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Dawn

What Your Attitude Has to Do With Your Child’s Anxiety

children playing

Parenting an anxious child isn’t easy. Anxious kids tend to have fragile equilibriums — anything can set them off. Whether they’re the type of anxious to withdraw or to explode, sensitive parents get caught up in their child’s emotions and start to follow the same anxiety cycle.

Our anxious feelings are meant to protect us. When we start feeling afraid we know it’s time to remove ourselves from the thing that scares us. This is a terrific coping mechanism if what we’re avoiding is actually dangerous but when it’s merely uncomfortable — public speaking, a playdate, bedtime — we need to learn to cope with those yucky feelings.

Let’s take a 5-year old who refuses to be left alone to play at a friend’s house. Mom knows that this friend’s house is a safe, comfortable place to play. She trusts the other parent and she trusts the other child. But her 5-year old is so upset when she tries to leave that she ends up staying to comfort the child. She figures if she stays that the child will learn that everything’s fine and she’ll get to leave next time.

Sometimes with some kids this works. For anxious children it makes things worse because what mom has inadvertently done is tell the child, “Your fear is justified, which is why I’m staying.”

If mom says, “There’s nothing to be scared of, which is why I will not leave you alone” that’s a contradiction. Her actions are saying, “Yes, it is too scary for you. No, you won’t be able to handle it.”

There is a difference between validating their feelings and validating their fears. We need to acknowledge that they are afraid (“I know staying with a friend for the first time can feel scary”) without sending the message that they should be afraid (“but I also know that you are safe here and that you can handle it”).

Yes, that means leaving them while they’re crying. That may mean asking the friend’s parent to hold them while you leave. It might mean swallowing your own fears, too, especially if we’re afraid that our child really CAN’T handle it.

Learning how to take care of our own anxiety so that we don’t get in the way of our child’s coping is a big part of becoming a family full of anti-anxiety super heroes.

Anxiety Whack-a-Mole

boy in yellow shirt

Learning to manage anxiety means playing the long game. For kids and parents who have the kinds of brains that tend to get anxious, we’re not talking about a one-and-done effort. Anxious people need to learn how to live with anxiety because it’s not something to be cured. Instead we need to learn how to cope with worries in productive ways.

When we teach kids how to face up to and manage their response to their worries then they can face being nervous without becoming completely undone. But it’s just not realistic to say, “Hey, if you do this thing then you’ll never be anxious again.” Of course they’ll be anxious again and that’s not a failure. That’s not a failure of theirs or a failure of yours; it’s part of the reality of being a person with anxiety.

Anxious people see the world in a particular way. Their brains are looking and preparing for things that might go wrong and that’s not likely to change with therapy or meds. The issue is not the anxious brain; it’s the way the anxious brain learns to handle being anxious. Instead of going straight to worst case scenario, we want to slow the anxious brain down to be more realistic when assessing the situation. Instead of becoming physically undone by anxiety symptoms, we want to teach the anxious brain to breathe through the sweaty palms and calm the fluttering stomach.

But new situations, new developmental stages, and new challenges are likely to bring an anxious person back to anxiety and they will need to walk themselves through the process again. With practice it will get easier but to expect our anxious children to be cured, well, that’s not realistic.

Preparing for relapse (a step back to anxious behaviors) is part of being an anti-anxiety family. It’s not negative to acknowledge that lessons will need to be practiced and even relearned. It’s not failure to have to go back to the beginning and revisit our early lessons and skills. It’s part of the process of being a person with a sensitive, thoughtful, cautious and yes, anxious brain.

The curving path of treating anxiety

boy playing plastic balloon inside inflatable pool

Many parents hope that they will be able to teach their children how to be less anxious in the same way that we might teach a child to read but this isn’t how deep, emotional growth and learning works. Learning to manage anxiety is a process — generally one that lasts a lifetime. Anxiety cuts across all aspects of our experience — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual — and so it must be learned and re-learned many ways as a child grows.

It’s important that parents adjust their expectations and see their child as someone who is always and forever actively learning rather than viewing this hard work as something to be completed. We can consider various stages of understanding such as exploring how our body reacts to anxiety and how our thoughts chase after and vice versa. But also we need to accept that learning this in one context (first day of school jitters) is different than learning it in another (confronting the death of a pet) or another (dealing with conflict is an important friendship). Each confrontation with a worry is an opportunity to explore each concept and those confrontations continue through a lifetime.

A 5-year old learns to swim but is still afraid of monsters under their bed. They then learn to face the monsters but must contend with the barking dog at the park. And when they manage the dog they will confront a substitute teacher at kindergarten. Each of these must be faced anew but each is an opportunity to get stronger, smarter, more in control. Parents will need to recognize that being afraid in each situation is the same but also different. It’s not a failure to do well with one but need to start from scratch with the other. (Only it won’t be from scratch when we call on the hard won strengths and skills they are still learning.)

That nervous 5-year old may learn to conquer their fears about the swimming pools and substitutes but that doesn’t mean they won’t be a nervous 14-year old facing down a difficult history assignment. This is not backsliding; it’s progress. Children, like all of us, need to relearn things at each stage of development. When we see this as part of a healthy learning process then we won’t treat it like backsliding and in turn will model for them acceptance and understanding of facing trials.

When we know and accept that learning to cope with anxiety is lifelong, we will then be able to focus on our skills as support people. How do we get them through? How do we know when to push and when to rest? This is the job of parents through all of growing up and particularly when it comes to anxiety.

How Parental Anxiety Impacts Kids

man in white button up shirt holding black tablet computer

Anxious parents, understandably, are anxious about how their anxiety impacts their children.

Anxiety is a lot of nature and some nurture but you have to have the nature first. In other words, if a child doesn’t have the kind of brain that tends to anxiety then they may learn to be a little worried now and then but they won’t develop anxiety. Studies bear this out. Parents can parent in the exact same way and have one child with an anxiety disorder and another one that sails on through to adulthood without issue.

There is also a chicken or egg conundrum, meaning that it can be difficult to know who is training whom in the anxious family pattern. An anxious parent may indeed model anxiety for a child but an anxious child may demand extra sensitive attention from their parents. That is to say that a parent who is nervous about a child falling down may hover more, sending a message to the child that they are less steady than they feel. But a child who is intensely afraid of falling down may fuss to keep a parent close. We can look at that pattern and hazard a guess about which came first but I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful.

Trying to figure out where the anxiety comes from is much less important than figuring out what to do to get everyone out of the anxiety provoking pattern. We need to focus on how we can help parents to best cope themselves and how to give their child the ability to cope as well. Both parents and children need psychoeducation about anxiety; coping tools for managing their anxiety; and an understanding of how to reset family patterns to help everyone get unstuck.

On Being Held Hostage by Anxiety

mom and son hugging

It tends to creep up on you. The bedtime routine that becomes a prison. The pattern of the morning that becomes ever more complicated.

Children like predictability. They like to know what’s going to happen and what’s going to happen next. That’s true for all kids but for some anxious kids any variation in a routine feels like a car careening out of control.

“Good night, honey,” You say. “I love you.”

“No,” says your child. “Say it right.”

“Good night, I love you, honey,” you amend.

But then they want you to say it the way you did the night before when the lights were still on. So you have to turn the lights back on and start over. You have to fix the bed just right again because the sheets got “broken” when they wriggled. You have to turn around and come back in. But now they’re crying. Now they’re sobbing, they need you to do it again because it was wrong.

Or the child who freaks out because there was a traffic detour so you turned a different way to take them to school and they don’t know this way. Are they going to be late? They demand to know, they start yelling that they cannot be late. They’re kicking the back of your seat while you’re trying to get oriented and yeah, you’re a little worried about being late, too, but now they’re screaming and your head is pounding and you’re wondering how on earth did you get here?

Anxiety can look like tantrums and meltdowns. Anxiety can look like throwing or hitting and screaming.

Those are the kids who let their anxiety out outwardly. They run away, literally. They leave classrooms without asking. Or they follow you throughout the house haranguing you because they don’t want you to leave or they don’t want to go to school or they’re upset that the playdate didn’t happen the way you told them it would happen.

Oh gosh, these kids are rigid.

So many families look around and don’t know how they got there. They don’t know how to make it stop. People tell them to discipline those kids! “I wouldn’t let MY child get away with that!” But they don’t know what it’s like. They don’t have a child whose anxiety is so big and so overwhelming that the whole family is trapped by it.

But it is possible to take your home back. IT IS POSSIBLE. No, it’s not easy and it will take a lot of loving care and work. Yes, it might get worse before it gets better (in fact I can almost guarantee that it will) but it CAN GET BETTER. With help and good information, you absolutely can untangle the anxious knots that keep you and your child and the rest of the family tied up and held hostage.

How the Body Responds to Anxiety

Now we know that our child’s brain rightly triggers their body to prepare to survive when it thinks they’re faced with danger. The amygdala sets off a hormonal response that sets off your child’s body alarm system, which results in the following symptoms:

Dilated pupils: This lets in light so that they can scan their environment for potentially dangerous details but also gives them tunnel vision. That means they can’t see what’s going on in their peripheral vision.

Rapid heartbeat: The heart is moving oxygen into the bloodstream so that the body has energy to MOVE in whatever way is most likely to guarantee survival.

Jittery limbs: Some people call it “jelly legs” but hands and bodies can shake, too. Flooded with adrenaline, your child’s body is primed to run or fight.

Cold hands: As blood rushes away from the limbs to protect the important organs, your child’s hands or feet might get cold. They may also look pale.

Nauseous or hurting belly: Stomach acid starts to churn in response to all of those stress hormones and kids might begin gulping air as their body attempts to get more oxygen. They may suddenly (and desperately) need to use the bathroom because their brain is telling the body to drop some weight so they can run that much faster if they need to escape.

Shallow breathing: The brain knows it needs oxygen so not only does it speed up the heart but it also tells the lungs to start moving faster to get more air in.

Rashes or other allergy symptoms: Yup, that strange rash your child is getting might be linked to their anxiety. Kids with lots of anxiety may be more prone to colds, too, because their body is so focused on fighting danger it doesn’t have the bandwidth to also fight infections.

Lump in the throat and headache: All of that nervous tension throughout one’s body can cause other problems, too, including headaches or a tightness in your child’s throat making it hard for them to swallow or talk.

Do you recognize any of these in your or your child’s experience of anxiety?

Anxiety Fear Cycle

The Anxiety Fear Cycle is a perpetual motion machine. When a child sees a thing they interpret as dangerous their brain sets off a fear response to get their body ready to run or defend itself. Those fear hormones start making their body feel wriggly or nauseous or jittery. This is a very smart way for a body to react in the presence of danger! Flooded with fear hormones, that child is ready to fight, flight or freeze — they are ready to survive! Good job, body! Once the danger has passed, the body calms down and the child can recover.

If that child is someone who is anxiety-prone — if they are someone who is hardwired to see danger in ordinary events — then they will keep setting off that body response and they won’t get a chance to recover. They will stay elevated and on high-alert, exacerbating their already finely tuned survival system.

A change in the daily routine? Uh-oh! Danger!!!

An exam at school that day? Uh-oh! Danger!!!

Their favorite shirt that they wanted to wear is in the wash? Uh-oh! Danger!!!

And so their brain learns very quickly to be super sensitive to potential danger, running right to elevated fear and keeping the body prepared to do whatever it takes to survive. That’s how you end up with a child who never seems to come down, who always seems ready to flip out over any little thing.

Think about how you feel on days when there’s something extra going on like an upcoming move or a task overdue at work. Aren’t you more jittery, irritable and tense? If you’re prone to anxiety yourself then you especially know how one looming concern can color the rest of your functioning.

That’s what’s happening to your anxious child, too.

Their feelings are legitimate — they ARE caught up in a fear response loop — but the danger is NOT real.

It’s so frustrating to parents because we can see that there is no danger. We can appreciate that routines need to be flexible. We know how hard they studied for the exam. We can see that the red shirt may be in the wash but the green shirt is right here, fresh and clean. But they are awash in stress/fear hormones, stuck in fight or flight or freeze.

As parents we need to do two things — help them confront (not avoid) their fears and help them learn to calm and care for their body until that fear response isn’t quite so sensitive.

Anxiety and the Myth of the Near Miss

Most of the time we take what we learn about the world and apply that moving forward. Consider the first time you have to give a report to the whole class. Nerve wracking, right? Maybe you don’t sleep well the night before, imagining all the terrible scenarios! Then you give the report and you survive! It’s fine! It’s over! Maybe next time giving the report won’t be so difficult.

Now consider the child with a social anxiety disorder. The parents call the teacher and ask if they can come sit in the back of the classroom just to help their child feel safe giving the report. The teacher, understandably concerned about supporting their students, agrees. The child gives the report and they survive! It’s fine! It’s over! But now they think it’s because their parent was there.

They say to themselves, “Whoa, I very nearly bombed! If it weren’t for my mom in the back of the classroom that would have been a disaster!”

Success doesn’t build on itself for the anxious child; success is the exception to the rule of disaster.

It’s tricky because for some kids having a parent in the back of the classroom is exactly the bridge they need to do it alone next time; a lot of times hand-holding helps. But for a child who is prone to more severe anxiety or an anxiety disorder, this is going to make them more stuck.

We think, “I will help this once” and instead we’ve created a new rule that we always show up in the classroom when they have to give a report.

This is how we get trapped in our children’s anxieties. Good intentions that go awry.

If you feel trapped that’s a clear sign that your family could use some help getting unstuck. And help is available. Feel free to schedule a consult with me to learn more about what I offer.

Why are kids so easily scared?

When I taught preschool getting over grates on our walks was an effort. Our school was on the edge of downtown so our walks took us across parking lots and sidewalks and inevitably over storm sewer grates. Half the kids would stop to holler at the Ninja Turtles (it was the early 90s and Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers were the heroes of the day). And a few would stop cold — halting the line — rather than walk across the grating.

Was it the lurking turtles? The fear of falling through (that was my fear as a 3-year old)? It doesn’t matter, they were scared.

It doesn’t matter that grown ups don’t get it and our reassurances only go so far. It’s one thing to hear that you can’t fall through holes so small; it’s another thing entirely to believe it. We as grown people know that you can’t go down the drain but their visceral fear tells them to beware. We know that the daycare teacher is the same person even though she’s changed her hair but to a child she’s an uncanny stranger. It takes time and exposure to learn to trust the bold bewildering world.

To sensitive children, even tiny changes can feel like very big deals. The wind picks up and right away they know there’s a storm coming; a storm with thunder. And so they run terrified to the car, refusing to stay at the park.

Developmentally it makes perfect sense.

Think about things that scared you when you were small — vacuum cleaners, big dogs (and all dogs are big when you’re little), dark closets with the doors cracked. What made them scary to you? Was it the noise? The unpredictability? Or the deep unknown? At heart you were scared because you were small and vulnerable.

Children literally depend on their parents for their survival and so they are primed to get afraid and run for reassurance. This makes good evolutionary sense when you live in a world with sabertooth tigers, right? But children don’t have the life experience to know that an automatic flush toilet won’t kill us.

When we’re little the fear seems never ending because we are too inexperienced to know that there is the other side. We can’t imagine a time when we will be able to trust that the vacuum cleaner might slip and suck us up, too. It’s unfathomable to a small child to face the chaos of the noise vacuum and stand strong. How much easier (and more prudent) is it to run from the room or climb up on the couch where they know it can’t get them.

Children need help to confront their fears. They need validation but not coddling, which is tricky for parents who are are used to stepping in and soothing when their children are upset. Finding the right balance of empathy and encouragement is key especially for highly sensitive children who are attuned to every environmental shift and every parental emotional response. The more children are given the support to face their fears, the more powerful they will be as they grow and move into the world under their own protection.

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