anxious child

Untangling the Knot of Childhood Anxiety: A Journey from Small Beginnings to Big Changes

Welcome to our latest discussion on a topic that many families find themselves grappling with: childhood anxiety. It’s not an easy path to navigate, and often, when parents reach out for guidance, they’re met with an overwhelming number of strategies, opinions, and potential solutions. But today, we’re going to talk about the transformative power of starting small to create big change.

Identifying the Core Struggle

When parents first approach me about their anxious child, they often come with a heavy heart and a story that feels like a Gordian knot of worries and struggles. They lay out the entirety of their child’s issues, and inevitably, the family’s struggles, which are invariably interwoven with the child’s experiences. They present this complex, tangled mess with a plea for help: “Let’s fix it.”

However, this intricate tangle of issues is akin to a literal knot. If you’ve ever tried to untangle a knot, you know that pulling at random strands only tightens the snarl. The same principle applies to addressing childhood anxiety. The key is not to tackle everything at once but to start small. We need to locate that one strand that, when gently pulled, will begin to loosen the entire knot.

Finding the Most Impactful Starting Point

Feeling overwhelmed is a natural response when confronting your child’s anxiety. The sheer breadth of the issue can paralyze even the most proactive parents. So where do we begin? The answer lies in pinpointing the area of greatest pain or potential relief. This is where you start—where the first small change can be made.

Perhaps it’s establishing a simple bedtime routine that helps your child wind down, or maybe it’s practicing deep-breathing exercises together for moments when anxiety starts to spike. It could even be as straightforward as creating a safe space where your child can retreat when feeling overwhelmed. These are not sweeping changes but rather focused, manageable starting points.

By homing in on one specific area, you’re not just aiming for an immediate sense of relief; you’re also setting the stage for a ripple effect. You’ll begin to notice that as you address this one area effectively, the benefits start to spill over into other areas of your child’s life—and by extension, the family’s life as well.

The Power of Incremental Progress

Starting small may seem counterintuitive when the desire for quick, comprehensive change is strong. But trust in the process of incremental progress. As you make small adjustments and celebrate each victory, no matter how minor it may seem, you’re laying the groundwork for lasting change.

Each step forward is a shift in the patterns of your family’s functioning. Over time, these small shifts accumulate, and the once daunting knot of anxiety begins to loosen. The changes in behavior, the growing resilience, and the improved coping strategies in your child will become more evident. And as these transformations take place, your family as a whole will find a new equilibrium, one that is healthier and more harmonious.

So, to all the parents out there grappling with the weight of their child’s anxiety, remember this: Start where you are, with what you have, and do what you can. Know that each small effort is a step towards a larger transformation. Be patient, be persistent, and believe in the potential for change. As you untangle each strand of difficulty, you are not just addressing symptoms; you are nurturing resilience and strength in your child that will last a lifetime.

In closing, I want to reaffirm that you are not alone on this journey. Many have walked this path before you, and there is support available. Starting small does not mean starting alone. Reach out, connect, and let’s untangle this knot together, one strand at a time.

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Understanding and Supporting Anxious, Irritable Kids

As parents, educators, and caretakers, we often encounter children who display anxiety and irritability. It’s natural to want to soothe their worries and calm their tempers. Yet, when we dive deeper into these challenges, we realize that the key is not to focus solely on the emotions themselves but rather on how the child is functioning despite these emotions.

Looking Beyond the Surface

At first glance, it’s easy to get caught up in the desire to see our children as beacons of positivity. The reality, however, can be quite different. Anxious and irritable children may not immediately transform into paragons of peace and contentment. It’s important to recognize that while their demeanor might not change overnight, their ability to cope with and perform necessary tasks can still be cultivated.

This is where our focus should lie: not on the external behavior that can come with anxiety, such as whining, foot-dragging, or arguing, but on their overall functioning. How are they managing their responsibilities? Are they attending school, completing assignments, and engaging in social activities? These are the measures of functioning we should be attentive to.

Embracing a Calm and Patient Approach

It’s a challenging journey, often testing the limits of our patience. But by tapping into our reservoirs of calm, we can provide a stable base from which our children can learn to manage their anxiety. Arguing with an anxious child often leads nowhere—except perhaps further into the cycle of avoidance and anxiety.

Instead, we can acknowledge their feelings—frustration, anger, sadness, worry—and still gently encourage progress towards the tasks at hand. This approach does not dismiss their emotions but rather validates them, while also emphasizing the importance of moving forward and functioning within their environment.

Progress Over Perfection

When encouraging a child to face something that scares them, it’s essential to concentrate on the progress they make rather than the peripheral behaviors that accompany their anxiety. If a child is worried about attending a birthday party, for instance, the goal becomes their attendance and participation, not the absence of complaints or nervous behavior before the event.

By focusing on the functioning—the act of showing up and participating—we set a realistic and attainable goal. It’s not about having a child who’s free from anxiety; it’s about having a child who can function with it. That’s the victory we’re aiming for.

In conclusion, it’s important to remember that as much as we wish to ease our children’s anxieties, we should also empower them to function through their worries. If you have questions or would like to discuss strategies for supporting anxious and irritable children, please feel free to reach out. Together, we can focus on building their resilience and their ability to navigate life’s challenges, one step at a time.

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Nurturing Calm: Gentle Parenting for Anxious Children

As parents, we often find ourselves in a delicate dance of nurturing, guiding, and setting boundaries for our children. This dance becomes even more intricate when you have an anxious child or teenager. Gentle parenting approaches can be incredibly effective in these situations, but how do we establish healthy boundaries while still providing the support and understanding these sensitive souls need?

Understanding the Reflective Nature of Anxiety

At the heart of the matter lies an essential truth: our children are mirrors to our own emotional states. The most important thing we can do as parents who respect, love, and are attuned to our anxious children is to take care of our own anxiety about them. Anxiety can be contagious, and as gentle parents who prioritize the relationship, we are especially susceptible to this emotional contagion.

When our child’s anxiety begins to ramp up, it is not uncommon for us, as parents, to follow suit. This isn’t just because of our attunement to our kids; it’s also because anxiety naturally tends to spread from person to person. Therefore, we must become adept at managing our own emotional responses. Learning to calm ourselves becomes crucial not just for our well-being but for the well-being of our children as well.

Cultivating Self-Calm to Foster Stability

Anxiety may be catching, but so is calm. The more we can ground ourselves, the less likely we are to be swept up in the anxiety and reassurance loop. Imagine yourself as the anchor in the stormy seas of your child’s emotions. By maintaining your calm, you provide a stable point of reference for your child. This stability is essential because it offers them a chance to tune into your calm instead of spiraling further into their anxiety. This is, perhaps, the most crucial boundary we can offer our anxious children: not joining them in their anxiety.

It’s not about being a stoic or emotionless figure; it’s about demonstrating that emotions can be managed and that calm is achievable even when anxiety is knocking at the door. This silent lesson in emotional regulation is one of the most powerful tools in a gentle parent’s arsenal.

Setting Boundaries with Love and Consistency

Establishing boundaries doesn’t mean erecting walls. Instead, it’s about setting consistent expectations and maintaining a space where your child knows what’s acceptable and what isn’t, all while feeling supported and loved. Communicating clear boundaries in a gentle but firm manner teaches children self-regulation and respect for themselves and others.

Boundaries are not just for behavior; they’re also for emotions. We can teach our children that while all feelings are valid, not all responses are appropriate. We can guide them towards healthy outlets for their anxiety and help them to understand the importance of self-care and self-soothing techniques.

In the end, gentle parenting is a balance of empathy and structure. It’s about being a compassionate confidant while also being a guide who sets limits. By modeling calm, staying consistent with boundaries, and offering unwavering support, we can help our anxious children navigate their emotions and the world around them with confidence and resilience.

Parenting is no easy task, and it becomes all the more challenging when anxiety enters the equation. However, with patience, understanding, and a commitment to self-regulation, we can provide the nurturing environment that our anxious children need to thrive. Remember, the calm you cultivate within yourself isn’t just for you—it’s a gift to your child, a beacon of peace in the tumultuous journey of growth.

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What about gentle parenting for older kids with anxiety?

This week is the question I got from a listener after they listened to episode 64, which was Are there any downsides to practicing gentle parenting with an anxious child?. Let me read you the whole thing, because it’s long and specific and I’ll be referencing their question in this episode.

Ok. Here it goes:: 

“I have always considered myself to be a gentle parent and that really worked for us when my son was small. He has always been intense and anxious and being there for him made a big difference in his functioning. But now he is ten and I feel like we’re stuck. I don’t know how to gentle parent a big kid. I am exhausted from his meltdowns and I don’t understand why he has them. He has had a full work up from a psychologist who said he is only anxious. But I don’t understand how to help him function better. We’ve tried therapy and he says he is bored and we didn’t get anywhere because he wouldn’t engage. Our worst times are bedtime when he won’t let me leave. I need some time for myself in the evening but I feel so guilty because he gets very upset. When I do try to leave, he just follows me so I end up giving in. I don’t know what to do.”

All right I have to tell you all I’ve heard so many versions of this from parents of little kids of bigger kids and even of much older kids. So if this describes your life, I want to tell you that you are not alone.

I mentioned in a previous episode that I brought my kids up in the gentle parenting community and I can remember at playdates and social events hearing discussions about big kids who won’t or can’t sleep alone and I can remember that some of the advice was to just get a bigger bed. And I had friends who did that. They had mattresses wall to wall, which worked for them. Everyone was ok with it. And I had other friends who also gave in, got a bigger bed or one parent slept with one kid and the other slept alone or with the other kid. I mean all kinds of musical beds. And that’s fine, too. If people are ok with it, then they’re ok with it. 

But lots of people are NOT ok with it for a million reasonable reasons and they feel bad about that. 

Because they’re supposed to be gentle parents, right? And gentle parents make sacrifices. Gentle parents prioritize their child’s well being. Gentle parents are patient and trust their kids to take the lead.

Here’s the problem with this. Gentle parents aren’t just parents, they’re people. And they have a right to their own well being. Part of parenting is helping our children adjust to a shift where they are no longer the center of the family. They are still important of course, they still need to be the priority, but there needs to be a healthy move towards more independence, and towards letting other people in the family have the spotlight now and then. Now this is a negotiation and how it looks will be different in every family. Some kids need more help, some parents have less time, it’s not a DO IT like this is the end of discussion period. It’s an ongoing discussion and collaboration.

You know, one thing that I’m often struck by in working with parents is that most of us get all the way to adulthood and parenthood without getting any formal instruction on child development so we don’t alway know what to expect from our kids. We don’t always know what’s realistic. Sometimes this means our expectations are too high, like expecting a toddler to have an attention span. But sometimes — especially for gentle parents who tend to err on the side of caution — our expectations are too low.

It’s reasonable to expect a 10-year old to be able to fall asleep alone. Now that doesn’t mean you have to do bedtime that way. If reading to your 10-year old and cuddling with them until they fall asleep makes you happy and is an enjoyable part of your day, then great. But if you’re unhappy or frustrated or resentful, you do not have to keep doing it. There is nothing selfish about wanting your 10-year old to go to bed by themselves. It’s fine. It’s ok to want that. It’s ok to build a plan to get that. And in fact, I’d say that if there are these problems at bedtime, there are likely other problems elsewhere and working on anxiety at bedtime may help in those other areas.

Just to be clear, it’s not that the family is doing this that’s the issue. That’s fine. It’s when people are doing things they don’t want to do, that are making people unhappy, that are holding kids back that it becomes a problem.

Gentle parenting should grow with the family. It needs to change as the family’s needs change. Here are somethings I want you to know about anxiety and gentle parenting.

Gentle parenting doesn’t mean that your needs are always on the chopping block. 

I strongly belief that in connected families where parents have worked hard to connect with their kids, that our frustration or impatience is a sign that our child is ready to grow. I think our impatience is a tool, a diagnostic tool, for what needs to happen next. So if you find yourself dreading certain parts of your parenting life, that doesn’t mean your a bad parent or that you have a bad kid, it means it’s time to look at that part of your parenting life and see what needs to change. 

Gentle parenting doesn’t mean doing whatever will make your child happiest. 

Happiest is not always healthiest. And short-term happiness doesn’t always lead to long term growth and contentment. We do not need to treat our kids like they’re made of spun glass. Our children need to know that we see them as resilient and strong and brave and capable. That means that sometimes we’re going to be pushy. We’re going to expect them to stretch. Some children need that gentle pressure to move to the next stage. If you have a child who’s always been a dragging their feet kind of kid, you can expect them to continue to be this way. 

Gentle parenting lends a different context to decisions.

When I talk to gentle parents about getting out of the parenting pitfalls and we decide on a course of action, like expecting the child to lay down alone at night, the parents often start to remember their own feelings of being abandoned and alone as a child and they become understandably fearful that they are asking too much of their child. But I ask them to remember that they are parenting from a different place of understanding, love and support. They are not walking away from their child. There is a plan, there is preparation. The child is informed and supported. There is a whole cohesive process based on the research and then personalized for that child and that family. And that makes all the difference.

If you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed or frustrated, please consider joining the program. You get the asynchronous courses, but you get me, too. I am there to offer you private personalized support through the live office hours in real time or via messaging in the site. 

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Can I parent so well that my child won’t have anxiety?

The question this week is a subtext to so many of the questions that I get. People say what if I had done this, would my child still be anxious? Is it because I ddi that? Is that why my child has anxiety. And the gist of it is: Can I parent so well that my child won’t have anxiety? Is there a perfect way to parent? If I avoid all of the parenting pitfalls will my child never struggle with their anxiety?

Boy being a parent is so hard, isn’t it? Not just the lack of sleep, lack of time to yourself, the drain on your resources. No, the hardest part is how it feels when your child is struggling. Or how it feels when we are struggling as parents, as people.

Let’s just stop for a minute and acknowledge how fragile we can feel as parents, which is so hard since we’re supposed to be the strong ones, right? Didn’t you think you’d have it more together when you became a parent? 

I remember as a kid watching my mom wrap presents and she was so good at it. And I wanted to be that good. I wanted my folds to be razor sharp. I wanted the tape to disappear like hers did. And I thought that it would be like that when I was grown. I thought that was one of the secret things that adults just knew how to do. 

So imagine my surprise to hit eighteen and still wrap lumpy presents. Of course you don’t have to imagine your surprise because I’m sure you have your own stories of running up against your incompetence in some thing, some event where you realized, “rats, I’m the grown up and I don’t know what I’m doing.” And this is especially difficult and even painful when you come upon this within your parenting relationship.

If you struggled as a child, you will revisit that in your relationship with your own child. You may be especially vulnerable when they hit certain ages where you struggled. Or when they arrive at certain events that you found especially difficult. There may be aspects of yourself that you see in them that scare or worry you. Or aspects that you didn’t like in other people and then you see it in your child. 

Parenting is indeed the most triggering thing you can do.

It will be tempting to think that there’s a perfect way of parenting where you can avoid all of that. You might look at other parents who seem to be having an easier time and think they have better answers.

So let me dissuade you of this notion. 

Here are some truths, some facts, about the reality of parenting that I have learned in my 30 plus years of working with parents and in my 26 plus years of being a parent.

The first is that, some kids are harder than others. That’s just a fact. Some parents have it easier not because they’re better parents or have made better choices, but because that’s the luck of the draw. They got a child who is objectively less demanding and/or a child that meshes with them in ways that makes parenting easier. 

The second is that parenting is a job and sometimes jobs aren’t fun. You can love your kids and not like the job of parenting. You can love hanging out with a toddler and struggle with a ten year old or vice versa. Parenting is a job that changes because your child is growing and changing and you are growing and changing and sometimes you will have bad days. IT’s also a job that you learn as you’re doing it which means it’s inevitable that sometimes you’ll have to course correct. I think a big part of effective parenting is being willing to change it up because it’s not working.

The third fact about parenting is that your child is not an accurate representation of what a good job you’re doing. This goes back to that first one about some kids being easier. Sometimes you can do everything quote unquote right and your child will still be a mess. Great parents can and do have children who aren’t always doing great. Sometimes your patience and your wisdom won’t show. People will look and say, “I would never let them get away with that” but the truth is, they don’t have your child and they don’t know. 

The fourth thing is that your child is the protagonist in their own story. They’re starring in their own show. You are the protagonist in your story and starring in your own show. Once you realize that — I mean, really realize that — you’ll understand that even though you feel very consumed with what’s happening to you including your experience of being a parent, you’re a supporting actor in your child’s experience. Their story — their narrative — belongs to them. At the beginning when they’re an infant, we are enmeshed. We are almost the same people. Because babies, especially in that first year, are relying on us so heavily, that it’s easy to get confused. Where do we leave off and where do they begin? Sleep, feeding, even for the tiniest infant whether they’re on their front or their back is all up to us. But as they get older it becomes and more clear that they have their own movie to star in. They’re in their own cinematic universe and we’re just like backstory.

All of this is to say that our child will have their own experience and functioning and preferences and personality and mental health. And we are there to support them.

Which means some of them are going to have anxiety no matter what we do. Anxiety is born and made but it can’t made — that is to say, we can’t force a non-anxious child to be anxious — if they don’t;’ have a brain that is shaped to be anxious.

We can take kids who go through the exact same experiences and one will come out with an anxiety disorder and the other will not. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

What we can do is figure out how to support them. Remember it’s their movie, right? So this is part of the narrative they are going to explore and grow through. How do we help them do that? It’s not about us being good or bad parents, it’s not about us saving them from the trajectory of their lives. It’s about being the best supporting players that we can.

And in our own show, in the story that we are starring in, its’ about learning how to uncover our own strengths, confront our own challenges, grow through OUR narrative in being parents to these particular people.

It’s not about whether or not you can parent so well that your children don’t have anxiety. That’s not the right question. It’s’ about here is what we are doing together. Here is where we stand. How do I help you? How do I become the parent that you need and that I am meant to be? 

How do I take my experience as a child and bring it to this experience as a parent. How do I confront and consolidate my past so that I can get out of the way of your future. How do I learn to heal parts of myself without visiting my own expectations on you.

Big work. This is big works. But it is work we are meant to do. I have faith in you. I have faith in your child. 

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What if I don’t mind being stuck in the parenting pitfalls?

I really like this question because it’s complicated. The person who asked this did not ask it quite so simply. What she asked was this: “I have been listening to your podcast and took your parenting pitfalls quiz, and I scored high. I know that my child has anxiety but I don’t have an issue with helping him. You say on your podcast that you should follow your instincts. I was an anxious little girl and my mother never helped me and I don’t want to do that to my son. If I don’t have a problem with helping and it seems to help Why is this an issue?”

This is a very good question because I do think we need to follow our instincts, but I also think it’s important to stop and interrogate those instincts. What I mean is to make sure that we’re not projecting onto our kids. That is so tough. That’s what I mean about this being deep work. 

.One of the things I learned early on in my career working with kids is that it is important to have a developmental context in parenting decisions. We need to understand what is typical so that our expectations will be realistic. And when I say expectations, I mean like understanding that a two-year-old can’t be left alone in a bath, but also understanding that an eight-year-old needs to be able to separate from their parents. An 8-year old who is struggling to separate from a parent is not bad, they are not behind, they don’t have bad parents — but they do need help. Because it is a reasonable expectation developmentally for a neurotypical child to be able to separate from their parents. And it’s also a reasonable expectation for many neurodiverse kids, too. It can be more complicated for those neurodiverse children — we need to step back and see what else might be going on — but if we start with the belief that our children can separate but may need help, that opens us up to figuring out the help.

This is different from saying, “They SHOULD do it and we need to MAKE them.” Ok, I want to be clear about that. We’re saying, “This is appropriate for them developmentally and we need to figure out how to help them grow into it.”

That also means that we’re thinking of it as a process with steps and a trajectory and many little goals along the way.

When there is reluctance either on a parents’ part or a child’s part, I think it helps to slow it down. Let’s figure out what’s getting in the way and figure out how to address those obstacles, whatever they are.

Going back to the question where the parent isn’t wanting to step out of the parenting pitfalls, I’m seeing the parents’ obstacles but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some for their child, too. Remember parenting is a relationship and it’s shaped by the participants in the relationship. Which means that even if the mom is saying it’s me, it’s all me, I like helping, I want to help, I’m not going to assume it is in fact all hers.

Let me tell you more about reluctant parents in the anxious relationship.

I see lots of reluctant parents. And I think sometimes my job is less about trying to shove people through a program and more about being a step along the way as people figure it out. The fact that this person is listening to my podcast tells me that she is thinking about this. She is thinking about child anxiety and how to help her child. Per her own words, she’s not ready to change yet but she might be getting there. 

Reluctance can happen for lots of reasons, often more than one. But some of the most common I see are:

First: Parents who were themselves anxious as kids and who didn’t feel well supported as kids and so are hypersensitive to their own children’s distress. 

Now I’ve said before that my population of parents tend to be gentle parents, respectful parents, conscious parents — you know, people who are trying to really be there for their kids. And many of us come to this style of parenting because we want to do things differently than our own parents did. We forget that our children are already growing up in a more supportive context and so their distress does not look like our distress. The mom who wrote me for the podcast says her mom didn’t help her. But she does help her son, which means she can lovingly pull back on the help especially if she explains to her son what’s happening. That’s part of the program. You are informing your kids. That doesn’t look the same as a parent just NOT helping. Ok.

The second most common reason is an intense kid. This is a child whose anxiety is big, whose behavior may be even bigger. A child who gets very upset sometimes very disruptive and the parents are trying to figure out how to manage that behavior and often they do this by accommodating the anxiety. That takes care but is not insurmountable, not at all. Having a structured, clear plan and extra support makes a huge difference. But man, I get it. I get why parents are reluctant when they know that pulling back on the pitfalls is going to mean meltdowns

And the third most common reason parents are reluctant is a bit of both. They’re sensitive and intense, their child is sensitive and intense. The anxiety is strong for both the parent and the child. And that is THE most common reason people reach out to me. That’s the parent most likely to contact me about the program is having a bit of both. And yes, it’s difficult and it might take time before that parent is really motivated to change and boy do I get it. 

If they are not ready to do the whole program, they can still benefit by joining it and starting the exploration. I actually have a course in child Anxiety Support that’s all about change and it honors this. It honors that we need to come to change on our own time and in our own way. Understanding that can help us as we move forward. We can learn about anxiety, we can spend our time in the CBT Family part of the course, just kind of browsing the activities there and seeing if any of them interest us or might interest our child. We can read through Strong Kids Strong Families and directly confront that resistance. Talk it out with me, argue with me, play around with how approaching it could look. There’s lots of time to stop and observe what’s happening with new understanding. 

The thing about parenting an anxious child is that it takes a paradigm shift to start addressing the anxiety. Sometimes you can’t do things differently until you have that shift and sometimes you need to have that shift before you can do things differently. It’s not better to do it one way or the other, you just start wherever you can. 

Basically what I’m saying is that growth is not and should not necessarily be a straight line. And here I want to speak directly to that mom who wrote me. And I want to say to her, I’m so glad that you’re listening and that you reached out. I know you care deeply about your son and you’re working hard to provide for him in a way that you were not provided for. That’s impressive. If you ever want some support as you figure out next steps, let me know. 

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What does successful child anxiety treatment look like?

The question, “What does successful child anxiety treatment look like?” is one that that I made up based on different versions I’ve heard from people who are coming to me to ask about my program or to ask why treatment they’ve sought before didn’t work. 

First I want to talk a bit about expectations because I think this gets in the way of successful treatment.

Many parents who talk to me tell me that their child went through counseling and they’re still anxious and so they say counseling didn’t work. 

But anxiety isn’t something you just cure like a rash. Treatment isn’t like a course of antibiotics. It’s never going to clear up like that. That’s because anxious brains are shaped to be anxious and anxiety isn’t necessarily going to go away. For one, it’s part of us and it’s an important part of us. 

Anxiety does a lot of good things. It makes us look both ways before we cross the street. It makes us make sure our nice work outfit is clean the night before a big interview. We need anxiety; some of us are just more sensitive to it than others and That’s fine as long as we’re still running the show.

The problems start when our anxiety gets out of control. That can look like seeing danger everywhere even where there is no danger. That can look like having such strong somatic symptoms such as stomachaches or headaches that we feel incapacitated. Sometimes that can be feeling frozen because our standards for performance are too high. Sometimes unmanaged anxiety can result in depression as we become increasingly discouraged or get down on ourselves for not being able to move forward. 

So what does managed anxiety look like. It looks like seeing danger and being able to say to ourselves, “Oh that feels dangerous but it’s not dangerous.” That can look like having somatic symptoms and recognizing them as anxiety and knowing how to calm those symptoms down. That can look like recognizing our perfectionism as anxiety and knowing how to realistically lower our standards. And it can also look like being kind to ourselves when we’re feeling sad or incapable or discouraged so that we can muddle through anyway.

Successful treatment is going to give us three things:

  • It’s going to give us an understanding of our anxious experience, understanding how it feels in our body — where it shows up — and how it tries to trick us. So we’ll understand how it can warp our point of view and how we see things.
  • It’s going to give us coping tools that work for us, so we’ll need to try different things at different times to help us with the inevitable dread of anxiety, of the fear of stress response, and for coming down after we’ve faced it when we might feel more fragile.
  • And it’s going to give us a sense of ourselves as successful, as people who can face our anxiety and get through it rather than avoid it.

What that treatment is not necessarily going to do is not make us anxious. I mean, it can. Especially for specific phobias or fears. You can overcome a fear of dogs or bridges or public speaking. Absolutely yes, you can do this. But if we have specific phobias or fears, we may just be a bit more prone to other worries, too, and again, that’s part of our make up.

Child anxiety is trickier to treat than adult anxiety for a couple of reasons. The first is that there is the developmental component. We need to shape our education and intervention to the child’s age and, importantly, we will need to revisit the learning as they grow older. Kids need to learn things over and over and over again because they are changing and their understanding of the world changes, too. Knowing how to manage sad feelings when you’re three or five is very different than knowing how to manage the sad feeling that come with a first break up or a major disappointment like not getting into our number one school. Right? So emotional regulation, identifying emotions — that’s ongoing for all of us. We learn over and over again. 

And the second reason that anxiety is harder to treat in kids is attached to that, which is that someone needs to teach that to the child again and again. And the ideal people to do that, is their parents. The way that we teach our children how to manage their anxiety is both direct — in talking to them, sharing the information and observation, learning about the technicalities of anxiety and anxious cognitions so that we can pass that on. But also indirect by setting an example for them by using those tools, recognizing our own cognitive distortions and facing our own anxiety particularly our worries about their worry.

And of course we teach them not to avoid by not helping them avoid, which is the crux of the Child Anxiety Support program.

Successful treatment doesn’t mean our kids won’t struggle or that we won’t struggle with them. Successful treatment is going to mean that you both know more or less how to do it. 

My goals for people who go through my program is that they are realistic with themselves and their kids about what anti anxiety work looks like. That they learn what’s unique about their child so they understand that child’s particular challenges and can shape their support to fit that child. And that they understand what the goals are. They know how to walk themselves through the problem solving of child anxiety and are able to pass those skills — identifying the avoidance, making the plan, celebrating progress — to their child so that when that child is grown up and wanting to avoid, that child is able to take themselves in hand and push through and cope.

That’s successful anxiety treatment.

There are still going to be sleepless nights and new challenges. There will be setbacks and frustrations. That’s ok. Life is like that. It’s a journey, right? 

I mean, think of it this way. Think of something you know how to do that’s not easy. Maybe it’s satisfying, maybe you enjoy it, but it’s not easy. Whether that’s running or knitting or gardening. Even if you’re great at those things, sometimes it’s hard. It’s just built into the doing of the thing that sometimes it’s hard. Anxiety life is like that, too. Sometimes it’s just hard but that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You have to rely on those tools you’ve learned.

So I guess I’d say the only time counseling or a program like mine doesn’t work is if it failed to teach you and to teach your child how to cope. And I’d say that if that’s the case, it’s time tot ry another therapist or another program. Because there are lots of resources out there and it’s important that you find the one that makes sense to you. That makes this information and those tools accessible to you. 

What does successful child anxiety treatment look like? Read More »

How can I tell the difference between an accommodation and a support for my child’s anxiety?

Before I answer this week’s question, I want to define accommodation and support. I think it’s confusing because when we talk about children who have 504 plans or an IEP for school, accommodations are a good thing. And when we’re looking at the research on child anxiety or OCD, accommodations are a negative thing. This is why I use the term Pitfalls as in parenting pitfalls instead of accommodations when I talk about them on my podcast and in my program. 

For the purposes of this particular episode, I’m going to use accommodation because that’s what the person who asked the question used and again, because that’s what the literature uses. All right? So just to be crystal clear, we are NOT talking about the accommodations your child might have in their 504 or IEP program. 

I am going to use the definition offered in the 2014 study Parental Accommodation of Child Anxiety and Related Symptoms from the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, which is “changes in parents’ behavior in attempts to prevent or reduce child distress.” That sums it up. It’s parent behavior (as an aside, siblings and grandparents and other caregivers might get pulled in) but it’s parent behavior and it’s meant to prevent or reduce distress for the anxious child.

I want you to really focus in on the “prevent or reduce” part of the definition. Accommodations are all about AVOIDANCE. They’re about avoiding the feelings that come with being anxious, that feeling of distress.

Common accommodations include:

–reassuring children repeatedly, trying to help them feel better about their worries

–intervening on a child’s behalf with others such as ordering at a restaurant, speaking for them when they are questioned

–Minimizing separation such as staying with them at night (and I’ve addressed co-sleeping several times on this podcast if you want to talk more about that, I encourage you to look at previous episodes), picking them up from school when they’re upset, or even showering with the door open because they get upset if they can’t see you

You can see that these are about helping a child NOT feel worried. And it’s natural that we would want to do this. You know why a baby’s cries are so upsetting right? Because we are meant to respond and stop it. Same with whining. We have a primal urge to prevent tears and upset in our kids. Very often we are responding before we’ve even thought about it. Our child is upset, and we immediately do what we can to minimize the upset.

Accommodations can work for non-anxious children. A child says, “what if my teacher gets mad” and we say, “Oh they’re not gonna be mad” and a non-anxious child says, Great! And moves on. An anxious child needs more reassurance. They get hooked on it because they are unable to tolerate the distress of their anxiety.

We all experience an anxiety but a child with an anxiety issue, feels it more often, feels it more deeply, and finds it more distressing. Which is to say, they have good reason to want to avoid their anxiety. They are not weaker than other kids, they are not unreasonable — they are truly feeling that anxiety more intensely. It’s a bigger deal for them. And avoidance is understandable. That said, it does not help.

Accommodations allow them to avoid and avoidance does not help.

Now. Supports. Supports help them tolerate. They encourage their ability to stick with the thing that scares or worries them. They help them acclimate to their feelings of distress so they are able to increase their distress tolerance.

All right? So that’s the major difference and it’s easy to remember: Accommodations allow avoidance, Supports Help them Stick with it. See? Alliteration for the win!

Ok, so we’re all on the same page here and we understand what we’re talking about but now things are going to get tricky because a support can become an accommodation or rather we may need to accommodate a bit as we move to support. 

What I mean is, on our way to decrease accommodations and increase supports, we may need to move down the accommodation scale. 

Let me give you an example. Let’s say we have a child who is afraid of dogs and so they won’t go in the backyard because the next door neighbors have a beagles who barks its head off whenever someone goes outside. A support to help them face their fears might be that a parent goes out with them. That helps them face the barking dog.

After awhile, the presence of a parent ceases to be a support and becomes an accommodation because as they acclimate to the barking dog, they need to face their anxiety about doing it alone. 

When we’re planning to reduce accommodations and increase supports, we use a scale that helps us map levels of anxiety and we work to move the child from the bottom of the scale, where there is the lease anxiety, towards the top where there is more anxiety.

We do this in a systematic way, step by step so that we’re not overwhelming the child but also not overwhelming ourselves. This is especially important if we have kids who demonstrate their anxiety with meltdowns or other big behaviors. 

If you are curious if your supports look more like accommodations, I encourage you to take my Parenting Pitfalls quiz, which is based on the Family Accommodations Scale assessment. Have questions? Let me know!

How can I tell the difference between an accommodation and a support for my child’s anxiety? Read More »

Does mindfulness help child anxiety?

Mindfulness is a big buzz word these days especially around anxiety and I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it here so thank you to the listener who sent this question my way. They asked not only “does mindfulness help child anxiety” they also asked, “And if so, how?” 

All right, first let’s define mindfulness and for this I’m going to head to the Oxford Language dictionary and share the second definition, which describes mindfulness as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”

I’d say that’s pretty dang accurate so that’s the definition we’re going to go ahead and use for this episode. 

Now let’s go back to the question. Does that help child anxiety? Does achieving a mental state by focusing one’s awareness not etheh present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations” help child anxiety?

Well, that depends on how you’re going to define help.

Lots of people when they first begin working on child anxiety are focusing on stopping the anxiety. They call me and say, “My child is anxious and I’d like to help them learn how not to be anxious.” Or they say, “I want them to learn how to cope” but as we dig into their situation it’s clear that the proof of coping will be the eradication of anxiety.

I get that. That’s the way I thought about anxiety, too, before I had my clinical training. That’s why we say things to our kids like, “You don’t have to be nervous” or “there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

We see tears or tantrums or meltdowns and we think, “Oh gosh, this is failing. My child is feeling their anxiety and something has to change.”

Mindfulness doesn’t mean not feeling. It’s right there in the definition. It means feeling and being aware of the feeling. It means noticing thoughts. It means noticing that your stomach hurts with worry. It means noticing that and accepting that, not necessarily fighting it.

When I say that, I’m curious. What’s your reaction? When I say, your child is just going to have to sit with that tummy ache. Or just sit with that feeling of wanting to run away. Or just sit with their anger that you’re not helping them. I imagine you’re feeling a lot of yuck. Noticing that yuck, noticing that perhaps you feel resistance to allowing your child to suffer, that’s mindfulness.

I think paying attention to the similarities of our experience with our child’s experience is incredibly helpful when it comes to child anxiety. So when I talk about mindfulness and child anxiety, first I want the parents to explore their anxiety. I want them to work on their own mindfulness skills because through that they will be able to help their child. 

Let’s say our child is anxious about a new babysitter. You have plans to go out to dinner with your partner and you know you’ll be back kinda late. There’s a new baby sitter, you know them and you trust them — let’s say they’re your neighbor’s niece who is getting her degree in early childhood education. You trust your neighbor, you’ve talked to this young woman on the phone and you really like her, but you haven’t met her yet and neither has your child. You also know your child doesn’t like anyone else around at bedtime so you’re nervous. 

You want to go out, you have special tickets to a big thing, a big show that you’ve been looking forward to. You’re excited to put on grown up clothes and eat at a grown up restaurant and see this show but you’re nervous. 

You’re nervous that your child won’t talk to the babysitter. You’re nervous that they’ll meltdown when you try to leave. You’re nervous that the babysitter won’t be able to build any kind of rapport. You’re nervous that your child will be constantly texting you during dinner and during the show and if you turn your phone off or on airplane mode during the performance that you’ll miss an emergency call. 

So you’re just kind of a mess about it.

Your mess about it mirrors your child’s mess about it. Your worry about your child’s worry is a helpful lens into what’s happening for your child. 

If you can take care of your worry, you will be helping your child to find a way out of their worry.

Let’s bring mindfulness into it.

Mindfulness doesn’t mean that you ignore your worry or distract yourself away from it. It means you sit and you notice it. You don’t do anything else. You don’t try to talk yourself out of it or try to manage it, you just notice it. 

Noticing helps you step outside of yourself. You can try narrating what you observe, doing this literally can really help. 

That might sound like saying out loud to yourself, “Wow, when I think about walking out the door, I can feel my breath get more shallow. I think my heart rate goes up. I catch myself trying to talk myself out of going or into going. I feel like my mind races.”

You could journal your way through it. 

You could talk it out with someone who is willing to listen and not try to solve things. 

In mindfulness, you allow yourself to be in two places at once. You have the experience and you NOTICE you’re having the experience.

You might feel yourself drawn to look back — like at the last time you tried to go out. Or you might feel yourself drawn to look forward — projecting into how the night might go. And when you notice that, you can bring yourself back.

You can say, “Ok, I’m having all of these feelings. I notice all of these sensations in my body AND I notice the feeling of the sofa cushion I’m sitting on, the rough fabric of my couch. I notice that I can hear the wind chimes outside or the traffic. I am aware that the light in this room dims when the sun goes behind a cloud.”

That brings us back to the present. We notice the pull away, and we notice that things here that bring us back.

So how does mindfulness help? It helps by letting us sit with the feelings until they pass. 

There are different ways to be mindful. IT doesn’t have to be sitting quietly; it can be walking and tuning into the walking. 

You know how some people think more clearly when they listen to background music? It’s the same kind of thing. You’re not doing mindfulness wrong if you do it differently than someone else. The goal is to be with feelings. 

Movement can help us be in two places at once. It can help us look at our experience more objectively. 

For some kids, especially anxious kids, it might be easier to be with a feeling when they’re moving. I used movement a lot in my clinical work with children. Asking them to sit with their feeling might be overwhelming but we could pace around my playroom or play toss or they could even cartwheel and then come back to whatever they were feeling.

Again, there’s no wrong way to learn how to engage with our feelings. Remember anxiety is about avoidance and the avoidance is focused on helping us NOT feel uncomfortable. But we do need to feel uncomfortable to overcome our anxiety and mindfulness is a tool to do this. It gives us the opportunity to step into being anxious, being uncomfortable and not running from those anxious, uncomfortable feelings. It’s fine to dip in and dip out. It’s fine to build up our tolerance a little bit at a time. Mindfulness does not have goal posts. It’s a practice, which means we practice it. 

By the way, if you’d like some help in bringing mindfulness to your day to day, you can head to my site and take the Parenting Pitfalls quiz. AT the end you’ll have the opportunity to sign up for my free 7-day Get Yourself Grounded email course. Just go to Child Anxiety

Does mindfulness help child anxiety? Read More »

What can I do when I feel like I’ve failed my anxious child?

You know, when I started this podcast I figured I’d do it for one year — 52 episodes and that would be it. But this is Episode 54 so I’ve officially gone past my goal and the questions that are coming in are more complex. Like this one. And of course the actual question has a lot more backstory, which I won’t share given that it is very personal, and I’ve tried to distill it into this one simple but complex question, which is What can I do when I feel like I’ve failed my anxious child.

Oh listener who posted this and who did not leave their email so I couldn’t respond personally, I hope you are listening now. 

I’m sorry that you’re struggling right now and that you are hurting. Being a parent can be so painful especially when we are watching our children have a hard time. AS writer Sarah Payne Stuart: said, You’re only as happy as your least happy child. 

I’m going to try to address this very big, very important topic in this extremely short podcast and I hope that I’m able to do it enough justice that you will feel comforted and more confident at the end of it.

First off, you have not failed your anxious child. The relationship between parent and child is one that is forever changing. It changes as they change, as we change, as life changes. And sometimes we are a step or so behind the changes that need to come.

I learned this for the first time when my son, my oldest child who is now 26, was two. This is when he entered what I call the bent banana stage. You know the one, the one where your toddler asks for a banana dn if you give to them and they fall on the floor wailing because the banana is the wrong shape or size or you started peeling it for them or you didn’t start peeling it for them. When my son hit that age I was totally unprepared and our days bounced from tantrum to tantrum. This beautiful relationship I’d built with him came apart like wet tissue paper. The worst day was when he had a meltdown in public and another person intervened and told me I was handling it wrong. That’s a whole story about a bagel and one day if we ever met in person, ask me and I’ll tell you the whole sordid tale .But as I left that shop in tears, totally ashamed, I felt like a terrible mother and I felt like a fraud because I’d been working with kids for about a decade and yet here I was undone by my toddler. I can close my eyes and put myself right back there and remember exactly how it felt to carry my screaming child to the car while this woman watched, my face hot with guilt and anger and grief and fear thinking, I’ve broken my kid. 

Then my friend called, my friend with a child exactly one month older than my son, and said, “What in the heck is going on, my daughter has lost her mind.” And when we compared notes I realized, oh, he’s just 2 now and he needs a different kind of parenting than I’d been offering. I was still parenting him like a baby and he was letting me know that he was ready to be parented like a toddler. I had to learn a whole new set of skills.

This was a lesson I learned over and over again and every time we hit a snag — whether it was with my son or later with my daughter — and I started having that overwhelming feeling of frustration and guilt and failure I’d stop and say, “Wait, maybe it just means something needs to change.”

So I will ask you dear parent, who is feeling like a failure, I think it’s far more likely that you’re NOT a failure, that you’re a good parent in a relationship that needs to change. The pain and frustration you have, the struggle between you, is a sign that your child is demanding something different from you and you can do something about that. You have it within your power to go and figure out what to do next.

Do you get that reframe?

So many of the parents I talk to who are committed to parenting differently than they were parented — and there are a lot of us in the respectful parenting, gentle parenting, attachment parenting, conscious parenting, etc. community — Are super afraid of getting it wrong. In fact, so afraid that we might be causing harm that we are all too ready to beat ourselves up when we are unhappy or when our child is having a difficult time. 

Parenting guilt goes with the territory, I don’t know any parent who’s going to feel like they’re 100% nailing this parenting gig all of the time. And when we slip and yell or read a parenting book that highlights our mistakes or see another parent handling a challenge with grace that we screwed up, we’re probably going to feel guilt.

But guilt is only useful when it helps drive change. Guilt that just makes us feel bad about ourselves is useless at best and harmful at worst. It’s ok to say, “all right, guilt, I’m going to do things differently so you can stand down now.” It’s ok to say, “I regret those mistakes but I’m going to forgive myself and honor my intention to do better next time.”

And then we can start putting the supports in place that will allow us to do that. That’s what I mean about finding the motivation to drive change.

A lot of parents I talk to feel guilty not just because of what they’ve done or haven’t done but because of how they feel. They feel guilty for not enjoying their child or not enjoying parenthood and let me just say, that you can love your children very very very much, you can be willing to lay down your life for them AND you can also not enjoy them because kids aren’t always enjoyable.

 you can also not always enjoy parenting because the work of parenting — the day to day work of it — is not always enjoyable.

Parenting anxious kids is really hard. It’s hard to worry so much about them, it’s hard to feel derailed by them. It’s hard to have kids who demand so much. It’s hard to feel like you’re constantly failing. It’s hard to get whined at. It’s hard to deal with meltdowns. I mean, it’s not fun. It’s perfectly ok to want to run away from home sometimes.

I tell parents this all of the time — if you’ve worked with me before you’ve probably heard me say it — but there’s a whole genre of novels about moms who leave their families and there’s a reason for that, which is many of us have days when we’d like to run away from home. It’s ok to fantasize about running away and joining a circus instead of being a parent. Sometimes fantasizing about it is just the break you need to help you come back and face your tantruming child and your overbooked calendar and your messy kitchen and your endless to-do list once again.

I bring all of this up because sometimes the guilt about failing (I’m using air quotes here) is covering up a guilt we have about wishing we didn’t have these demands on us at all. And sometimes all of that guilt — all of that messy shame and worry and regret and fear — makes it really hard to know what to do next.

I meet a lot of parents who are overcompensating — like really getting entrenched in the parenting pitfalls — because they aren’t liking their kids very much and they feel bad about it.

So for example, a parent who goes out of their way to be gracious when their child is whining and dragging at them because they feel guilty for wanting to lose it. And I tell those parents, it’s ok to be human in the relationship. You don’t always have to be an instagram worthy parenting whisperer with your kids. If the relationship between you and your child is generally healthy, is generally loving, is generally strong then there is room for your imperfection.

There is room to get it wrong, realize it, and course correct.

There is room for you to go back and say, “I didn’t know and now I do and so I’m going to do it different from here on out.”

Getting it wrong, getting stuck in parenting pitfalls, feeling unhappy —  is a sign NOT that you’re a bad parent or that you have a bad kid or that you’ve been doing a bad job, the sign is that something needs to change.

That’s it. 

Just that something needs to change. And how else are you going to know that something needs to change except by becoming dissatisfied about the way things are right now. In other words, being unhappy in your parenting relationship or with your child is healthy and appropriate and NOT a sign of failure. 

When I am working with parents, I start with the assumption that they are doing a good job. Because most parents are. And when I start with that assumption, I am looking for confirmation so I’m making a point of noticing that parents’ strengths and skills. Those are the things we want to tap into as we make change. I don’t start with what they’re doing quote unquote wrong because I don’t think in terms of wrong. I think in terms of, What’s working and what’s NOT working.

This is why I say that your parenting isn’t the problem; it’s the solution.

IF I went back in time to meet myself as the unhappy mother of an unhappy 2-year old, I wouldn’t say, “Wow, what a screw up. What a bad mom. What a mess!!” I’d say, “Oh wow, there’s a mom tuned in enough to know that this isn’t working and just needs some help in figuring out what to do next.” 

I’d look at the good relationship we had up until that developmental turning point and know that the relationship was demanding change. My son was one of those kids who hit every developmental milestone like the Wile E Coyote running into a wall. Just slammed into it and every time I’d forget and think oh my gosh, I’m failing. I think I didn’t figure it out until he was about 10. I’m hoping you get to figure it out sooner. That change is hard, that change sometimes — well often, requires some measure if discomfort. It requires us to be uncomfortable enough to change. 

So my dear listener who posted this question to me and anyone else who is feeling this way, you have NOT failed your anxious child. You are realizing that what you’re doing isn’t working and how wonderful that you’ve realized this because now you can look for supports and information to help you create change. That doesn’t mean your struggle is over but it does mean that you have begun the journey to better functioning and understanding. 

True failure would be in denying your unhappiness or denying your child’s struggle and continuing to do the things that are not working. It would be continuing to treat a toddler like a baby when they are begging for help in growing up. 

We growing parents, instead of seeing ourselves as doing things wrong, I wish we could reframe this as the inevitable course of changing parenthood. What you did and what you do works until it doesn’t and then you might be unhappy and your child might be unhappy. But you can change things. Let me know if I can help. 

What can I do when I feel like I’ve failed my anxious child? Read More »

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