anxiety

Understanding and Alleviating Anxiety in Children and Teens: Gentle Parenting Strategies

Gentle parenting, with its superpower of communication, offers an empathetic, supportive, and effective way to help our young ones navigate their fears and anxieties. Today, we’re going to explore three specific techniques that embody this compassionate philosophy.

The Power of Conversation: A Double-Edged Sword

Let’s start with the core strength of gentle parenting – talking. It’s a powerful tool that enables us to connect with our children, understand their world, and help them process their emotions. However, when it comes to anxiety, we can sometimes inadvertently heighten their fears by focusing too much on the subject.

Imagine you’re in a situation that triggers your anxiety. Constantly discussing your fears can reinforce those emotions, keeping you fixated on them instead of allowing you to move forward. The same happens with our children. While it’s essential to acknowledge their feelings, we must avoid over-processing.

The key is balance. We should provide a space for our kids to express their fears without making their anxiety the center of attention all the time. By doing so, we allow them to understand that while their fears are valid, they don’t have to dominate their experiences.

Encouragement Over Fixation: Fostering Resilience

Now, let’s talk about how we can better support our children as they face their anxieties. Instead of fixating on the fear, let’s shift our focus to empowerment and resilience. Tell your child, “I know you’re afraid, but I also know you can handle it. I’ll be there with you every step of the way.”

This statement does two things: it acknowledges the fear, so your child feels heard, and it instills confidence, reminding them of their inner strength. It’s a subtle but powerful change in approach that can make a significant difference in how they manage anxiety.

By affirming their capability to overcome challenges, we’re not dismissing their feelings. Instead, we’re guiding them towards a mindset where they see themselves as capable and resilient, which is crucial in developing long-term coping skills.

Building Coping Skills: A Guided, Yet Subtle Approach

Finally, let’s consider how we can help our children build their coping skills without making them overly conscious of their anxiety. It’s essential to teach them techniques like deep breathing, visualization, or grounding exercises, but we must introduce these tools in a way that feels natural and non-intrusive.

For instance, practice deep breathing exercises together during calm moments, not just when they’re anxious. This way, it becomes a part of their routine, and they’re more likely to remember to use it when they need it – without you having to remind them in the midst of their anxiety.

Incorporate these techniques into daily life as much as possible. The goal is for these skills to become second nature to them, so when they do face a situation that causes anxiety, they have a toolkit of strategies already in place, ready to use without it feeling like a big deal.

In conclusion, gentle parenting offers a compassionate framework for helping children and teens manage their anxiety. By conversing thoughtfully, fostering resilience, and subtly integrating coping skills into everyday life, we can empower our young ones to face their fears with confidence. Remember, it’s about guiding them to understand that while anxiety is a part of life, it doesn’t have to define their experiences. As parents, our unwavering support and belief in their abilities can make all the difference.

Thank you for joining us on this journey towards understanding and nurturing our children’s emotional well-being. Keep embracing the power of gentle parenting, and let’s continue to create a supportive environment where our kids can thrive, even in the face of anxiety.

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Do you recommend any supplements for child anxiety?

The question that showed up in my inbox this week is “Do you recommend any supplements for child anxiety?” The author of the question goes on to say, “Also is there a relationship between vitamin D and anxiety? I have read too little and too much vitamin D can make anxiety worse?”

First off I cannot make any recommendations about supplements because that’s out of my scope. My masters is in clinical mental health and I do not have additional training in nutrition. That said, I can report what studies have said. And for this I’m relying on a lit review published in Nutrients, an academic journal, in March 2021. The title of this lit review and I’ll post it in the show notes as well, is The Influence of Vitamin D Intake and Status on Mental Health in Children: A Systematic Review 

Their findings were that the studies, and I quote, “supported potential positive influence of vitamin D on mental health in children.” They go on to recommend, again, I quote, “Vitamin D intake within a properly balanced diet or as a supplementation, except for safe sun exposure, should be indicated as an element supporting mental health in children.” 

I couldn’t find any research specifically about having too much vitamin d and child anxiety although a google search on the popular web Brough tup results. But nothing in the scientific literature. That doesn’t mean it’s not an issue so I’d say that your best bet is to talk to your cild’s healthcare provider to get a better understanding of how to know what’s right for your child. 

My take on this overall is that good nutrition is good for our mental health but it’s not a cure all and more does not mean better. In other words, when we’re looking at our anxious child’s functioning, we can look at basic nutrition, sleep, physical exercise as part of the big picture. We know, for example, that anxiety gets worse without sleep and that physical exercise can alleviate some of its symptoms but as the study says, this is “an element supporting mental health.” 

Our physical and mental functioning are tied together for sure but sometimes it’s a chicken and egg kind of thing. I work with a lot of families whose children have gastric issues like celiac or IBS or allergies and it can be difficult to tease out which came first. Did the gastric issues contribute to the anxiety? Because our gut is very tuned into our thinking. Lots of us call the stomach our second brain. If you have an upset tummy, you may interpret that as anxiety even though ti might be caused bye omethign you ate. 

On the other hand, anxiety can cause upset tummies. It’s one of the most common symptoms of child anxiety.

This is why it’s so important to get a medical workup for your child when they are dealing with anxiety. And if there are gut issues or their headaches are because they need glasses, we need to address that.

So vitamin D might be part of the picture. And I’d say considering this study, it’s a good idea to talk to your child’s healthcare provider to get more information about how to test their levels and whether or not supplementation is necessary. I wouldn’t just start with supplements for child anxiety and assume all is well. 

Now as I said, my masters is in clinical mental health counseling and so I work through that lens. That’s my bias, that’s what the research says. A two-pronged approach — taking good care of our bodies and also working on our minds — is in my opinion, our best bet.

What this means is even if there are physical issues present that need to be addressed we also need to work on our mental functioning.

Anxiety can become something of a habit. That’s not to say that it’s a habit like smoking or biting your nails, it’s more a habit of thinking and processing. If we have a child who has gut issues and they develop anxiety either due to those gut issues or due to something else that is exacerbated by the gut issues or whose gut issues are caused by anxiety and we take care of their belly we still need to take care of their anxiety and vice versa.

Even when their belly feels better, they have learned to expect the world to be anxiety producing. They’ve gotten so used to feeling uneasy in the world — of expecting that stomachache, of expecting the social anxiety that can come when you might have to run to the bathroom, of associating certain public spaces with nervous feelings — they will need to address that. That takes practice and it takes exposure.

The next question might be where to start first and I’d say wherever feels most available to you. If your child is due for a well child visit soon, it’s easy enough to talk to their provider then. If you’re going to have to wait a bit to get in there, you can start working on the education and coping piece. You can’t get it wrong as long as you’re moving forward and are open to finding answers where you find them.

There is no silver bullet for anxiety. Sometimes I’ll see folks on social media saying, “Do this one thing, get this one treatment, learn this one technique” and that’ll cure anxiety but that’s not been my experience and observation in working with hundreds of families. Anxiety is more complicated than that. There are things you can do to support growth and coping but there is an element of learning that is unavoidable. 

Here’s a metaphor that might help explain this. Let’s say I have a penchant for bad boys. I’m basing this on my young adult self who had terrible taste in boyfriends. I thought the problem was I kept dating not great guys. But actually the problem was that I kept choosing to date not great guys. I mean, that’s not saying I deserved poor treatment — of course not — or that I was causing it. Again, absolutely not. But until I did the work I needed to do with a therapist, I kept dating rotten guys. I needed to learn more about healthy relationships, about setting boundaries. I needed to work on my self-concept. 

That’s how anxiety is, too. I can have enough vitamin D in my body, I can be physically centered and calm, I can be exercising and that’s all wonderful and will definitely help but I still need to work on my thinking. 

And sometimes working on my thinking, will help me access tools like getting a good night’s sleep and hitting the gym on the regular.

I love when parents are open to a multiprong approach so I’m very glad this person asked the question so that we could talk more about this and it gave me the chance to do the research, which I always appreciate. 

A reminder that April 3rd we’ll be starting the spring cohort. If your’e listening to this after April 2023 please know that the Child Anxiety Support program is always open and I tag the recorded live events so that you can find the topics your’e most interested in and revisit them. But if it’s before April 2023 or during, I’d love for you to joint he site and come along as we go through he program together. If you have questions, please reach out to me. You get 14 days free to try it out so you have nothing to lose except the grip that anxiety has on your family.

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How do I explain to my anxious child that they don’t need to be scared?

This is such an interesting question because it assumes that this is one of our jobs as a parent. That we are supposed to tell kids not to be scared and sometimes that’s true. Sometimes our job is to be reassuring. Like when a child is afraid of going to the doctors, and we sit down and explain what’s going to happen and maybe buy them a toy doctor’s kit so they can process their emotions through play. But does that mean that if they’re still scared that we’ve somehow failed them? Or that they’ve failed to process their experience correctly?

I mean this question really gets at the nature of fear and how we feel about fear and how we feel about our kids feeling fear.

Ok, let’s back up.

First, fear is not a bad emotion to have. Fear is supposed to keep us safe. Fear is a warning signal to be careful, to keep your eyes open. Fear is ok. It’s not comfortable but it serves a purpose.

We are going to be afraid sometimes. We are going to be afraid of new experiences sometimes just because they’re new. We’re going to be afraid of situations like going to the doctor’s if last time we got a shot. It makes sense that we would be nervous about going again even if we’re not going to get a shot this time. 

What I’m getting at is that the issue isn’t fear really. The issue is letting fear get the best of us. Fear is a tool and we need that tool but we need to be discerning about using it.

Being afraid is ok. Sometimes it’s even more than ok, it’s super smart. We need to learn when our fear is helpful — like when it’s telling us to back away from the cliff or not go into that dark attic in the haunted house or study for the test in order to get a good grade. 

And we also need to learn when it is NOT helpful like when it’s telling us not to ever go on the hike or that every house is haunted or that we shouldn’t even bother to take the class because it will be too hard.

We need to learn when our fear is protective and when it is avoidant. Or more to the point, we need our children to learn when fear is protective and when it is avoidant. 

The question, “How do I explain to my anxious child that they don’t need to be scared?” Might be better asked this way, “How do I support my anxious child when they are scared.” And you’ll see we’ve shifted from trying to FIX what’s happening or our child and moved to helping them learn the skills to manage the experience themselves.

When our children are afraid, we can validate the feeling without validating the fearful thing or event itself. By this I mean, we can say, “I know you feel scared,” which is validating without rushing to reassurance or to avoidance. So we don’t have to say, “I know you feel scared but there are no monsters under the bed” or “I know you feel scared so why don’t I sleep in here with you.” What we could say is something like, “I know you feel scared, what do you think would help you know that you are safe.”

It doesn’t have to be these exact words and it doesn’t have to be handled this way every time, I’m just using this as an example to start shifting the conversation and shift to honoring and supporting your child’s agency.

Anxiety offers an invitation to be curious. What might happen? What could we do to explore that? We could invite our child to look under the bed with us. We could give our child a flashlight and invite them to look for monsters. I’ve had lots of kids who have found it helpful to create a sign for their bedroom doors that says, “No monsters allowed.” 

When we do the reassuring, we create a dependency on being the source of reassurance. When we give them the means to explore and confront and cope with their fears, we are giving them opportunity to be brave. 

Let’s try another scenario. 

Let’s say an older child is anxious about a big paper that’s due and they are coming to us for reassurance that it’s good, that they’ve written a great paper. Now there’s nothing wrong with telling them, “You’ve done an excellent job on this paper” or “You can really see your hard work in this paper.” But when they start saying, “But will my teacher like it?” No amount of our reassuring them is going to be enough. So instead we can say, “You worked really hard on this; no wonder you’re anxious to know what your teacher will think of it.” And then we can invite curiosity. “What would happen if your teacher didn’t like it? What would you do? Would that change the way you felt about it?” There’s no right answer there, it’s just a chance to be curious. It’s just the chance to be curious about problem solving, like would you ask for extra credit work? Would you ask for a meeting to argue for a better grade? Or it might be an opportunity to talk about evaluation and what it means to be evaluated and explore our philosophies. Like does someone else’s judgment negate our own? Like can we separate our pride in our work from grades, which can sometimes be so subjective? Again, no right answer. But we’re building up critical thinking, the ability to problem solve, and reiterating our family values around work and judgment and the ways we interact with the great big wide world.

I think this question helps us, too, to see that parenting an anxious child is not just about parenting an anxious child. It’s about parenting, period. It’s about learning and growing and coping with who we are and what we want from the world and how to operate even when things are uncertain or unpredictable or outright scary.

If you are thinking of joining Child Anxiety Support for more specific concrete answers — ones that apply to your unique family and go beyond what we can do in these short podcasts, please know that starting in April we will be going through the 6-week Strong Kids, Strong Families program together. My membership is always open, which means you can join at any time and take the course at your leisure. But if you join by April 3, 2023, then we will all be doing the lessons at the same time. Each of our weekly live events will be focused on that week’s lesson so that we can dive in deep. I am always available to give you personalized support, so that together we design a concrete, step-by-step plan to address your child’s particular anxiety. Whether that’s sleep or behavior or separation or school, this evidence-based program will give you the information and tools you need to address your child’s anxiety across a lifetime.

Just head to childanxietysupport.com and remember that you get the first 14 days free. Have questions? Reach out to me at [email protected] or through instagram where I’m at dawnfriedmanmsed. I look forward to hearing from you.



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Why doesn’t encouragement help my anxious child?

The question this week is “Why doesn’t encouragement help my anxious child” but I think it will be illuminating if I give you more information about the question I received that inspired this episode..

I’m not going to read the whole thing since there are some private identifying details in it but the parent shared that they have a child who tends to be pretty negative, which is not uncommon in anxious kids. This child is particularly pessimistic about their ability to overcome their anxiety and the parent feels like the more they try to encourage them, the more discouraged the child gets. So for example, the parent will say, “I know you can do it” and the child will say, “No I can’t.” And the parent will say, “You’ve done it before so I know you can do it again” and the child will give a lot of reasons why they could do it that time but that they won’t be able to do it this time. So they’ll say things like, “Last time the situation was different” or “last time I didn’t know any better” or “last time was just good luck.”

This is a situation I come across a lot in my work and I know how frustrating it is for parents.

So first, why are some kids so resistant to encouragement?

The answer here is that encouragement can feel like pressure. We’ve talked about slow to warm temperaments on this show before but I’m going to go over it again since some of you might be new to the podcast.

Temperament traits are aspects of our personality that are more or less stable. These are nature not nurture qualities although obviously they can be impacted by the environment. A slow to warm person is someone who takes their time coming to new experiences. This is someone who might show up at a networking event, and stay on the sides checking it out for awhile first. You know, seeing how the room is flowing, who’s there and who isn’t. A child who is slow to warm might want to watch other children go down the slide before attempting it themselves. They might not want to eat a new food the first time it is served and need to see it repeatedly before they’re willing to give it a try. 

Slow to warm temperaments can be frustrating for adults who don’t understand it. They might see the child’s initial refusal as a barrier or a hurdle when really that child just needs time to take it all in and make their own decision.

Not all slow to warm kids are anxious but some anxious kids are slow to warm. They might feel anxious as part of that temperament, as part of experiencing something new for the first time but they might also NOT have anxiety about the event but have anxiety about the perceived pressure.

So a child who needs to hang back and watch other people try the slide, might not be feeling worried about the slide but they might start feeling worried if their caregiver interprets their caution as a problem and starts trying to talk them into it.

They’ll be hanging on the sidelines, maybe with an intense look on their face, and if left alone will eventually make an attempt but adults — misinterpreting their slow to warm temperament as an anxiety problem — might start saying, “You can do it, those other kids are doing it, why don’t you try, here I’ll take you over there” and that makes them dig in their heels because they’re feeling rushed.

This is very tricky because sometimes kids do need our encouragement but sometimes they don’t. And figuring our who your child is  and who they are in the context of holding back is part of the parenting puzzle.

Ok, back to encouragement.

The opposite of the slow to warm temperament, which by the way is also called high withdrawal — is a high approach person. The high approach person likes new experiences, is interested in trying out new things. They’re the ones who see a slide and go right up that ladder. Those are kids who are willing to try every new food, who leap into new social experiences. And those children can also have anxiety but it’s not necessarily expressed through this side of their temperament. And we as a culture love these high approach kids.

They can be easier to parent because they are willing to give things a go. And when they’re reluctant encouragement can be just the thing to get them over that hump. They might hang back for a minute and you say, “You can do it” and they say, “Yes I can, let’s go.”

Most of us parent to a high approach temperament because it makes sense. We interpret a child who holds back as a child who is nervous and yes, sometimes that’s true. But as I’ve said, it can also be an expression of this particular personality trait.

Picture the slow to warm child at the slide, not necessarily reluctant but wanting to take their time. And now the parent starts encouraging them with that “you can do it” etc. The child still needs time to figure it out but now they’re feeling pushed. Because they’re feeling pushed beyond what they’re ready to do, they push back. You say, “you can do it” and they say, “no I can’t.” They’re doing this because they are not experiencing the good will you are intending to give them. They are experiencing it as “You’re doing this wrong.”

The slow to warm child, doesn’t actually need encouragement. They need space.

So that’s the slow to warm child and encouragement. Again, they may experience this as pressure. And I think, from what the person who posted this question shared, this is what’s going on for them.

But there’s another reason why encouragement may not work and that’s because encouragement is another form of reassurance.

Reassurance is the most common parenting pitfall that gets families stuck in child anxiety. Anxious kids ask us to reassure them that it will all be all right. With non-anxious kids — children who have a typical amount of developmentally appropriate anxiety — get reassured and move on. Anxious kids — children who have an atypical amount of anxiety or who have anxiety that is more than we would expect for them developmentally — get reassured and then acclimate to that reassurance and want more.

This is a child who keeps coming back asking you to tell them that it’s safe or that they’re ok or that nothing bad will happen or that they can do the hard thing — and you find yourself having to answer them over and over and you start feeling like you need to talk them into new experiences every time. Or that any anxiety provoking event ends up in a meltdown. That’s the way we get trapped in reassurance, that’s what makes it a parenting pitfall.

When that’s happening, we may really struggle because it feels bad not to reassure our child. So I want you to think about describing instead of reassuring. Validing the feeling if not the facts.

A child says, “Will I be ok if I go down the slide” and you can say, “You feel worried about that slide, I can appreciate that.” You could also say, “Why don’t you watch those kids go down and see what you think.” Or you could say, “You can only know if you try.”

What we’re trying to do is build in curiosity about the event rather than a blanket reassurance. They might fall off the ladder going up. They might bump on their bottom at the end of the slide. They might climb up there and decide it’s too high. Who knows. There are no guarantees in life. That’s part of what’s so hard about anxiety is that it wants certainty and anxious people — including kids — need to learn how to manage that feeling of uncertainty. 

There are lots of places to learn how to confront anxiety and going up or down a slide is not a mark of success or failure; it’s an opportunity to explore. Families who are learning how to unstick themselves from the sticky parts of anxiety, who are learning how to climb out of parenting pitfalls and not fall back in, can use everyday events like slides as opportunities to manage their own responses. In other words, save the big confrontations for the things that really have you trapped. If your anxious child doesn’t go down the slide, I wouldn’t worry but I would be working on the things that are getting in the way of functioning like sleep routines, separating from caregivers, dealing with social relationships, struggling with perfectionism, etc. 

When they’re having some success in those areas, you can bring the learning to things like slides.

For example, if you have a child who struggles with separating from you, you can be working on that with a specific plan and then when they experience some success there, if they come to you and say, “I don’t know if I can go down the slide” you get to say something like, “You can only know if you try but I do know that a kid who can stay downstairs on their own while I”m upstairs putting laundry away is plenty brave.” 

How do I motivate my anxious child to deal with their anxiety?
The question, “How do I motivate my anxious child?” is more complicated than it first seems because

Why doesn’t encouragement help my anxious child? Read More »

How do I motivate my anxious child to deal with their anxiety?

The question, “How do I motivate my anxious child?” is more complicated than it first seems because it’s showing that we may still need to make that paradigm shift where we need to put the focus on our own behavior first and on our child’s behavior second. If we are waiting for our child to be motivated before we start work on their anxiety then most of us are going to be waiting a very long time.

A lot of our anxious kids — and even anxious adults — aren’t yet in the place where they understand that their anxiety is the issue. A child who is afraid of dogs likely thinks dogs are the issue. A child who feels safest when their mom is around, likely thinks that the problem is that mom isn’t always able or willing to be around. 

I think about my own fears as a child around thunder storms. I was terrified of them. And the problem, to my mind, was that thunderstorms existed. The solution my family used was to put me in the living room with headphones on listening to The Wizard of Oz on an 8-track tape. That way I couldn’t really hear the thunder and then I was no longer afraid. That worked just fine until one storm night the electricity went out and I was alone in a pitch dark room. As you can imagine, this did nothing to help me deal with my thunderstorm anxiety.

And this is because my family and I assumed thunderstorms were the problem and so we should avoid thunderstorms when really the problem was my anxiety.

I was not interested in dealing with my anxiety because that was yucky and painful and again, I didn’t think it was a problem in the first place. No the problem seemed to be that the world was scary and I wanted it to be safe.

That’s why we parents need to focus on our motivation and through that make good decisions for helping our children learn to cope with the reality that the world is often scary and not always safe. As our children get better at coping with that reality, we might see more motivation from them. Or if they’re focused on getting access to the things that they’re avoiding, we might see some motivation there, too. That might be a child who really wants to go to a slumber party but is afraid to sleep away from home. 

But it’s ok to start before we’ve got their buy in. It’s ok to start with figuring out our own motivation.

Let’s talk about that a little bit.

The best way to understand how to motivate ourselves is to understand why we aren’t motivated. What is stopping us from climbing out of the parenting pitfalls we find ourselves in when parenting our anxious kids. For those of you who are unaware, parenting pitfalls are the things we do that keep us and our kids stuck in patterns of anxiety. An example would be my parents using that 8-track tape. It seems like a solution but it can be a trap especially if they started staying home on days when storms were predicted to stick close to the stereo. Or if — and this did happen — I started clamoring for the headphones at the first sign of wind and rain. If you aren’t sure about parenting pitfalls, you can take my quiz, which you can find at child anxiety support DOT com forward slash quiz and see if and how your family might be stuck.

Anyway, common reasons we aren’t motivated are:

      • lack of time

      • lack of bandwidth

    And I’ll say that both of those things are predictably made worse by the anxiety itself. Because parenting an anxious child is exhausting and time consuming, right? So the traps seem like a way to deal with the anxiety less even though they tend to eat up our functioning.

    Another common reason we might not be motivated, is we might have real concerns that our child isn’t capable of handling the demands of facing their fears.

    I want to stop and talk about this one for awhile because it mirrors the reason kids stay stuck, too. They also don’t believe they’re capable of handling those demands.

    Let’s take two kids who are learning to roller skate. One child isn’t anxious and they know they might fall but they figure they can handle that. The other child is anxious and they also know they might fall but they don’t feel capable of handling it. It’s not necessarily that one is predicting worse outcomes. Both children may have a friend who broke their wrist roller skating. So both might know that is indeed a real risk. But the non-anxious child may not just feel more confident in their abilities, they also may feel more confident in handling a wrist fracture. An anxious child is less optimistic overall. Their self concept — their sense of who they are — may be more negative. 

    These are the kids who say, “I know I’m going to fall. I can’t do it. It’s too hard.” And we go to reassure them, “You’re going to do great. You’ll be fine. Look, your little sister is doing it so I know you can, too.” 

    Remember, reassurance is the most common pitfall. And it doesn’t work.

    That doesn’t motivate the child because we’re making the mistake that the roller skating is the issue instead of the anxiety. The truth is, they might fall. Anyone on roller skates might fall. But then again, they might not. And if they do, it might not be so bad. And if they break their wrist, well, that’s super lousy but they will survive it. 

    Even as I say these things, I know that as a parent it can feel somehow irresponsible. Like we’re saying that a broken wrist is no big deal. That they should just blow off their fears. Let me be clear, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that the big picture work of anti-anxiety learning is to figure out how to exist in a reality that is unpredictable and sometimes scary and occasionally even dangerous. 

    Such big work, I know.

    Thunderstorms are usually fine but sometimes people do get hit by lightening, sometimes homes do get destroyed in tornadoes. Sometimes even our wonderful all powerful parents can’t keep us safe.

    A hard reality for us as well as for our kids.

    So where’s the motivation? It’s in believing that our children can indeed handle it — all of the uncertainty — and can have good lives in spite of the world being scary. We have to hold that belief first so that we can offer it to them.

    You know how we talk about co-regulation a lot on social media, in parenting books and classes? This idea that we can bring our own calm to our children? This self concept piece is like that. We believe in them even when they don’t. We believe in their strength even when they feel weak. And this isn’t a suck it up buttercup, stiff upper lip kind of belief. It’s more, I believe you have the ability to grow through this. To learn about your inner strength. To learn that bravery means being afraid but doing it anyway. 

    We can motivate ourselves and our kids but taking things small. What began my ability to deal with thunderstorms, and this is a memory my dad brings up to me a lot so I know it was meaningful to him as well, was sitting on his lap on our front porch watching the storms roll in. I borrowed his bravery. He showed me how to find the delight in the big noise and uncertainty but it took practice and it took his help. Because he traveled, he couldn’t do that for me every time and my mom, with three kids five and under didn’t have time either. But that’s ok, because I got enough confidence to begin a fairly long journey of dealing with my fear of thunderstorms.

    One thing that I think can be helpful is to celebrate your child’s wins big or small. You can announce this beforehand like, “Next time we walk by that barking dog, I will hold your hand but I won’t carry you and after we will celebrate with a sticker or an ice cream cone or big hugs.” Or you can just notice the next time your child has handled something I celebrate it.

    This is different than reward charts although those can work, too. I just think we need to be cautious about relying on them too much because they can lose their effectiveness. I’m not against them — extrinsic motivation can lead to intrinsic motivation — but they can’t do the work for us. 

    My thinking is that once you have a child holding your hand instead of being carried around a scary dog, you might have buy in for a more explicit plan with a whole exposure hierarchy and stair step rewards but it really doesn’t have to be this formal. 

    If you are interested in figuring out a plan with clear steps and what to do when, I encourage you to check out the Child Anxiety Support program since this is what we do inside the membership.


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    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. 

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    Is social anxiety disorder caused by traumas and bullying?

    First let’s talk about what social anxiety is and how it’s diagnosed.

    Social anxiety is not being introverted and it’s not being shy. Social anxiety is when a child struggles to function in social situations. An introvert may prefer their own company and a child who is shy is a child who is slow to warm up in social situations but they’re able to get there. In social anxiety, the child’s anxiety prevents them from participation. 

    There are two aspects to social anxiety. The first is what you might call stage fright where the child’s anxiety is centered around the fear of performance. This isn’t just being afraid of being on stage or public speaking, this is fear of raising their hand in school or ordering at a restaurant or answering the phone or being at an event where they will be seen. The focus here is on the performative aspect of being observed. Most of us don’t want to be the first person on the dance floor, right? Perhaps you can imagine how that feels. The stage fright part of social anxiety is that feeling — that feeling of being first on the dance floor — in any aspect of social performance. So these kids might have trouble getting up in class to sharpen a pencil. They may have bathroom accidents because they can’t ask the teacher to be excused. They might struggle in sports of gym class because they have to practice in front of their classmates or team members. You know, like when your coach lines you up and you take turns running up to kick the soccer ball into the goal. 

    The second aspect to social anxiety is about the interaction. This can be present with the performative aspect or may show up on its own. In this case, there is intense worry about disappointing other people or making people mad or having people judge them. They may have trouble making eye contact (and this is separate from children who are on the autism spectrum — social anxiety is often co-diagnosed with spectrum disorders but lack of eye contact is not always an indicator of social anxiety). We all have had those middle of the night worries about having said something stupid after a social event. Most of us can shrug it off; we know people are forgiving and also most people aren’t paying that close of attention to us. But when social anxiety is present, those ruminations about possible social gaffes can be overwhelming. 

    Kids with social anxiety fear negative judgment. Their avoidance is around this perceived negative judgment. To avoid it they may limit their socializing or withdraw from social interactions, basically going along to get along. 

    In severe cases of social anxiety, the child might also meet criteria for a diagnosis of selective mutism where the child’s anxiety is so great that they are unable to speak to people outside of a select few, usually family members. The child is able to speak — they have no physical limitations — but their fear stops them from speaking.

    Our children may ask us to reassure them that no one is mad. They may need to process the event over and over. They may apologize for perceived slights or insults, taking responsibility for things that aren’t an issue.

    As an aside, I see so much of this in middle schoolers — such a socially anxious age — where conversation between two kids may halt entirely because they are both so caught up in apologizing for each other. Of course middle schoolers can also be incredibly thoughtless and cruel to each other. It’s a complicated age and the same child who is ultra sensitive in one social context may be clueless in another. There are estimates that up to 30% of adolescents experience some measure of social anxiety — I think it might be under diagnosed since I meet lots of adults who don’t realize that they have social anxiety but instead report that they are just very introverted. 

    Which brings us to the original question. Is social anxiety disorder caused by trauma and bullying? The answer is yes, it may be but it isn’t always. 

    Some children have a difficult experience in school and this contributes to their understandable fear of continued bullying and unkindness, i.e., social anxiety.

    Other children develop social anxiety without a clear precursor. Although there is research showing that children who have separation anxiety when younger — that is struggle to separate from caregivers for longer than is developmentally expected — are more likely to develop social anxiety. 

    Interestingly some children with social anxiety who do not have bullying in their background may still perceive some of their social interactions more negatively than they actually were. This is not because they are liars; it is because some children are more sensitive to negative reactions — real or perceived. What this means is that a child may tell you that someone doesn’t like them and even have examples but this is more about their perception than what really happened. So another child might casually say, “Wow, your shoes are really bright blue.” And the child may hear that as critical or mean when the other child was simply making an observation.

    All right, so what do you do for a child with social anxiety? 

    Remember that anxiety gets worse with avoidance so we want to encourage those children to have more social interaction. Now this doesn’t mean just sending them off to school and saying, “go make some friends!” That’s not going to work for every child. For some? Sure. Kids who are more motivated, who have already built some emotional muscle in overcoming social anxiety, who have some measure of social support — they may be able to simply push through it. But lots of kids need help with skills building.

    You can reach out to the school counselor and ask them about social opportunities. Some will have groups — a lunch bunch or a more formal group — that the child can attend. Some may have ideas about getting the child more involved with extracurriculars that interest them and might feel safe. They may be able to connect the child with appropriate peers.

    You can also look for social opportunities that are a better fit for your child. Girl Scouts, a church group, 4H. If your child has a special interest you could see about connecting them to peers that way. If you’ve got a child or teen who does a lot of online activities, head to the local comic book store and see if you can get your gamer nerd to open themselves to other nerdoms like D&D or Magic the Gathering. Our little neighborhood library used to host gamer meet-ups to get the kids off-line and talking to each other while still honoring that gaming was an important interest to them. You can try that, too. 

    The reason I bring up computer games, is that kids who are social anxious are more likely to have what the researchers call problematic internet usage. That is to say, avoiding real world social interaction by increased used of online social interaction.

    I do want to pause here and say that I believe that online relationships are real and important and they matter. But they are not a substitute for real world relationships. It’s great to have good social keyboarding skills. But we also need to be able to interact with people off-line. It doesn’t need to be one or the other and we can encourage real world friendships without denigrating online friendships. This is important when we’re talking about supporting our kids since many will feel rightfully defensive if we turn it into an either/or discussion instead of a both/and. 

    If you can’t find the right social environment, you could consider creating one. Social media makes it easier to network with other local parents and perhaps you can find or create the social group that would feel welcoming to your child. It doesn’t have to be a large group. It can just be a couple of kids who are willing to hang out.

    You can also talk to counseling practices and occupational therapy practices, which sometimes host social skills groups. Sometimes these are specific to a diagnosis — for example, for autistic kids. But some are open to any child who is needing opportunity and practice in learning how be with other kids. The leaders of these kinds of structured groups know and expect that the kids may be awkward and may struggle. Talk to the facilitators and see if your child is a good fit for the group and that the group is a good fit for the child. Some of the will organize around a particular theme. 

    Getting intervention sooner rather than later is important. Sometimes we figure middle school is just awkward and they’ll grow out of it but social anxiety leads to depression if it continues through the teen years. Social anxiety tends to create dependence as children increasingly rely on their parents’ support and intervention. Parents naturally start assuming their kids can’t function on their own, which leads to more parental control, which leads to greater social anxiety. It’s basically an echo chamber. As in all things, parents need to recognize when what they’re doing is hurting more than helping — always a tricky thing with anxiety — and learn to step back.

    If you need help with that, I encourage you to check out my program.

    Is social anxiety disorder caused by traumas and bullying? Read More »

    Why do gifted children have anxiety disorders?

    Why do gifted children have anxiety disorders?

    gifted children

    Why do gifted children have anxiety disorders?

    gifted children

    Are you ready to bring calm to yourself so that you can bring calm to your family? Subscribe to my newsletter and you’ll get my FREE 7-day Get Yourself Grounded course!

    Are you ready to bring calm to yourself so that you can bring calm to your family? Subscribe to my newsletter and you’ll get my FREE 7-day Get Yourself Grounded course!

    Why do gifted children have anxiety disorders? Read More »

    How do I calm down my anxious child?

    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.

    Dawn Friedman MSEd

    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!

    Have a question?

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