How do I support the siblings of an anxious child?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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