Is it better to make my anxious child sleep on their own?

Last week we talked about whether or not co-sleeping causes separation anxiety and concluded that no, it’s more complicated than that and this week’s question is related so I scheduled them right next to each other. This one is: Is it better to make my anxious child sleep on their own? Let’s go through the whole question with some details disguised to protect the confidentiality of the family. This family has an older child — older elementary — who wants to sleep with heir parents because when they sleep alone, they wake up afraid and come in. The parents find this disruptive for everyone’s sleep but also want to be supportive. They want to know, is it better to ask their child to sleep on their own even when they’re scared? Or is it better to give in and let them climb into bed with their parents.

As I said last week, this is a super common question so it’s no surprise it came up from two different families in the audience so close together. 

Let’s get away from “better” as an adjective because it implies a “worse.” Instead let’s ask, “Which is more effective in supporting my child in their anxiety.”

Now you might remember last week I said that if a family is happy co-sleeping, then great. Go for it. But this family is not and I totally understand. It’s ok to want to sleep by yourself. Will you be doing your child damage if you insist on it? Even if they’re scared? No.

Let me explain more about that.

Sometimes parents share their concern that asking their child to face their fears will be traumatizing. So let’s talk about it.

First let’s consider the context of the parent-child relationship. Is this a relationship where the child is getting their basic physical and emotional needs met? Like are you supplying food, clothing, shelter, and basic emotional support? Is this relationship a safe place for your child to share their feelings? Is it safe for them to be less than perfect? Is there unconditional positive regard — a general love, respect, and acceptance for the child themselves? And note, this does not mean blanket approval for their behavior or every little thing they do, it means for themselves, who they are. So it’s perfectly ok to grouch about them leaving their dirty dishes in the sink. And it’s ok to not want them to climb into bed with you. 

Rejecting behaviors is not the same thing as rejecting them.

In a generally loving, respectful relationship where children are generally getting their needs met there is not just room to demand more of them — like that they learn to sleep alone — it’s also necessary. 

It is not traumatizing to be reminded that children are separate from their parents. They are meant to grow and to outgrow us. If they rely on us too much — beyond what is developmentally appropriate — that is more likely to be damage them than if we push. Gently but firmly pushing our kids is part of parenting. It’s a tricky balance. We want to push enough that the reluctant growers learn to grow but not so much that we push them beyond that which they are capable. And that’s where parents of anxious kids get stuck. But I want you to lean on that loving, respectful relationship. When they’re toddlers we stop them from running into the street even if they really want to, even if it makes them really mad. Right? We protect them and ask them to learn the rules by reminding them and they grow. They grow and learn the rules and learn not to run into the street and they might hate us in the moment but they don’t hate us. It doesn’t hurt the relationship.

Likewise, an anxious child who wants to co-sleep isn’t going to like it if their parents say no. But that doesn’t mean the parents should automatically say yes. Instead the parents can set those boundaries. When we say no to the anxious child, we are saying, “I believe you have the capacity to handle this. I believe you have the capacity to grow through it.”

Now some kids need more support. They need us to help them make a plan. This is what the child Anxiety Support program is all about. It’s about making that plan — with all the information and research we have about anxiety, with all the lessons I offer to better understand your child — and then executing that plan. With lots of help and opportunities to share anti-anxiety skills with your child. So. Jus know that if you’re struggling with that whole making a plan thing.

Back to trusting your relationship with your child

What we know is that connection mitigates trauma. This is something Bruce Perry teaches about in his neurosequential model. I’m going to simplify it by a lot with this example. Imagine you have two young children who both lost their homes in a fire. One child has been in and out of foster care, does not have a strong relationship with a caregiver and the other child is in a home with a loving, supportive and consistent good enough caregiver. We know that the child without strong relationships is going to struggle more with the trauma of the fire than the child who does have those safe, consistent caregivers. That’s because we are built to withstand trauma in the context of appropriate community. It doesn’t mean we won’t have trauma — it doesn’t mean that losing your house in a fire won’t bother you — but it means that this child will have greater capacity to heal.

Your child — in that generally loving, respectful relationship — can handle hard things like facing their anxiety. It doesn’t mean they’ll like it. It doesn’t mean they’ll be thrilled when you push them but it does mean that with a developmentally appropriate clear plan, strong supports, and realistic expectations they can indeed handle it.

When we don’t make a plan. When we continue to let their anxiety guide the family decision making, we are far more likely to be causing harm because what we’re doing is telling them that they’re right. They can’t handle it. They aren’t strong enough. It is too dangerous. 

Now this doesn’t mean just kicking them out of the bedroom and telling them they’re on their own. Remember, I’m talking about making a plan. The plan says, I know it’ll be tough but you can handle it. Here’s what you can do instead. The plan says, You are strong enough. Here are some of the skills you can draw on. The plan says, you are safe and protected.

Again, if you’re having a hard time creating and sticking with a plan, that’s what my membership is all about. 



Does co-sleeping make separation anxiety worse?

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

How we sleep is a cultural decision. Not just the whole broad culture, although obviously we are impacted by our social mores, but also a family culture decision. Lots of families co-sleep and have no opinion whatsoever about that as long as everyone is more or less happy and is getting enough sleep. This is one of those parenting decisions that I don’t think you can take out of context of the family functioning and say it is GOOD or BAD. It’s neutral. It’s good if your family likes it and it works and it’s bad if your family doesn’t like it and it doesn’t work. OK? So just to be clear about that. I have no bias about whether or not you should co-sleep with your kids, it’s a personal decision.

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

Let’s talk about what separation anxiety is. It describes kids who struggle to separate from their parents beyond when it is developmentally appropriate. We except kids to go through periods of separation anxiety. We know that older infants — around 8 months or so — start to cling to the parents. This is the age where babies that were perfectly happy to get passed around stop liking it. The rise in separation anxiety in infants goes along with their developing object permanence, which means that your baby is learning that things continue to exist even after they can’t see them. That gives them the ability to hold their parent in their mind even after that parent has left, which gives them the ability to miss you thus separation anxiety.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What causes child anxiety and how do you fix it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anxiety, in other words, begets anxiety.

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

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

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

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

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

Ok, so that’s two reasons. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parents just get blamed period. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I being protective or over protective?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is my child manipulating me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it ok if I miss school because of anxiety?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All right, back to anxiety. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is failure to launch caused by anxiety?

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

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

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

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

So why might an adult child struggle in this way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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