seek Professional Help if Needed: If you feel overwhelmed or if the child’s anxiety and behaviors are severe, professional help from a child psychologist might be necessary.


Handling a child’s anxiety while mitigating sibling bullying is about striking the right balance between support and discipline. It requires patience, understanding, and a clear communication of values and expectations in your family dynamics. Remember, each child is different, and the approach might need to be tailored based on individual needs, but the underlying principles of empathy, support, and clear boundaries remain constant.

Parenting is an evolving challenge that requires continuous learning and adaptation. By focusing on building a nurturing yet structured environment, we help all our children grow into well-rounded individuals capable of managing their behaviors and emotions effectively.

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What about gentle parenting for older kids with anxiety?

This week is the question I got from a listener after they listened to episode 64, which was Are there any downsides to practicing gentle parenting with an anxious child?. Let me read you the whole thing, because it’s long and specific and I’ll be referencing their question in this episode.

Ok. Here it goes:: 

“I have always considered myself to be a gentle parent and that really worked for us when my son was small. He has always been intense and anxious and being there for him made a big difference in his functioning. But now he is ten and I feel like we’re stuck. I don’t know how to gentle parent a big kid. I am exhausted from his meltdowns and I don’t understand why he has them. He has had a full work up from a psychologist who said he is only anxious. But I don’t understand how to help him function better. We’ve tried therapy and he says he is bored and we didn’t get anywhere because he wouldn’t engage. Our worst times are bedtime when he won’t let me leave. I need some time for myself in the evening but I feel so guilty because he gets very upset. When I do try to leave, he just follows me so I end up giving in. I don’t know what to do.”

All right I have to tell you all I’ve heard so many versions of this from parents of little kids of bigger kids and even of much older kids. So if this describes your life, I want to tell you that you are not alone.

I mentioned in a previous episode that I brought my kids up in the gentle parenting community and I can remember at playdates and social events hearing discussions about big kids who won’t or can’t sleep alone and I can remember that some of the advice was to just get a bigger bed. And I had friends who did that. They had mattresses wall to wall, which worked for them. Everyone was ok with it. And I had other friends who also gave in, got a bigger bed or one parent slept with one kid and the other slept alone or with the other kid. I mean all kinds of musical beds. And that’s fine, too. If people are ok with it, then they’re ok with it. 

But lots of people are NOT ok with it for a million reasonable reasons and they feel bad about that. 

Because they’re supposed to be gentle parents, right? And gentle parents make sacrifices. Gentle parents prioritize their child’s well being. Gentle parents are patient and trust their kids to take the lead.

Here’s the problem with this. Gentle parents aren’t just parents, they’re people. And they have a right to their own well being. Part of parenting is helping our children adjust to a shift where they are no longer the center of the family. They are still important of course, they still need to be the priority, but there needs to be a healthy move towards more independence, and towards letting other people in the family have the spotlight now and then. Now this is a negotiation and how it looks will be different in every family. Some kids need more help, some parents have less time, it’s not a DO IT like this is the end of discussion period. It’s an ongoing discussion and collaboration.

You know, one thing that I’m often struck by in working with parents is that most of us get all the way to adulthood and parenthood without getting any formal instruction on child development so we don’t alway know what to expect from our kids. We don’t always know what’s realistic. Sometimes this means our expectations are too high, like expecting a toddler to have an attention span. But sometimes — especially for gentle parents who tend to err on the side of caution — our expectations are too low.

It’s reasonable to expect a 10-year old to be able to fall asleep alone. Now that doesn’t mean you have to do bedtime that way. If reading to your 10-year old and cuddling with them until they fall asleep makes you happy and is an enjoyable part of your day, then great. But if you’re unhappy or frustrated or resentful, you do not have to keep doing it. There is nothing selfish about wanting your 10-year old to go to bed by themselves. It’s fine. It’s ok to want that. It’s ok to build a plan to get that. And in fact, I’d say that if there are these problems at bedtime, there are likely other problems elsewhere and working on anxiety at bedtime may help in those other areas.

Just to be clear, it’s not that the family is doing this that’s the issue. That’s fine. It’s when people are doing things they don’t want to do, that are making people unhappy, that are holding kids back that it becomes a problem.

Gentle parenting should grow with the family. It needs to change as the family’s needs change. Here are somethings I want you to know about anxiety and gentle parenting.

Gentle parenting doesn’t mean that your needs are always on the chopping block. 

I strongly belief that in connected families where parents have worked hard to connect with their kids, that our frustration or impatience is a sign that our child is ready to grow. I think our impatience is a tool, a diagnostic tool, for what needs to happen next. So if you find yourself dreading certain parts of your parenting life, that doesn’t mean your a bad parent or that you have a bad kid, it means it’s time to look at that part of your parenting life and see what needs to change. 

Gentle parenting doesn’t mean doing whatever will make your child happiest. 

Happiest is not always healthiest. And short-term happiness doesn’t always lead to long term growth and contentment. We do not need to treat our kids like they’re made of spun glass. Our children need to know that we see them as resilient and strong and brave and capable. That means that sometimes we’re going to be pushy. We’re going to expect them to stretch. Some children need that gentle pressure to move to the next stage. If you have a child who’s always been a dragging their feet kind of kid, you can expect them to continue to be this way. 

Gentle parenting lends a different context to decisions.

When I talk to gentle parents about getting out of the parenting pitfalls and we decide on a course of action, like expecting the child to lay down alone at night, the parents often start to remember their own feelings of being abandoned and alone as a child and they become understandably fearful that they are asking too much of their child. But I ask them to remember that they are parenting from a different place of understanding, love and support. They are not walking away from their child. There is a plan, there is preparation. The child is informed and supported. There is a whole cohesive process based on the research and then personalized for that child and that family. And that makes all the difference.

If you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed or frustrated, please consider joining the program. You get the asynchronous courses, but you get me, too. I am there to offer you private personalized support through the live office hours in real time or via messaging in the site. 

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Can I parent so well that my child won’t have anxiety?

The question this week is a subtext to so many of the questions that I get. People say what if I had done this, would my child still be anxious? Is it because I ddi that? Is that why my child has anxiety. And the gist of it is: Can I parent so well that my child won’t have anxiety? Is there a perfect way to parent? If I avoid all of the parenting pitfalls will my child never struggle with their anxiety?

Boy being a parent is so hard, isn’t it? Not just the lack of sleep, lack of time to yourself, the drain on your resources. No, the hardest part is how it feels when your child is struggling. Or how it feels when we are struggling as parents, as people.

Let’s just stop for a minute and acknowledge how fragile we can feel as parents, which is so hard since we’re supposed to be the strong ones, right? Didn’t you think you’d have it more together when you became a parent? 

I remember as a kid watching my mom wrap presents and she was so good at it. And I wanted to be that good. I wanted my folds to be razor sharp. I wanted the tape to disappear like hers did. And I thought that it would be like that when I was grown. I thought that was one of the secret things that adults just knew how to do. 

So imagine my surprise to hit eighteen and still wrap lumpy presents. Of course you don’t have to imagine your surprise because I’m sure you have your own stories of running up against your incompetence in some thing, some event where you realized, “rats, I’m the grown up and I don’t know what I’m doing.” And this is especially difficult and even painful when you come upon this within your parenting relationship.

If you struggled as a child, you will revisit that in your relationship with your own child. You may be especially vulnerable when they hit certain ages where you struggled. Or when they arrive at certain events that you found especially difficult. There may be aspects of yourself that you see in them that scare or worry you. Or aspects that you didn’t like in other people and then you see it in your child. 

Parenting is indeed the most triggering thing you can do.

It will be tempting to think that there’s a perfect way of parenting where you can avoid all of that. You might look at other parents who seem to be having an easier time and think they have better answers.

So let me dissuade you of this notion. 

Here are some truths, some facts, about the reality of parenting that I have learned in my 30 plus years of working with parents and in my 26 plus years of being a parent.

The first is that, some kids are harder than others. That’s just a fact. Some parents have it easier not because they’re better parents or have made better choices, but because that’s the luck of the draw. They got a child who is objectively less demanding and/or a child that meshes with them in ways that makes parenting easier. 

The second is that parenting is a job and sometimes jobs aren’t fun. You can love your kids and not like the job of parenting. You can love hanging out with a toddler and struggle with a ten year old or vice versa. Parenting is a job that changes because your child is growing and changing and you are growing and changing and sometimes you will have bad days. IT’s also a job that you learn as you’re doing it which means it’s inevitable that sometimes you’ll have to course correct. I think a big part of effective parenting is being willing to change it up because it’s not working.

The third fact about parenting is that your child is not an accurate representation of what a good job you’re doing. This goes back to that first one about some kids being easier. Sometimes you can do everything quote unquote right and your child will still be a mess. Great parents can and do have children who aren’t always doing great. Sometimes your patience and your wisdom won’t show. People will look and say, “I would never let them get away with that” but the truth is, they don’t have your child and they don’t know. 

The fourth thing is that your child is the protagonist in their own story. They’re starring in their own show. You are the protagonist in your story and starring in your own show. Once you realize that — I mean, really realize that — you’ll understand that even though you feel very consumed with what’s happening to you including your experience of being a parent, you’re a supporting actor in your child’s experience. Their story — their narrative — belongs to them. At the beginning when they’re an infant, we are enmeshed. We are almost the same people. Because babies, especially in that first year, are relying on us so heavily, that it’s easy to get confused. Where do we leave off and where do they begin? Sleep, feeding, even for the tiniest infant whether they’re on their front or their back is all up to us. But as they get older it becomes and more clear that they have their own movie to star in. They’re in their own cinematic universe and we’re just like backstory.

All of this is to say that our child will have their own experience and functioning and preferences and personality and mental health. And we are there to support them.

Which means some of them are going to have anxiety no matter what we do. Anxiety is born and made but it can’t made — that is to say, we can’t force a non-anxious child to be anxious — if they don’t;’ have a brain that is shaped to be anxious.

We can take kids who go through the exact same experiences and one will come out with an anxiety disorder and the other will not. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

What we can do is figure out how to support them. Remember it’s their movie, right? So this is part of the narrative they are going to explore and grow through. How do we help them do that? It’s not about us being good or bad parents, it’s not about us saving them from the trajectory of their lives. It’s about being the best supporting players that we can.

And in our own show, in the story that we are starring in, its’ about learning how to uncover our own strengths, confront our own challenges, grow through OUR narrative in being parents to these particular people.

It’s not about whether or not you can parent so well that your children don’t have anxiety. That’s not the right question. It’s’ about here is what we are doing together. Here is where we stand. How do I help you? How do I become the parent that you need and that I am meant to be? 

How do I take my experience as a child and bring it to this experience as a parent. How do I confront and consolidate my past so that I can get out of the way of your future. How do I learn to heal parts of myself without visiting my own expectations on you.

Big work. This is big works. But it is work we are meant to do. I have faith in you. I have faith in your child. 

Can I parent so well that my child won’t have anxiety? Read More »

How do I deal with child anxiety meltdowns?

I feel like this is a tricky question to answer because the person who posted this to my site didn’t add any details. I don’t know how old their child is, I don’t know what the meltdowns look like. I don’t know what they’ve already tried or what makes them think they are related specifically to anxiety. At first I was going to skip answering it but then I thought it was an opportunity to do a deep dive into tantrums, meltdowns and anxiety.

I’ve mentioned before that the families who reach out to me are often coming because their child’s behavior is getting too difficult and often that behavior includes tantrums or meltdowns.

A meltdown is when a person — not just a child — becomes overwhelmed emotionally and just kind of short circuits. A meltdown is different than a tantrum although they can be difficult to tell apart because they can look the same. The difference has to do with capability and development and expectations.

Generally speaking a tantrum has some will to it. Which is to say, there is some measure of control there. There’s some decision-making. A child who says, “I’m going to break this toy” and then breaks it is having a tantrum. 

A meltdown is a coming apart at the seams. Some meltdowns are the child version of a panic attack. There is no control there. There is no decision-making. 

Some people differentiate by saying a tantrum has a purpose. Like you ask a child to clean their room and they start screaming that they won’t. But this can be confusing because a meltdown can be a fight or flight response so it looks like there’s a purpose. Like you tell a child it’s time to wash their hair and they run screaming. Is that a tantrum? A child trying to control the outcome? Or a meltdown? A child trying to get away from something that scares them? 

If you’re not sure, think about how present your child seems to be. Are they watching you for a reaction? That’s a tantrum. Do they stop when you give in? Probably a tantrum. Are they trying to bargain with you? Pleading their case? Tantrum. 

A child who can’t seem to hear you or recognize their surroundings is likely in sensory overload and that’s a meltdown. If they are unable to respond to you, if you giving in doesn’t stop things, that’s probably a meltdown.

You can see both in anxious kids. And in both cases when the child has come apart, it’s time to step away, lower your expectations, understand that it’s time to stop and reassess.

You may not always know the difference but they may not matter. Because from an anxiety standpoint, we’re going to pull back and try to assess where the child is getting pushed past their limits. What are their triggers? When do things fall apart?

I always recommend that families make a map, a detailed narrative of what happened that includes what else was going on that day. I like them to pick a particular incident. So instead of saying, “He always falls apart when it’s time for school” I think it’s much more helpful and illuminating to say, “Let’s look at last Tuesday when he fell apart.” And then write everything down. What happened before, what happened during. What was the weather like, what else was going on, who else was involved and what was their mood like. Because tantrum or meltdown, we know what we’ve been doing isn’t working but now we need to figure out what to change.

One thing that I think we need to remember is that when a child falls apart it’s their way of saying, “I can’t do this.” We need to have the perspective that they can do this, whatever this is, with the right supports, which means gathering information.

Taking that detailed report is the first step to figuring this out. This will also help you figure out if you’re dealing with a meltdown or a tantrum. Looking at the details, considering if your child is able to be responsive even if that’s yelling back or arguing, considering how they came out of it — did they stop when you gave in? Because that’s a sure sign of a tantrum or did they just wear themselves out? Because that’s another indicator of a meltdown. 

The best reason to know the difference is that you can be a bit more firm with a tantrum and need to be cautious about unintentionally doing things that reward or encourage tantrum behavior and with meltdowns we need to figure out where to give our child a break. Where is it that they’re getting overloaded.

Now I’m not one for big punishments for tantrums because I think that creates more antagonism between parent and child but I do think we need to be careful not to inadvertently reward tantrum behavior. I don’t like the word manipulative because I think that kids look to us to teach them how to behave and if a tantrum works then of course they’re going to keep doing it. They’ve learned that tantruming is effective. Smart kid, right? And punishing them for being observant and figuring out how to get their way seems inappropriate. Instead we can revisit the lesson.

I’ll give an example. I worked with a family who had an anxious child who often tantrumed before school. The family was mistaking these for meltdowns and were very much stuck in the parenting pitfalls of trying to manage their child’s crying and screaming. What would end up happening is the family would be late to school and a parent would walk the child in and hand them off directly to their teacher. This was an elementary aged child, a child who developmentally was capable of walking into the school themselves but preferred not to.

Now the child’s anxiety was very real. They had some separation anxiety and hated to leave their parent. It was getting harder and harder for the parent to leave them and the child’s tantrums far from being manipulative were what the child thought they needed to do in order to get their parent to walk them into school. Everybody was trapped. 

For this particular child the family had to get some help. It wasn’t like they could just say to them, “Hey, quit crying and screaming. Quit making a fuss and go to school” because they whole family was trapped in this pattern including the child. The child really thought they had to cry and scream so they could avoid going into the classroom alone.

So the family had someone else come help them. They had a grandparent who was available and who was willing to take a kicking, screaming child into their car to school. 

It was a lot more complicated than this. There was preparation around it, there was clear discussion and expectations, there was a plan, and there was a plan both for the challenges — like what to do, how to pick up a kicking child, how to handle it if they tried to get out of the car, who’d be at the school to help, how the parent would take care of themselves because they were in for rough morning, and how they were going to celebrate the child’s success.

And you know, in this case, the child didn’t tantrum as much as they thought. They were prepared for a worst case scenario and it actually went really well. Because sometimes that happens.

And other times, the child ramps up. If we’ve unintentionally taught them that screaming will work, they may scream louder thinking we didn’t hear them the first time. Thinking, “Ok, I guess I have to amp up.”

That’s another way you can know it’s a tantrum and not a meltdown; they can make those adjustments. 

In the case of an anxiety meltdown, if looking over the detailed narrative makes it clear that this is a child who is simply overwhelmed, we might start by removing those overwhelming elements. I like to recommend that even with tantrums though because the more comfortable we can be heading in, the easier it is to handle any anxiety.

And sample of this might be making sure people get to wear their comfiest squishiest pants on the day we’re going to do something hard. Or making sure people have a good breakfast before they try going to school alone. Maybe keeping the lights low, too, that kind of thing.

Basically meltdown or tantrum, it is our child communicating with us and it’s up to us to figure out what they’re saying and how we want to respond. But it doesn’t mean just give in and agree with them that they are incapable. Even with meltdowns, where there is very real overwhelm and not just the child’s perception of overwhelm, with help and appropriate intervention, we can help them do the hard thing.

And if you’d like help with that, please reach out~

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How do I get out of the anxious reassurance loop?

Reassurance is the stickiest and sneakiest pitfall in all of the parenting pitfalls.

Let’s talk some about how reassurance looks. Because some parents don’t even realize that they’re doing it or that they’re stuck. It takes real attention and training ourselves to get out of this one.

Ok, reassurance can look like:

  • A child asking you to weigh in on their decision.
  • A child asking repeatedly if you’re mad at them or is their teacher mad or someone else
  • A child who seems to crave approval
  • A child who needs you to check if their shirt is clean or if the silverware they’re about to use is clean
  • A child who asks you to evaluate how well they’ve done a thing
  • A child who needs you to double check their work whether that’s a chore or homework
  • A child who is unable to move forward without clear directions or who repeatedly consults with you as they progress
  • A child who will say things like, “I’m just stupid” or “I can never get it” knowing you will step in and reassure them
  • A child who needs to confess to you either something they actually did or something they thought of like a bad thought or a mean thought
  • A child who worries that they might do something and needs you to reassure them that they won’t (like the internet)

Parents get stuck in reassurances because they work for non-anxious kids. They ask if things will be ok, you tell them it will be ok and they move on. We may do them without even noticing that we’re doing them. It’s almost a knee jerk, reflexive action.

To get out of the loop, we must first notice how much we are in it. The person who asked this question for the podcast, “How do I get out of the reassurance loop” is noticing at least some of the times they’re doing the reassuring. And when you notice and catch it, you can just stop. And keep noticing. Because likely we’re doing it more often than we realize.

So that’s the first step is noticing. Notice when you reassurance and then stop. It’s ok if you don’t notice until you’ve already done it because we’re just working on noticing and stopping when we notice.

When we do that our child is likely to notice, too. They’ll want us to reassure. They’ll bug us, they’ll beg us. They’ll whine and argue wanting to know. Which means we’re not just going to stop reassuring, we’re going to do something else and that thing is being explicit about not knowing.

“Will my teacher be mad at me?” We answer, “I don’t know. We’ll have to see.”

Our child asks, “If you go out, what if you get hit by a car.” And we state the obvious, “You worry about me when I’m gone.”

Our child says, “I”m so dumb that I’ll probably fail math.” And we offer, “Your anxiety is really being mean to you today.” 

The point here is not just to NOT reassure but also start introducing the idea of getting comfortable with not knowing. Life is uncertain. There are no guarantees and that’s anxiety producing. We know that. It makes us anxious, too. 

Learning to manage our anxiety is learning to manage uncertainty and the discomfort of not knowing for sure.

Once you understand that then your role in NOT reassuring is more clear. It’s not to pretend we’re all knowing or that we can guarantee outcomes, it’s to say, “I”m here with you when you are uncomfortable with the not knowing.”

Now this is a stage for all kids and parents. Over and over again they will need to confront the reality of our humanity, of our inability to control the world and keep them safe and sound and comfortable. It starts when they’re infants and we can’t get the pacifier fast enough. It appears again when they’re toddlers and the blue sappy cup is in the wash so all we have to offer is the red one. It continues when they’re eight and we get them to the birthday party late and when they’re twelve and we embarrass them in front of their friends and on and on and on.

Not reassuring is often uncomfortable for us, too, because most of us like to make our kids happy. We like to comfort and soothe them. We struggle with the uncertainty of the world. We have intrusive thoughts about their safety and happiness and that feels terrible and so we also want the comfort of reassurance. It’s ok to struggle with this but remember our job is not to make our child’s world perfect; it’s to love them while they wrestle with the imperfections of the world. 

One final thought here. I have noticed over and over again how often my relationship with parents will in some ways mimic their relationship with their kids. Not always, but it happens. A parent who is learning how to extricate themselves from the parenting pitfalls and for is leaning on me for reassurance. theyre checking, is this ok. Is my child ok. And I have to make note of that because it’s easy for me to forget to notice that I’m reassuring instead of gently encouraging the parent to lean into the discomfort of uncertainty. 

I want to reassure them that it’ll be fine and that their child won’t always have these struggles with anxiety and when I feel that, I remind myself that this is how the parent feels. This is how we’re all feeling. We all want certainty. Our child, ourselves — me as your friendly neighborhood anti-anxiety support person. We’re all in this together. 

How do I get out of the anxious reassurance loop? Read More »

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