January 2023

How do I support the siblings of an anxious child?

Recently a reader wrote to me with this question, “How do I effectively meet the needs of my oldest child who is anxious without my middle child getting lost between her older siblings and her toddler, sibling. The guilt is real.”

Reader, let me just say, I hear you. And I understand what a big challenge this is. I’m sorry that you’re feeling guilty about it, but I get it — to be a parent is to feel guilty. We’re always really struggling to do the best that we can and frankly, sometimes we’re going to feel like we’re not measuring up.

When we’re feeling guilty. I think we can use this as a reflection. What do I want to be different? What would I like to change? Guilt can be a good tool. It can be a good motivator if it’s well-placed and if the guilt is warranted.

Now I’m a middle child so I know what it is to be the kid that sort of caught between the oldest kid and the youngest kid and it’s not uncommon for middle children to be lost in every family although I will tell you, the research shows that us middle kids were really good at handling things on our own; we tend to be pretty independent and capable. That’s the plus side of it, but let’s go back to what can you perhaps do differently?

When you’ve got an anxious child, it stands to reason that siblings are impacted by the anxiety and even though anxiety can run in families, if you’ve listened tuned in to other posts, you know that people with anxious brains tend to have children who have anxious brains. And that anxiety is also learned behavior. When kids see us be anxious, they learn to be anxious.

So anxiety can run in families, but it doesn’t mean that every child in the family is going to have anxiety. Let’s be really clear about that.

Before we get into the specifics of the anxious family, I do want to say that sometimes in families things are not going to be even. You say you have a toddler and toddlers take up more time. That’s just going to happen when a new baby arrives, right? New babies, take up more time.

In other words, it is natural and it is appropriate that in seasons of a family life, one child will be taken up more of the oxygen than the other children. That is going to happen.

Now back to anxious kids. What we do know from looking at the research is that when it comes to the parenting pitfalls — the things that parents unintentionally do that trap their child and the family and anxiety — are things that impact siblings as well. Siblings usually become part of the pitfalls. If you want to take my Parenting Pitfalls quiz, just go here. This quiz is based on the research that looks at the ways families get stuck. So when you take the quiz, Hopefully, this will give you some insight and understanding that the ways that families get stuck are very predictable and very understandable and not a sign that the family is doing things wrong, but are a sign that the family needs help.

That anxiety gets people stuck so the child is stuck, the family is stuck, and the siblings are stuck too. What the pitfalls are all about is when we do things to avoid upsetting the anxious child. Parents do this and siblings do this. This could be something like limiting family movie night. Say one child really wants to watch a new superhero movie or something like that and the parents say, no, that’s going to upset your sibling. We can’t watch that. Or that one has a giant spider in it and your sibling is afraid of spiders.

It can also mean skipping events that the family maybe is going to go to an event, a party or something, and they need to leave early because the anxious child is getting upset. It may mean when the family is trying to cajole the anxious child, get them out the door, get them to do something and the other children are left waiting.

It can also be times where if everybody is used to the anxious child, getting upset and being a little more sensitive that we’re asking other children to make way for that. A classic example would be, you know, that your sibling gets very upset when this thing is happening. So can you just give them the iPad? I know you were playing it, but your sibling is really upset. Can you just give it to them? So we need to notice when we’re doing these things and taking the quiz can help you identify ways you might be doing this, but let’s talk a little bit about why that happens.

When the child acts up and gets really upset. The family tends to do more avoiding and caretaking. That means the anxious child learns that avoidance and caretaking is necessary. For example, if you felt like, “I don’t know how to walk upstairs, I can’t walk upstairs.” And so I carried you up the stairs every time you would learn that you really can’t walk upstairs. You would never get the chance to try.

If you did try and you fell apart and begin to weep, I might carry you up the stairs. You’re not learning the skills to get up the stairs. You’re not learning how to tolerate the discomfort of getting up the stairs. My carrying you seems helpful, but it’s actually holding you back. The more adverse a child is to face in their discomfort the more they may act up or act out or break down.

If a child screams every time they see a dog and we hustled the dog away, they learn that dogs are scary. And they also learn that the way to let us know that dogs are scary is by screaming. We may say, “Don’t scream, use your words” but our actions show otherwise.

When I was a toddler teacher and sooner or later in every class that I had with toddlers, there would be a toddler who would bite. I’m going to call him Hank, (which was not his name). And Hank was a very bright child in the toddler room who learned that biting was a really good way to get things done. So if another child was holding a toy and Hank, wanted the toy Hank would bite. And the whole room would explode with action and excitement!

Hank would get hustled away by us. There was lots of screaming and crying and action, and the other child would drop the toy. So biting worked. It didn’t mean that Hank necessarily got the toy because usually the toy was a casualty in the whole big excitement of biting. But Hank did learn that biting made things happen.

So unintentionally by reacting the way that we did when Hank would bite, which was to get involved and to get involved specifically with, “Hey Hank, no biting you know better, blah, blah, blah.” What we were doing was teaching Hank that biting was a means of getting control. Even though it was creating chaos, it was creating chaos on Hanks terms. What we learned to do instead is that when Hank bit we immediately put all our attention on the bitten child.

Now before it would be, somebody would go to the bitten child. Somebody would go with Hank, but in this case, xomebody would be guarding Hank because we didn’t want him to buy it again. But we were focusing our attention on the child who was bitten. One teacher would go towards the child who is bitten. I was in charge of Hank.

I will add here that the reason I would be in charge of Hank is that I have always really liked to work with the kids that are a little more explosive and difficult. So guaranteed if there was a biting kid in the classroom I was usually the teacher assigned to manage and work with that biting kid; i’ve just always liked difficult kids.

Anyway instead of immediately engaging with Hank, I would move Hank and use my body to protect other students from Hank. And model attention and concern being on the child who was hurt.

Once we were clear, the child was not hurt or caring for their bitten self. Then we would turn our attention to Hank. Now this doesn’t mean we were ignoring Hank. It means that we were shifting our attention in such a way that Hank was learning that biting did not actually give him control over the classroom.

Is this making sense? I hope this is making sense. So this is what we need to do with the anxious child.

Please notice that where we give our attention then we can see things increase. When we give our attention to the child’s anxiety, the anxiety will increase. I understand why we do it just like I understood why we would immediately go towards Hank who was biting, but it’s not helpful.

We need to step back and reassess and say, who is getting short shrift in this situation? And where are we giving attention?

Now it’s going to be a very specific plan for the anxious child. I can’t give you all of the details here, because it would be very specific to the anxious situation. It would be very specific to how entrenched the family is in the parenting pitfalls. It would depend on the child who is maybe needing more attention, what that looks like. But I will say that I think a good thing is to take the pitfalls quiz cause that’s gonna help you see, first of all, where you might be stuck, that you didn’t know you were stuck and also how stuck you are, like, are you super, super stuck or are you medium stuck or are you. Just starting to get a little bit sticky understanding that will help you be more realistic about where you need to go.

So let’s go back to Hank again. If we had let it go on for a long while, the whole classroom may be organized around how to keep Hank from biting other children. And so we would have a longer ways to untangle that focus.

So it’s the same way with child anxiety. The more your family is entrenched in the anxious, stickiness, those parenting pitfalls, the harder it is going to be to pull yourself out of it. But that’s okay. You’re going to start with baby steps and the first. Baby step you can take is to notice what’s happening to the child who is not getting attention when the anxiety happens.

Just notice it. I know that there is a poll to immediately pay attention and take care of the anxious child in the moment. But give yourself a minute, just give yourself a minute and say what’s going on here? Is this pull I’m having towards the anxious child my anxiety? Am I anxious about their anxiety? And that is a big part of Child Anxiety Support membership — untangling our anxiety from our child’s anxiety.

Then we figure out where we can start pulling some of that attention away. Where we can start focusing on the child who is not anxious and is getting a little bit left behind. Once you have a picture of that, which again, starts with noticing what you’re already doing and really noticing in the moment.

Then figure out where can you give that non-anxious child a little more attention? What can you do in the moment? So for example, If you have an anxious child that melts down and kicks and screams, and it’s pretty dramatic. And, you know, you can let them melt down and kick and scream for a minute. You can just stop and turn and look into the child’s eyes, the middle child and say, are you okay? Is everything good? Are you all right? Just give them even that sort of touchstone attention before you turn to their sibling.

You can let them know, “I’m concerned that we’re getting stuck and the whole family is going to need to work on it.”

It’s not just on the anxious child to work on it. In fact, they can’t work on it unless we’re all working on. It. And then we are asking the siblings to also help us in getting this unstuck.

One thing to know when we start pulling attention away from our anxious child, when we stop being stuck, when we stop doing the things that get us stuck, we can expect things to get worse before they get better.

Let’s go back to that child who screams when they see a dog. They have learned that screaming is what they do. If we have decided we’re no longer going to respond to their screaming then they are going to scream more.

Because they’ve learned that screaming works so they’ll think, “I must not be doing it loud enough. I must not be doing it long enough because it works. I’m going to go past the time when it usually works and amp up more than the limit of where it usually works because I’m expecting it to work.”

So you can expect things to get worse, which is another reason to start with baby steps. You don’t want to start way at the end where things are already difficult and challenging. You’re going to start and really tiny baby steps, making slight changes. And that again starts with understanding where you’re getting stuck. All right. So that’s the answer to this week’s question. And if you have other questions I’d love for you to reach out to me.

What can I do about my anxious child’s temper?

We have a terrific question today and that’s what can I do about my anxious child’s temper? This is a really common problem and a typical reason that parents reach out to me. An anxious child often has really difficult behavior, like temper tantrums, meltdowns, and flip outs.

Sometimes this includes screaming at their parents or saying really mean things like, “I hate you. You’re stupid. I wish you’d die.” Sometimes these children are hurting other people, siblings, or pets, or they’re hurting themselves, hitting their own head. Sometimes they’re hurting parents — pushing their parents, or hitting their parents.

Very often, these kids are also trashing rooms. Their parents will send them to their room for some reason, or send them up to bed and the child will tear up their room, break toys, tear up mattresses. Sometimes they’re tearing up other people’s property.

Understandably, parents reach out to me saying, “How do I deal with my anxious child’s temper? They’re out of control. I need help with this behavior!”

But when we’re starting with the behavior, we’re actually starting backwards. One of the very first things that parents do when they join the Child Anxiety Support membership is take a child anxiety assessment so they can get an idea of the shape of their child’s anxious behavior,

Where is it showing up? Are we seeing general anxiety or are we seeing separation anxiety? Are they having somatic symptoms like stomach aches and headaches? Basically how anxious are they? And if we find out they indeed are pretty anxious then we can understand the why behind their behavior, which is that it’s anxiety.

We have to address the anxiety before we can get to the behavior. Now, I’m not saying that angry outbursts or hurting people is acceptable. Of course it’s not, but in order to deal with it, we need to see it through the lens of anxiety and see it through the lens of fight, flight, or freeze and what we’ve got here is kids who are fighting.

Now I absolutely get that parents want to start with behavior. Behavior like this — behavior that’s hurting people — is disruptive. It can be scary. It can be getting the child in trouble at school or with friends. Other family members may be alarmed and telling you’ve got to do something. And you, of course may feel really urgently that something needs to happen, but you need to understand that starting with anxiety is doing something. No, it’s not addressing that big angry behavior. But it’s starting at the front at the tip of that angry iceberg.

One of the resources that I have is a bill of rights for anxious kids. This is based on Ross Green‘s work. He’s the author of the Explosive Child, and he wrote a bill of rights for behaviorally challenged kids that I used as a model for my bill of rights for anxious kids. The gist of it is that when we understand anxieties behind the behavior, we acknowledge that we need to start with anxiety. We need to start with all the anxiety work. That means starting with educating our kids about their anxiety. Building their coping tools and importantly, seeing this as a developmental challenge for our child.

I encourage you to check this out because it’s a paradigm shift, seeing your child as someone who is having a big developmental struggle and not a child who just needs to be parented towards a fix. It’s a lot more complicated than that. Developmental challenges are not the kind of thing that you just start using a different tone or using a specific behavior modification program and it goes away.

Developmental challenges like being an anxious child whose anxiety comes out as anger is a big picture, long range, ongoing pursuit. Now. This does not mean that we give up and let our child’s anger run rampant. No, absolutely not. Reasons are not excuses and being anxious may be a reason, but it does not excuse behavior that hurts people.

However we do need to be realistic. For example, I get lots of calls from parents, with kids who are trashing their rooms. So the first step in that is accepting the fact that you have a child who trashes their room. That’s a fact. And something we’re going to work on, but while we’re working on it, we need to accept that the room is going to get trashed.

So we remove things we don’t want broken. Ideally, we would do this with our child while they are calm and we would talk about it without judgment. It wouldn’t be a punishment or shaming. We might say something like, “I notice that when you’re upset, you really struggle and sometimes that means in your struggle, you are trashing your room. So I need to remove things that we can’t afford to replace, or that might hurt you if they’re broken. Now I know you’re growing and you won’t always be trashing your room.”

You need to say that part because you need to give them hope. You need to show them that you believe in them, even if they don’t believe in themselves and that you believe in their ability to outgrow and get a handle on this behavior.

Now it’s okay to fake it. You may worry that they are going to do this forever, but for now give them hope. Say to them, “I know you won’t always trash your room.” So you remove the things that you need to remove, and then you ask them, “Is there anything that you want to remove?”

The challenge here is it can feel like giving in. It feels like letting them get away with it. If you just accept this behavior as a reality, does that mean you’re condoning? It. No, no, no, no. But in reality, it’s accepting that controlling one’s temper has lots of developmental challenges. These kids have growing frontal lobes growing impulse control and of course, growing in learning to manage anxiety. They’re growing.

Meanwhile, we’re going to work on their anxiety. Not because their behavior is bad. Not because we’re trying to fix the behavior. But because anxiety is difficult and painful. And as our child learns to manage their anxiety, we will see changes in their angry outbursts.

In anxiety we’re working on lots of things.

We’re working on their coping tools, their ability to handle this regulation and discomfort. And the big one is their sense of self. And that’s why hope is so important. If your child sees themselves as someone who is out of control, of course they will act out of control. This is what I mean by accepting that your child is going to act out of control until they don’t. That’s where the hope comes in.

So you say to your child, “You are struggling with this but you will not always struggle. You’re going to get better at it until you get better at it. I need to protect you. I need to protect your siblings, myself, the household, whatever it is.”

Now I want you to think, how would your management of this situation change if you gave up on the idea that your child. Is capable of handling their temper right now. And that is at the heart of Ross Green‘s work, which is kids do well, if they can and is at the heart of the bill of rights for anxious kids.

When we see them as growing individuals who are struggling, then we are working with them with an acknowledgement they’re not ready yet. This is your anxious child with a temper, just like having a toddler who’s a messy eater. Toddlers are going to be messy eaters until they have the skills to eat neatly. Kids who are struggling with their tempers because of anxiety are going to continue to lash out until they have the skills not to. Meanwhile, we work on the anxiety with the understanding that as they get better control over their anxiety, as they grow in those developmental skills — the impulse control, the handling dysregulation, the concept of themselves as someone who can handle things well — we will see changes.

Now it can feel really slow going for the parent and this is why I think it’s so important to have helpers. Whether that’s a therapist, an understanding family member, a group of friends who also have kids with big behaviors. Maybe it’s a support program like mine, but basically people who can help you see the growth, even when you feel stuck in it.

I can remember working with a family who had a child who used to be really destructive — punching holes in walls — and things got better and they got better. Then one day the child slipped because we’re going to slip as we’re growing and punched a hole in the wall again. the parents said, “Oh my gosh, are we right back at the beginning? Are we starting over?”

We were able to look together and say, this is the first time in a long time that my child has done this. They are growing and getting better. Sure, they had a slip, but the work that we’ve done is making a difference. Look at how well they’re doing, let’s look at all of their successes. Then that family was able to share that with the child because they get discouraged, too. They think of themselves as people who are problems, who are upsetting, the family who are destructive, it takes time to change that mindset.

So the answer is what can you do about your anxious child’s temper is accept that the temper is an issue and start making plans to protect the people and things, the household, the other family members and meanwhile, get to work on the anxiety. Accept that your child is going to lash out. Figure out how you would like to keep everybody safe and focus on the anxiety. Usually that means starting with baby steps.  

If you’re struggling with this if you’re not sure how to do it please reach out to me and let’s see if child anxiety support could be a help.



How do I stop getting angry with my anxious child?

Our very first question for this year is: “How do I stop getting angry with my anxious child?” This is a really good question. I wouldn’t be surprised if the person asking this question is feeling guilty about getting angry with their anxious child so the first thing I want to do is assure you that getting angry with your kids is normal.

Anger is just a feeling and feelings are neutral. It’s okay if you get angry with your kids; it’s how we express the anger that matters. So when you say, how do I stop getting angry with my anxious child? My answer would first be it’s okay that you’re getting angry. Now, if you’re yelling or if your anger is making things more difficult, if you’re snapping at them or if anger is motivating how you care for them when they’re anxious that can certainly be an issue.

And again, I want you to stop feeling guilty about this and just recognize that. Anger is normal. So let’s talk a little bit about why anger is normal being around anxious people makes us anxious. If our kids are anxious, we’re going to catch their anxiety and anxiety can feel like irritability and tension, right? Because anxiety sends us to fight or flight or freeze and fight looks angry, right?

Fllight can also look like anger. It can look like impatience. It can look like wanting to get away from the child, wanting to push the child away. And freeze can look like shutting down, ignoring them, turning away from them. 

These are all things that we may interpret as anger and actually it’s that fight, flight or freeze we’re catching from our anxious child.

Now the fact that we’re catching it again is totally neutral. We’re catching it. Anxiety is meant to be caught. We are meant to catch each other’s fears so that we can do things to protect ourselves. Let’s just forgive ourselves about that. Instead let’s talk about what we can do to take care of our anger, our irritability, our want to ignore them.

So the first step is understanding that anger is normal. And the next thing is to look at what might be underneath the anger. So we talked a little bit about fight, flight or freeze, but here I want to share an activity that is in the Child Anxiety Support membership site. There’s a part of the site that’s called CBT Family. I describe this as a recipe box of ideas, activities and things you can do to teach your child cognitive behavioral tools as they continue to learn how to cope with their anxiety. CBT Family has a series of categories so that you can think about which tools your child might need as they deal with their anxiety. Those categories include things like understanding anxiety, self-esteem and self-concept, calm down tools and feelings literacy. And this activity that I’m going to share with you is under feelings literacy, and it’s called angry sandwiches.

I used to use a card game called Schmear, which is with bagels because you can buy that really easily on Amazon or any store that sells games. And this Schmear has pictures of bagels. And then the kinds of things you might put on a bagel like Nova lox and cucumber and cream cheese, these basic things you might put on a bagel. And what I did was take the bagels and write ANGER. That’s the basic emotion, the essential ingredient to our Angry Sandwiches. And then on each of the different kinds of toppings, I put different emotions that anger covers up. Anger is a secondary emotion. It covers up the primary emotion in other words, anger is always fueled by other feelings. 

Not all kids are familiar with bagels or the kinds of things we put on bagels so I also made sandwiches by just cutting out pieces of paper in the shape of bread, writing ANGER on it, laminating it, and then things like lettuce and cheese and tomatoes, onions, different things to make angry sandwiches.

First, I’m going to tell you what the other emotions are that we might put on our angry bread or angry bagel. And that would be, are you ready? Sadness. Guilt. Frustration. Disappointment. Embarrassment. Jealousy. Hurt. Shame and fear. So when a child is feeling angry, I would say to them, What’s on your angry sandwich? Let’s build your angry sandwich and they would identify these other emotions and put them on the sandwich. And then we would pretend to eat the sandwich. Or I have the little angry guy from Inside Out, the little red guy, and he would eat the sandwich. And it was a really good activity for kids to explore what other feelings were inside their anger.

We would do this for their own experience and then we also might talk about other people. I might say, “When your parent got angry with you what do you think was on their angry sandwich?” Then we would bring the parent into session and have them talk together about what was in my angry sandwich to also help kids understand that parental anger is complicated too. Their own anger is complicated. Parental anger is complicated.

We, as parents, can benefit from doing this activity as well. What’s on your angry sandwich when your child is anxious. Let’s go back through those again. It’s sadness, guilt, frustration, disappointment, embarrassment, jealousy, hurt, shame or fear.

When you get angry with your anxious child, what’s happening? Part of it is you’re catching their anxiety. So that would be fear. Fear would be on your sandwich. Maybe you’re catching their anxiety and you yourself are just feeling some fear. But what often happens is we’re feeling afraid of what their anxiety is going to do.

We’re afraid that they are going to continue to struggle with anxiety. That their anxiety is going to be out of control, that their behavior is going to be out of control that people are going to judge them. That they are never going to learn how to cope with it, all these things we might be afraid of, but other things might be on our angry sandwich too. So let’s run through the list. It could be sadness because it’s hard to watch our children suffer. And that makes us sad. It could be guilt. We may feel like a bad parent for having an anxious child or feel guilty.

We don’t know how to handle it or feel guilty that we are getting angry. We might be frustrated. And in fact, every angry sandwich I have ever made. For myself with a child. With a parent in session. Frustration is always there. There can be disappointment. We may feel disappointed that our children are not handling this better. We’re disappointed in ourselves for not handling it better.

We can certainly be embarrassed. If there are other people around, we may feel embarrassed by our child’s behavior or our own behavior. Jealousy can come up to if we have friends or family who seem to have an easier time parenting. We may feel jealous about that. And so some of our anger might have jealousy or resentment.

We may be hurt by the things that our anxious child says to us like you’re the worst parent ever. You just want me to do badly, or we feel hurt because. We are struggling with their pain and that’s causing us pain. And we may have shame at our inability to cope with their anxiety or shame that we have a child that has such a difficult time.

In short, there are many reasons why you might feel angry with your anxious child. 

So back to the question. Can you stop being angry with your anxious child? I would say worry less about stopping it. And learn more about caring for it, which is what we’re working on with our child as well. 

We are not going to be able to stop our anxious child from being anxious. We want them to learn how to cope with their anxiety. 

That’s the same thing for us. We may or may not be able to stop feeling angry with our anxious child. Sometimes going through the angry sandwich activity will help us deal with that anger and magically, it goes away when we recognize it as these other feelings, but if you continue to get angry with your anxious child, just notice that’s happening.

It does not have to drive your behavior. 

I often got angry when my kids were anxious because I was catching their anxiety. I recognized that and learned that before I deal with them, I need to deal with myself. Whether that means taking a deep breath and shaking off these feelings I’m having, whether it means removing myself from the situation until I can get some perspective. 

Usually what happens for me when I get angry is that I try to remind myself not to do anything, not to do anything yet, not to knee jerk my way into a reaction and instead recognize I am really feeling this. I’m really feeling this anger. I need to stretch out my shoulders. I need to get some physical distance. And then I’m able to respond and sometimes my response is: “I can’t help yet. I can’t help right now. I need you to give me a minute.”

That’s perfectly fine because anger is not driving my behavior. I hope that’s helpful. I hope that maybe you’ll think about trying the angry sandwich activity.

And let me know how it goes for you. Let me know what your thoughts are. What is underneath your anger, what is on your angry sandwich? And this is an activity you might do with your child sometime when they’re calm to revisit a situation. You could share with them. This is what’s on my angry sandwich. This is why I was having a hard time helping you when you wanted my help.

What was on your angry sandwich when you realized I wasn’t going to be able to help. If you have other questions that you’d like me to address on the show, you know what you need to do. Go here to ask your question.

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