This week’s question is how do you calm down an anxious child? Actually, it was much more specific. So I’m going to read the whole thing. “How can I help my anxious child calm down when they get upset? I remind them to practice their breathing tools and mindfulness and try to reason with them. But instead things escalate, they insist that only getting rid of the perceived source of anxiety will help.”
With this question we’re starting with the assumption that we should calm down an anxious child, which is not always true. That’s not always our job, but we’ll get to that in a bit. There’s also another assumption, which is that we have the ability to calm down an anxious child, which is absolutely not true, or at least not always true.
Sometimes we know just the right thing to say or do, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes our child or teen is just going to spiral beyond where we can help them. Let me right here right now, say that if your child’s anxiety is out of control, This is not because you have somehow failed to calm them down.
So let’s reconsider the question. First hat’s off to this parent for teaching their child coping tools. Because that’s certainly part of what we need to do as parents. We can’t make them use them, but we can teach them those tools and encourage them to use them. We can create a family climate where people are practicing calm, and it is a practice.
Meaning we need to be doing it on the regular and not just when it’s needed. Remember last week, we talked about ways to model anxiety, but we can also model calm that’s in our control. We can choose to learn those things and to model those things and to overtly teach those things. Calm shouldn’t be a separate event that happens only when people are anxious.
Calm needs to be built into the everyday functioning of our families. So when you’re sitting with a cup of tea, listening to your favorite podcast, that’s you modeling calm. Good for you.
Or when you say, “Listen I had a bad day at work so I’m going to need to go for a walk.” That’s you modeling calm. Fantastic.
Or when you’re having a conflict with your child and you stop and take a deep breath, there you are modeling calm like a boss again.
(As an aside, one of the arms of my Child Anxiety Support membership is CBT family, which is a collection of ideas, resources, and activities to bring those cognitive behavioral tools to your family. So I encourage you to check that out if you’re interested.)
Okay. Back to the question. So this parent is already doing the most important thing, which is empowering their child.
The other piece of this question is the part that says, and I quote, “They insist that only getting rid of the perceived source of anxiety will help.” Yes, absolutely. And this is what we mean when we talk about accommodations.
Think about it. If there’s a tornado coming, you want to get away from it. You run down to the basement and you hole up. That’s how healthy anxiety is supposed to work. It’s supposed to protect us from danger.
Unfortunately, if we are sensitive and prone to see danger when there is no danger then that appropriate want to get away from danger isn’t inappropriate. It’s not working for us and we need to learn how to tolerate feeling like we’re in danger so that we can assess the situation and make a more accurate decision.
The way we learn to live with anxiety is twofold. One, we learn how to tolerate it long enough to acclimate to it. Two, we learn how to tolerate it long enough to acclimate to it so we can think our way through it. Basically, we need to hang in there long enough to get out of our survival brain that’s got us in fight flight or freeze so that we can access our higher order thinking brain.
A child who is prone to anxiety will probably always be someone who is sensitive to the idea of danger, but they will get better and better at accessing their higher order brain so that when they’re feeling scared, they can think, is this a tornado? Or am I just worried about tomorrow’s work presentation?
Of course, this sounds a lot easier than it is. When your child is in fight flight or freeze, that’s just where they are. And they’re expecting us as their parents, their protectors, to protect them. I want you to know, and to remember that you are protecting them, okay? They are safe. They don’t feel safe, but they are safe. You may need to tell yourself that and to sit on your hands. So you don’t react.
When we take action we’re telling them that they’re right to be afraid because we’re matching their level of urgency.
I encourage you to remember that your presence, your literal presence, if you’re able to tolerate enough to stay in the room with them. Or your figurative presence– because you have been a loving, supportive parent all of their lives– is a help. You are helping. Doing nothing is helping even if they don’t think so.
If you can stay calm, then you are helping by raising the level of calm in the room. If you are able to practice your own CBT tools, then you were helping by modeling practicing CBT tools. Please remember that. In other words, you don’t always need to do more; doing more when kids are already agitated can add to the agitation or prolong it.
Again, doing nothing can be a help.
I’m going to add here that sometimes in my therapy practice when I feel the urgency of my anxious clients and they want me to do something, fix their pain or worry, I picture a big sign behind them that says, “Don’t just sit there, do nothing!” as a reminder that being present and calm is my job in the moment.
You can tell that doing nothing is doing something because it’s so hard, it’s work. Right?
Now there are nuances in the answer to this question, depending on your child’s age, what’s upsetting them and what you’re trying to do, like if you’re trying to get out the door and you’ve got a timeline that you’re stuck with.
But right now for this episode, I really want to give you a new way of looking at support. Next time your child is flipping out and you feel the urge to calm them. Take a step back, even if it’s just for a few seconds and remember that sometimes the only way out is through and learning to tolerate the distress of anxiety is a skill that our anxious kids need to learn and that we need to learn. We also need to learn to tolerate the distress of their anxiety.
Let me know your thoughts!