Good kids are sometimes bad

Young children, bless their little hearts, think their parents are perfect. It takes them awhile to realize what messes we really are but at the beginning, they think we’re All Good and so when they do things that are Not So Good they sometimes think it means they are in some way defective. After all, the adults who they love and look up to don’t seem to have trouble not spilling the milk or wetting the bed or remembering how to tie shoes. Kids are usually under the false impression that grownups are never deliberately bad. (As grownups ourselves we know that deliberately misbehaving is actually quite the grown up kind of thing — witness insider trading and and people who double park — but when our children are only noticing our stellar milk pouring skills, it’s easy to impress them.)

When you’re little and you sneak a cookie or lie about brushing your teeth, it changes how you feel about yourself. You don’t have a broad enough worldview to know that being bad is part of being human and that misbehavior is something most of us struggle with on some level for our entire lives. Little kids tend to think very black and white, “I have done this bad thing therefore I am a bad person.” When parents react with shock or dismay when they discover a child’s transgressions, it solidifies that child’s self concept as “bad person.” That’s why it’s so important to reflect back the unconditional acceptance of the small person before us even when we need to condemn that same small person’s behavior.

Keeping the focus on the bike left in the middle of the driveway (“Michael! Your bike!”) and not on Michael himself (“What is wrong with you? Do you ever think about anyone else? Do you think I like getting out of my car in the rain to move your bike?”) will perhaps help grown up Michael not cheat on his taxes. Grown up Michael will think, “I’m a pretty good person. I try hard to take responsibility for my mistakes and do the right thing. I think I’ll ignore my brother-in-law’s advice to claim the kid’s play room as my home office.”

Positive discipline: Saving your child from future IRS audits!

One thing I encourage parents to do is to make a point of reconnecting with children after particularly bad days — the days when you feel like all you did was holler at them — by talking to them about the predictable developmental challenges that kids face. Little children are encouraged to hear that it will become easier to get things “right” as their maturity levels increase. It’s terrific when parents can say to a 3-year old, “I know it’s hard to remember to use your words when you are three, but someday soon it will be easier for you. Until then, I will help you remember.”

Even teenagers are reassured to hear that their displeasure with the family is developmentally appropriate and that someday everyone will likely be good friends again.

Knowing that your parents can see the good in you when you are having trouble seeing the good in yourself is a very big deal for growing kids.

4 Tips to Help Your Anxious Preschooler Adjust to School

anxious preschooler

The first day of preschool can lead to anxiety for a variety of reasons. They’re new to school, they’re not sure what to do, or they’re just excited about being in a new environment. No matter why they’re anxious, these 4 tips will help your anxious preschooler feel more comfortable and confident during their first year of preschool.

1: Validate your anxious preschooler’s feelings

Talk openly about being worried and explain that it’s a typical experience when we start new things. Anxiety is a normal and common feeling, but sometimes it can be hard for kids to understand why they’re feeling anxious. Let them know that it’s normal to feel a little nervous at first and that there are plenty of people here who will help them feel comfortable and safe.

2: Help your anxious preschooler get their bearings

Make sure the know how the classroom works. Where is their cubby? Do they know where to hang their jacket? Do they start their day — on the playground? In circle time? Is it time for free play at the sensory table? A big part of feeling comfortable during their first year is having space to relax and get settled in.

3: Help your anxious preschooler connect with others

One of the best ways to help anxious preschoolers connect with others is by role modeling that connection. Introduce yourself to other children in the class and then introduce your child. Don’t answer for your child, give them room to do their own talking. Step away if needed to give the kids space to begin navigating their own relationship.

4: Celebrate together at the end of the first day

Since anxiety can lead to low self-esteem, it is important for parents to help their children build self-esteem through positive reinforcement and encouragement. Praising your child for hanging in there even though they felt afraid. Help them connect with their success — they made it through the first day! It’s all easier from here on out! 

I hope that these tips will help your anxious child  feel more comfortable and confident during on their first of preschool.

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 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.

Kids outgrow everything

One of my hardest parenting lessons happened when my son was about a year and a half. Seemingly overnight, my lovely little blue-eyed baby turned into a tiny hissing grouch monster with flailing feet and fists. He went from generally amenable around transitions to someone I had to carry kicking and screaming from grandma’s house, the resale shop and various restaurants. From a cuddly person who always wanted to be carried in the sling he became someone who insisted on walking “by self!” and when expected to hand-hold in a parking lot became a wailing dead weight.

Dinner time, nap time, go downstairs time, greet daddy at the door time, put on shoes time, change diaper time — they were all opportunities for him to lose his dang mind (and for me to lose mine).

It was awful.

It was me, I knew it was me. I was the worst mother ever. My experience working with other people’s kids, it felt useless. I remember crying in the passenger seat of our car while my husband drove us away from yet another public tantrum saying, “I don’t know what I’ve done! I think I broke him!” And I had a list a mile long of every little thing I might have done wrong.

And then this wonderful thing happened, which was an old friend from my job at the shelter called me because her daughter (exactly one month older than my son) was doing the same exact thing and she wanted my advice. Which was hilarious of course because I had no idea how to fix any of it. But as we talked (and cried and eventually laughed) we both realized, oh, this is toddlers. This is a toddler thing. Here we were trying to raise babies — using all those mad baby raising skills we’d perfected — and they’d turned into toddlers so that baby stuff didn’t work anymore.

This taught me several things:

  1. Talking to other mothers, the ones you can really get real with, can save your life.
  2. All the theory in the world — all the advice and technique — is no match for the emotional work of parenting. It’s one thing to understand why toddlers tantrum but it’s a whole different thing to learn how to deal with the emotional reality of parenting a tantrumming toddler.
  3. Kids outgrow everything including your tried and true parenting techniques.

That last one, that’s really the point I want to make today. Kids outgrow everything — clothes and car seats and parenting tools. So we know how to do things, we know how to handle our kids and then one day we realize that we don’t. It’s a terrible feeling especially because we don’t figure out that things don’t work anymore until, well, until they stop working. Which means that usually we need to fail in some way to realize we need to change up our game.

You know what it’s like? It’s like when you reach into the diaper bag at library story time for that extra pants for inevitable diaper blow outs and realize you’ve only got a summer sunsuit for a three-month old and nothing to fit the robust nine-month old in front of you on this crisp winter morning. You thought you were prepared — and you absolutely were prepared when you packed that diaper bag six or seven months ago — but time got away from you.

They outgrow stuff. We aren’t always ready for it.

Failing is no fun, especially when it comes to our kids, which is why I think we need to reframe the idea that it is a failure. Maybe that’s just what parenting looks like. Maybe it’s a lot messier than we thought and maybe we, as parents, need to know that sometimes (often) we’re going to be learning on the run. So my son completely flipping out over everything was his way of saying, “Yo, this isn’t working for me” and not a condemnation of every single thing that came before. All those things I was doing that felt like mistakes? They weren’t mistakes; they were just outdated. It worked until it didn’t, which is just how it’s going to be.

As parents, we will make decisions that we may eventually regret but that doesn’t mean they were the wrong decisions. We can only respond to what we know right then and there at the moment we’re making them. Later on down the line as things change — ourselves, our kids, our circumstances — we will be responding to new things and we will make new decisions.

With my son, one of the big decisions I made was to adjust my expectations. Once I realized that he was being a pretty typical toddler, I relaxed a whole lot. I planned for him to balk at transitions, I honed my transitioning techniques, and I made the rest of his life more toddler-friendly (a big thing for my son was that he was ready for new activities; I hadn’t realized that he was bored). And the next time we hit a breaking point, I recognized it for what it was — a time for me to stop and reassess, not proof that I was doing it all wrong.

Oh and then my daughter? Whole new thing, whole new path, whole new challenges. Because there is no such thing as figuring this out, the end. It’s always process and progress and a big old mess of love and struggle (thus the Mr. Rogers quote down there).

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