anxious teen

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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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 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. 

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Does social media cause teen anxiety?

The answer to this one is easy. Yes! Yes, social media can cause teen anxiety and adult anxiety, too, which I’m sure you already know personally. Ok I’ve answered that question but how helpful is my answer? Not very so let’s talk instead about what you, as a parent, are supposed to do about it.

It’d be easy to say, “Just don’t let your child have social media” but I don’t think that’s entirely realistic and I don’t think it gives your child the tools they’ll need to exist in a world where social media is a thing. Even if we choose to opt out of social media, depending on what your child ends up doing, they may need to have it.

An example of this would be professional networking. They might need to have LinkedIn. And socializing. I know that for my generation, there is an expectation that you’ll be on Facebook and that’s where some of my social groups do all of their event planning. If you’re not on FB, you’re going to miss the potluck invite.

And I’m sure there are ways social media will continue to embed itself in our lives that I can’t even imagine because I’m as, the kids say, an old and as an old my imagination is limited.

Also I can tell you now, as a therapist who has works with lots of teens, many of them who are not allowed to have social media have it anyway. They may download it to their phones and delete it so that they can have it sometimes but get rid of it before you catch them. They may create accounts on friends’ phones (I’ve known a lot of teens who do this) or they may find ways to access accounts on their Chromebooks or laptops. Which is to say, very often taking a zero tolerance policy is just going to push your teen to be secretive when what they’re really going to need is your help and guidance.

Besides even if your child doesn’t have social media, absolutely 100% agrees with you about it and it’s accessing it behind your back, the same isn’t true of their friends. According to the Common Sense Census put out by Northwestern University’s Center on Media and Human Development in 2016 (I will link to this PDF report in the show notes) 80% of teens have their own social media account and 23% of tweens — that’s kids 8 to 12 — have one. I’d be curious how those numbers changed over covid because I bet they went up. I know a whole bunch of little kids I know got that Facebook kid messenger during lockdown. Also this doesn’t take into account the risk of TikTok. 

This means your child may not have accounts but is likely to see things on friends’ phones or tablets.

This is is all to say that instead of doing a hard core, “No social media for you!” And thinking that’s solved our problems, we need to recognize that social media is a part of our kids’ lives whether we like it or not and help them build literacy around it.

This is what we know, social media can be fun, it can be educational and it can support relationships but it can also be harmful. It’s meant to be addictive. TikTok for example, is well known for serving its viewers exactly what they want to see when they want to see it. The algorithm is set up to keep you on there; it’s notoriously sticky that way. There are some studies that show the more attached we are to our screens, the more trouble we have being mindful. That is being present in the moment. When we struggle with even short experiences of boredom — for example, if we struggle to wait in line or wait for the kettle to boil without looking at our phones — we are training our brains to need constant new stimulation. 

To tie this back to anxiety, anxiety requires being able to sit with discomfort. Boredom is a form of discomfort. If we’re always avoiding boredom, then we’re not practicing that distress tolerance.

Kids need to know this and need to know how it works. But we can’t expect them to make great decisions about that. Heck, we struggle to make good decisions and our brains are fully developed. So we need to educate them but we also need to do things to protect them.

That can mean learning how to use the parental controls on our phones or on our home networks. It can mean blocking certain sites or social media. It can mean setting up screen limits. And these things take ongoing attention because our phone set ups change, because our kids get older and need different access, and also because our teens tend to be more tech savvy than we are. I know lots of teens who make it a sport to figure out how to undo their family or school internet limits and they’re awfully good at going on Reddit to figure out work arounds. Which is again, why we can’t just count on external controls. They are tools but we do need to keep talking.

Because we want to grow children who have the skills to navigate the realities of social media, we should be talking to them about how it makes them feel. They need to notice when going on Instagram brings up their fear of missing out or worries of not being included. They need to understand how filters work and how people curate their lives and how knowing that doesn’t always help us feel better looking at other people’s projected perfection.

We need to teach them practical things like how to block certain hashtags, how to handle it when they inevitably see something upsetting. We need to talk to them about ambivalence, which is when we know that looking at some accounts is. Upsetting and yet we want to look at them anyway. I’ve talked to so many kids who feel guilty for wanting to look at social media that they know is not good for them, particularly around disordered eating, for example. That’s a particular danger of social media. 

One of the other concerns for children and teens who are ons social media a lot is that they tend to be driven by emotional-focused coping, which is, “I need to feel better” instead of problem-solving focused coping, which is, “I need to address the problem that’s causing me trouble.” A simplification of this, would be someone who is worried about an exam and goes on TikTok to forget about it versus someone who is worried about an exam so makes time to study.

This is a special concern for our anxious kids. Kids who are anxious are already trying to manage their anxious feelings by avoiding the things that make them anxious.Social media can exacerbate this tendency.

And social media encourages this by prioritizing the accounts of influencers who tell us that if we follow their lead that we will feel better. 

This is why your children need you to be involved. I know it’s exhausting. Please remember there is not a one right way to handle this. We need to hold social media loosely. We need to stay on top of what our kids are using, keep the conversation open, do our research about what is good about the accounts and what is not. We need to educate our children to be good media consumers. We need to share with them what the research says and not condemn them for quote “giving in” to social media’s siren call. 

It is not immoral to like social media but lots of kids — like lots of adults — feel guilty about it. That’s not helpful. It’s fine to like social media but we need to remember that it belongs to us and we do not belong to it.

We should talk to them about not using their phones in the evening or at night but we might also need to help them with this by not allowing them to have their phones in their room or turning them off after a certain time and using screen time limits. 

I think for some children, especially kids who are interested in social justice, explaining how social media makes money off our free labor whether that’s making media or viewing it, might help them to get annoyed enough to limit their viewing. 

I mean it’s an ongoing conversation.

Back to those kids using TikTok to avoid their feelings, we can also do our part by continuing to challenge the Parenting Pitfalls and helping our teens connect what they learn in those contexts — whether that’s pulling back on reassurance or not helping them to avoid — so that they can figure out how to apply that in other areas of their lives, including social media.

Well that’s a lot. That’s a big topic and impossible to do justice in such a short podcast but I do hope that you’ll go check out the Commonsense Media report because that also shares information about managing social media and our kids and I think you’ll find it helpful.

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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 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.

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

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.

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

    How do I co-parent an anxious child with someone who causes more problems with the anxiety?

    The particular question I received that inspired this episode is much longer and very personal so I’m not going to read the whole thing but I will share that the listener says that the relationship between mom and dad has lots of conflict, not just about anxiety but about other parenting choices and the listener is wondering, and here I WILL quote directly:

    “Do we just carry on with how we handle her anxiety in our care despite being different? How does an anxious child cope with split homes? How do we ensure the anxious child doesn’t play the parents off against each other (which currently happens). We are lost and her anxiety is getting worse.”

    There is a lot happening here so I want to slow down and first of all address the issue of different parents doing things differently. The fact is that we have no control over how things happen in our children’s other household. In a perfect world we’d be able to talk to our children’s co-parent and come to general respectful understanding if not agreement. But we don’t live in a perfect world so the answer to the first question, “Do we just carry on with how we handle things” is yes. You carry on that way. You do the best you can, you parent in the way you feel is most helpful and healthy for your child, period.

    The second question the listener asks, is how does an anxious child cope with split homes. Well, that depends on the child and that depends on the homes. Divorced families, in my opinion as a child of divorce and as someone who has worked with lots of divorced families, aren’t automatically less healthy than intact families. My take is that happy, healthy parents are good for raising happy, healthy kids and for many families that means not parenting together. The issue that I’m seeing in this question is not that the parents are apart physically, it’s that they are so far apart philosophically and aren’t able to be supportive of each other and yes, that can be an issue for any kid but especially for anxious kids.

    I have worked with many families who don’t live together and who may not always operate on the same wavelength but if they are respectful of each other’s differences and don’t bad mouth each other I don’t think that has to be a problem. Maybe mom eats meat and dad runs a vegan household but it’s fine because the kids know that the different houses just do things differently. 

    Now both parents might have strong feelings about the way they choose to eat, which is fine. People should live out their values. And it doesn’t have to be a problem if they are respectful of each other’s right to make their own decisions in their own homes. 

    In a case like that, kids know what to expect. They know they can have pepperoni on their pizza at mom’s and that at dad’s they’ll top their pizza with soy cheese and it’s fine. They know they can talk about the different pizzas in their different homes and nobody will get upset. That shows consistency and care and respect, which matters so much and I’d argue that those kids — with parents who are so far apart in their thinking but so open and welcoming to their child’s other families way of doing things — are lucky. Because they know that if they do things differently, too, they won’t lose the love and respect of their parents. 

    They will grow up to make their own decisions and to understand that there’s lots of ways to do things.

    Likewise when it comes to trying to co-parent an anxious child, if one parent, for example, let’s call them Jill signs up for my program and recognizes that they need to create exposures for their anxious child and the other parent, let’s call them Bill is unwilling to do this, this may slow things down but it doesn’t need to halt things altogether. Exposure at least part of the time is better than never having exposures ever. 

    Now it may be hard on Jill. Jill may feel like she always has to be the so-called bad guy since she’s the one always pushing her child to confront their anxiety and Bill might feel like Jill is being too hard on their child but as long as they don’t interfere with each other, the child is going to learn that the different houses do things differently.

    The problem comes if Jill starts telling the child, “Your father isn’t doing you any favors” or if Bill starts telling them, “Your mom is being too mean to you.” Or if they start fighting with each other about it. Or, and unfortunately this happens way too often, start trying to pull in allies whether that be the child themselves or other people like teachers, siblings, and friends. 

    For example, when I was doing clinical work with kids, I’d have parents in my office trying to get me to go to court with them against the other parent. There’s a million reasons why this is not ok — starting with if you hire a therapist for your child it is unethical for that therapist to make custody recommendations — and also again, what happens in the other house hold barring outright neglect or abuse, belongs to that other parent.

    And if there are behaviors or parenting choices that are a concern, if one parent IS concerned about neglect or abuse then it’s even more important that their household remains as healthy and supportive as possible.

    I’m not so naive as to think that if you are concerned about your child’s safety at their other parents house that it’s as easy as going to court or getting a guardian ad litem or calling child protective services to make things change. I know that. And I appreciate how incredibly painful and upsetting that is. That discussion is way beyond the scope of this podcast. But I do want to assure you that your focus on creating a safe home regardless of what the other parent does or does not do, will make a difference. 

    All you can control is how things operate in your house so your focus should be on figuring out how to create the most supportive, loving, and healthy environment you can. And in the case of anxiety, that should include learning how to parent an anxious child so you don’t get stuck in the parenting pitfalls.

    Your consistency, your care, your safety will help your child feel safe, too. Remember that connection and healthy relationships help to mitigate harm. There is lots we can’t [protect our children from and frustratingly sometimes that includes their other parent.

    Back to the original post. There’s something else they said that I want to talk about, which is, “How do we ensure the anxious child doesn’t play the parents off against each other“

    Well, we can’t ensure that; we can only focus on how we respond when this happens. I don’t have details here with this family so I’m going to make some guesses and I apologize in an advance to the original poster if I’m missing the mark. 

    When we are trying to co-parent an anxious child, we can expect that child to play one parent off another. This is super common whether or not families are living together, it might be helpful to see this through the lens of avoidance. Remember anxiety is about avoidance. When the child plays parents off each other, what are they trying to avoid? when you see the behavior through that lens, does it make it easier to understand? 

    Can you unhook any feelings you have about the other parent from this situation? What I mean is,

    If you feel defensive or put on the defensive, can you recognize that that dynamic is about the relationship you have with their other parent. If you feel comfortable about how you are handling your child’s anxiety, if you feel confident in your choices, then can you let the other parents’ judgment or anger go? If your child says, “My other parent never makes me do that” can you simply say, “Yes, they do things differently than I do.”

    If the other parent tries to get involved and change the way you’re doing things, well, that’s about your relationship with the other parent. Remember, you do not need to convince them. It’s ok that you are doing things the way that you’re doing them.

    Sometimes in my clinical work with children of divorce, it would feel like the parents were so focused on what was happening in the other household, were understandably so frustrated or angry or sad, that sometimes they were missing the opportunity to parent well in their own home and to celebrate and feel good about their own good parenting.

    I’m not blaming here, I’m saying that trying to co-parent with someone who is not supportive of you, who is making choices that appear harmful to the kids, doesn’t feel overwhelming. 

    But ultimately we need to figure out how to let it go. I’m not saying ignore it. I’m not saying pretend like it’s not happening. I’m saying to recognize that we can only control what we can control. If our child’s other parent is a jerk, well, that sucks but some kids have parents who are jerks. It’s not fair, it’s really painful, but for those kids, what they need is at least one parent who is not a jerk. One parent who is going to keep doing the very best they can, who wills tay focused on what they CAN control, which is their own healthy household, and who will create consistency and safety where they can.

    If this means getting your own therapy, finding your own social supports, I hope you will do that. As an aside, I will add that this is why the Child Anxiety Support program is built on Mighty Networks, which has a community component to the learning. We know that divorced parents — in fact all parents — do better when they aren’t isolated and when they find a community who will help them deal with the very real, very difficult emotions that come with co-parenting in conflict. And that’s even more true when we’re trying to co-parent an anxious child.

    I wish I had better answers to this but I hope that this is validating and that it’s helpful to know that whatever you can do for your anxious child, will make a difference.

    How do I co-parent an anxious child with someone who causes more problems with the anxiety? Read More »

    Am I being protective or over protective?

    This week’s question came from a parent who is trying to figure out how to support their anxious child and reached out to me with a more complex and personal version of the question, “am I being protective or over protective when I try to support my anxious child.”

    Here’s the thing, one family’s protective is another family’s over protective because we can’t take a particular behavior out of the context of a particular family and say, “That is always right” or “that is always wrong.” 

    Anxious children come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and developmental needs. Families, too, have different expectations and values. In one family, choosing to homeschool due to a child’s anxiety is overprotection and in another family it’s a great idea. So how do we know the difference for ourselves? Or at least how can we start figuring it out? 

    Ok first we have to back up and remember what this whole parenting gig is all about and that’s raising humans to grow up and live their own best lives, right? That’s parenting in a nutshell. And we know, from just looking around us, that there are a whole lot of versions of best lives out there. So part of this parenting and growing up is figuring that out — what version? What are our children’s strengths that we can play to? What are their challenges that we can help them confront and overcome or learn to work with them? 

    As they grow, we continuously reassess. Our children change, our values as a family sometimes change, and certainly circumstances can change. Any of that means we go back to the drawing board and say, “Is this still working? Are we still moving forward? Is my child still making progress however that’s meant to look?”

    Back to protections, protect should protect; not limit. Overprotections limit. Overprotections keep kids stagnant and stuck whileProtections keep them safe and encourage growth. 

    A general example would be making your typically developing preschooler hold your hand when you cross the street is protection. Making your typically developing 12-year old hold your hand when you cross the street is overprotection. That’s easy, right? That’s very clear. We know what to expect from preschoolers and we know what to expect from 12-year olds and we understand the mechanics of crossing the street.

    Things get trickier when we’re talking about expectations that are more complicated or nuanced such as managing social media, or navigating romantic relationships, or figuring out how to deal with anxiety.

    In cases like that, where it feels more complicated, I encourage you to step back and ask yourself these questions:

    • What are my goals for my child around this topic? 
    • What skills around this topic will they need when they’re adults? 
    • How can I help them to begin to build those skills now in ways that are developmentally appropriate?

    If what we’re doing is not building those the skills that we know they need, then it might be overprotection. Remember, protections protect but leave room for skill building and over protection limits, it doesn’t find ways to give kids the opportunity to learn the skills they will need as adults.

    This is so hard when we’ve got anxious kids who don’t want to learn those skills. Who are perfectly happy with you managing things for them. Again, step back and think about your child as an adult. Think about what they need now to get them there, to adulthood with the skills that they need whether they like it or not.

    This doesn’t mean that you let an 8-year old fend for themselves when they’re scared anymore then you’d let a preschooler cross a busy street without teaching them how traffic works. But it does mean that at a certain point you’re going to ask them to do the things they need to do, knowing that you’ve given them the support and information that will allow them to do it.

    For example, if you’ve got a 12 year old who reasonably knows how to cross the street but doesn’t want to, then you might insist. You might say something like, “I don’t have time to walk you to the ice cream shop to get you that milkshake so if you want to get a milkshake you’ll need to get there on your own.” And we’d say that with the full confidence that we’ve given them the knowledge and skills to accomplish that safely. 

    They might be scared. They might insist they don’t know how to do it. But a milkshake might be just the incentive they need to find out they can.

    When it comes to anxiety, we might need help drilling down to the small steps and small skills they need. We might need help understanding what’s protective and what’s over protective because some anxious kids are pretty dramatic. I don’t mean this in a dismissive way at all. I mean that their fight, flight or freeze is so big or so consuming that it’s hard for us to get perspective and know whether or not what we’re asking of them is reasonable. That’s all part of the planning and work of supporting and raising anxious kids.

    If you are feeling stuck or your child is feeling stuck, know that this is part of the anxiety process. Feeling stuck just comes with the territory and usually means we need to stop and reassess what we’re doing and whether or not we’re off track in helping our child acquire those skills they’re going to need. If you need help with that. Let me know. 

    Am I being protective or over protective? Read More »

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