child behavior

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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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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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!

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What derails child anxiety treatment?

This week’s question comes out of several different versions of people who contact me and say they’ve tried to get their child help and it isn’t working or it hasn’t worked and they’re asking me what to do next. So I’m squishing all of these questions together into one to talk about the things that get in the way of child anxiety treatment. 

There are five things we’re going to talk about. OK? Are you ready? Here they are: The five things that get in the way of child anxiety treatment are:

  • Information
  • Time
  • Trust
  • Fear
  • And
  • Bandwidth

Let’s go through these one by one.

The first is information or lack thereof. And that speaks to the misunderstanding that the child should be the target of anxiety treatment. There are lots of studies about child anxiety because it is one of the most common if not the most common reason why parents seek out mental health help for their kids. And those studies tell us that we should be targeting the parents because, as you know, if you are a listener to this podcast, the parents are the ones who are capable of shifting the way the family is supporting the child. The parents are the ones who can create exposures, which is to say can find ways to help their child face their fears. The parents are the ones who will be passing on and encouraging skill acquisition on the part of the kids. And parents generally are more motivated. When we target children, we are expecting them to be able to interrupt the patterns that we know become ingrained in families with anxious kids. That’s not realistic. And we’re expecting them to remember and use pretty complicated skills. But these skills are ones that they not only need to learn but they need to practice and relearn over time. If we teach those skills to the parents, they can remind their children and reteach them at each new developmental stage. Finally anxiety is a tricky beast that teaches us that to be safe, we need to listen to it. While parents may be ready for the child to do things on their own, the child may be perfect happy with the status quo. That doesn’t mean that kids like being anxious but it does mean they may be less motivated to deal with their anxiety and more interested in continuing to avoid the things that scare them. Parents on the other hand, are more likely to want the children to gain more independence and so are better placed to encourage their children towards that goal.

The second reason child anxiety treatment gets derailed is time. It does take time to unpack and examine family patterns and create a plan to address those patterns. It takes time to follow through with that plan. Anxiety treatment is not a one and done intervention, it’s something that unfolds over weeks. So there’s learning how to make the plan, making the plan, and executing the plan. A way to cut back on the time needed for this, is to get direction. A program like mine, where I’m available to answer your questions and give you feedback, can cut back on the time it takes to figure things out and then get the things done.

Third reason why child anxiety treatment can get derailed is Trust. Namely parents need to trust the plan, children need to trust their parents. The parents I work with tend to be gentle parents, supportive parents, parents who are in tune with their kids. It’s their super power and also the thing that gets them stuck. I know this because we didn’t call it gentle parenting back when I was raising my kids — we called it attachment parenting — but when you are so close to your children, it can be difficult to trust anxiety treatment because it does require us to put our kids in uncomfortable situations. So if we have an anxious child who is struggling to order for themselves in a restaurant and we see their tears and know they’re hungry and scared and here’s this nice evening out with the family and they are suffering instead of enjoying being at their favorite restaurant, we may so identify with them that we just go ahead and order. It’s hard to trust that making them do it is good for them when they’re telling us it’s not. Like, who do we trust? Our child who is telling us they’re not capable? Or this plan? No matter how much research is behind it, in the moment it can be hard to follow. This is why I think ongoing support is so important, which the research bears out. Parents do better when they have someone to help guide them, reassure them, remind them of the plan and help them figure out how to dial it back if needed or when to push even though it’s hard. 

Ok, next barrier, next thing that can derail treatment is Fear. Not the child’s fear but the parents’. Lots of parents have tried to manage the anxiety and then have pulled back because they’re concerned that they are further harming their child. This is another reason why I like working directly with parents. I have found that if we expect parents to be the target of the intervention then we have a terrific opportunity to work with their parent on their own anxiety about their child’s anxiety. Just as we’re working with the child on exposures, on helping them confront the things they’ve been avoiding, so we need to do that with parents. And I think this is really exciting — this is the part of the work that I love the most, I think — because there is so much healing to be had in supporting parents who are anxious about their kids. Processing their own worries has such great lessons in figuring out how to help their children process their worries. I know that’s been incredibly helpful for me as a formerly anxious child who has an anxious kid. Anyway, our fear can derail child anxiety treatment but it can also be such an important key to progress.

Final barrier! That would be bandwidth. Parents are by definition busy and often overwhelmed with lots on their plates and I can appreciate that even if anxiety treatment feels urgent that it’s also difficult to find the bandwidth or the spoons or the mindspace to devote to addressing it. Am I going to explain how my program address this? I sure am. Let me explain how it works. The central workshop is Strong Kids, Strong families and that’s based on the Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions or SPACE program developed by Dr. Eli Lebowitz of the Yale Child Study Center. That’s a six week program — one lesson drops each week. SPACE is fairly straightforward. You do the things and you get results. That’s the information piece, the first barrier in this list is addressed via Strong Kids, Strong Families. The rest are addressed by the other parts of the Child anxiety Support membership. Now you can get in there, do your six weeks, solve the anxiety issue. But most of us have other barriers. I address the Time by making the site so accessible. It’s better than a weekly group because it happens on your time, at your convenience. You can get to the site on your computer’s browser but it’s even better in the phone app so it’s easy to find time to take the lessons, check in, talk to me, etc. The Trust piece and the Fear piece, those are addressed through the live components. Whether that’s watching the live webinars, or by coming to the live chats or office hours to speak directly to me in real time, or by private messaging me because I answer really quickly. Again, better than a weekly support group because the virtual piece of it means you can reach out to me whenever and I’m super available. The app makes that easy for me, too. I get a notification on my phone and check in to respond. 

But bandwidth, how do I address that in the program? Well, I’ll tell you, it’s by using a membership model so that people can drop in, can go at whatever speed they want. You can rush through, you can go slow. You can start slow and speed up or vice versa. You can take a break and process what you’re learning, you can dip into other courses or resources that can help you figure out what you need to do next. You can tread water for awhile and then dive back in. You can hang in there and lean on the community supports. I’m there to encourage you even when you need to take a step back. You can drop in to Eve Hermann’s Stress Reset practices to give yourself some bandwidth, that’s why she’s there, to help parents take care of themselves so they can do this big work.

Yes, I’m obviously a fan of my program. And remember, if you’re listening to this in the last week of March 2023, we will be starting our spring cohort next week on April 3rd. If you join that week, you will join me in walking through the program. Child Anxiety Support is always available — you can enroll at any time — and the Strong Kids Strong Families piece is asynchronous. But twice a year — spring and fall — I’ll be offering it cohort style, meaning if you join then you’ll get the first week lesson at the same time as I go offer extra supports around that lesson, and the second week I’ll be talking about the second week and so on and so forth. 

Just head to my site to join me and know that I’m here and the program is here whenever you need it.  

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How do I get my anxious child to sleep alone?

This week we’re answering a super common question that I get in different forms and this is: How do I get my anxious child to sleep alone?

The person who asked this question has a 10-year old who still needs their parent to stay with them at night. We’re going to call this 10-year old Francine because that is nothing like her real name. Francine is 10 going on 11. She has a younger siblings who is five. The way the family works bedtime is one parent help the five year old get to sleep and the other parent stays with Francine.

The family has a good bedtime routine — they start getting everyone pajamas and teeth brushed and settled in at around 8:30 and then theoretically lights out at 9. However Francine struggles to fall asleep and has been saying up later and later. Her parents are getting increasingly frustrated because they want to spend time together in the evening and they have things they’d like to get done, too, after the kids are in bed. 

The family has tried leaving Francine alone but she will come out of her room and interrupt them repeatedly or if she does fall asleep, she will wake up several times at night and demand to either sleep with them or that they come back into her room to sit with her until she falls back asleep.

No wonder they’re frustrated. And I’m sure Francine is frustrated, too, because I’m sure she doesn’t want to create so much fuss.

The family has tried a lot of things. They’ve tried rewards, they’ve tried charts, they’ve tried sound machines. They’ve tried melatonin. They’ve met with their doctor to see if Francine has any health issues. They’ve tried getting angry and just refusing but that just drags out the inevitable and of course at night everyone is exhausted and so the parents end up giving in.

Again, this is a super common scenario. The details may be different but if you’ve got a bigger kid who still needs this much support to fall asleep, you are not alone.

First let’s talk about this issue in the context of anxiety.

There are two common reasons why anxious children might be struggling with sleep. The first is generalized anxiety, which is being worried. AS I’m sure all of you know, the deep dark quiet at night is prime worrying time. If I could see you I’d ask for a show of hands for how many of you have ever dealt with insomnia where you’re staring at the ceiling, yearning to go to sleep while your brain churns through every potential disaster and every past mistake. Well that happens to kids and teens, too. A child who is prone to worrying in the day is just as prone to worrying at night. Maybe even more prone because at night our defenses are low. We’re tired and our brains are less guarded so all of those worries we’ve been pushing aside show up and disrupt our sleep. 

If you have a child who worries about worrying then they may be using you for a distraction from that worrying. Or they may find you a calming presence, someone who keeps the worry monsters at bay.

The second reason a child might struggle to sleep alone is separation anxiety. This would be a child who doesn’t want to be away from you during the day either. They may follow you from room to room, or insist on coming upstairs with you or will call to you if you go to the bathroom without letting them know you’re leaving the space. They might also have trouble separating from you for school or other activities.

These children might feel vulnerable when they’re alone or they may worry about you. They may worry about how you’re doing. Separation anxiety may be a part of their functioning long term but it can also crop up after a traumatic event. So for example, if you were recently ill if there’s been a death in the family or a neighbor was robbed, they might need you close to know that they and you are safe.

Of course both elements of anxiety might be present in one child. Francine may feel safer when a parent is with her because she worries about someone breaking in through her window and she may also find that she has more intrusive worrying thoughts that come to her at night.

In fact, one thing Francine’s parents told me in their email to me is Francine also worries about not getting enough sleep. I know how that feels and I’m sure you do, too. The later it gets, the more aware we are that morning is coming in fast, the harder it is to fall asleep.

All right. Now we have a picture of what’s happening and we can talk about what to do.

Sleep issues are often deeply entrenched. They’ve usually been going on for awhile. It’s a Parenting Pitfall that creeps up on us. We create a routine to help everyone get to sleep and then the routine gets more complicated, it gets more demanding and we get more stuck. That’s because parents tend to start trying to deal with it and then give up because they’re exhausted. What happens is that we are actually training our kids to push more and more and more.

Let me explain this by giving a fake example. Let’s say you have a child who, like Francine, wants you to stay in the room with them. You tell them you will stay for ten minutes, that’s it. They start crying when you get up to leave at ten minutes. They beg and beg and you stand there arguing with them. Finally you leave the room and then they start screaming. You come back and tell them to settle down and try to leave again. They get out of bed following you, still crying. You take them by the hand and bring them back but they leap from the bed sobbing and race out the door. You go after them. This goes on for so long that you give in and stay with them until they finally cry themselves to sleep.

Or some version of that.

That parent may feel heartbroken, or manipulated, or trapped, or angry, or embarrassed, or defensive. I’ve heard from parents who feel all kinds of ways about it. And let me add that it is absolutely ok to not want to co-sleep with your anxious child. And if that’s you, then you’re going to need a structured plan.

Parents are going to have to make the break for sure, which means they’re going to need to push things with their child and it’s likely their child isn’t going to be happy about that. But with a structured plan, clear communication with the child so they’re not surprised, and graduated exposure — which means taking things step by little step — they will see results. And they will be able to build on small results to get to big results.

One of the most challenging things about making this shift is helping parents understand that teasing it out, teasing apart the problem and creating a plan isn’t going to be a quick fix. The longer it’s been going on, the longer it will likely take to get unstuck. Also the more intense the child is in general, the more intense we can expect the process to be. But when we have realistic expectations then we won’t be disappointed or discouraged.

What we know is that parents hold the key to making a difference in these kinds of sleep issues. If you want help with your anxious child’s sleep issues, you can find it in my Child Anxiety Support program. The Strong Kids, Strong Families walks you through how to make a plan and I am available to answer your questions and help you personalize the plan. I’m there via private message, community posts, and in our live events, which include chats, workshops and drop in office hours.

And I also want you to know that in April we’ll be doing our first cohort in the program. What this means is that in the first week of April we’ll be doing the first lesson in Strong Kids, Strong Families together. All of the live events will be about that first lesson — other resources, more supports and information. The program is alway open — I don’t do launches because I want it to be available to anyone who needs it whenever they need it. But I will be walking through the program with all members, six weeks, one lesson each week so that we can be doing it together as a community. To get in on that, join today and we’ll be getting started together April 3rd 2023. If you have questions let me know. 

You do not have to deal with this struggle alone and I promise you that things can improve.

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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 »

    Is my child manipulating me?

    This week’s question is, “Is my child really anxious? Or are they just manipulating me?” This is one of the questions I ask in the Parenting Pitfalls quiz because it’s one way I assess for patterns of anxiety in a family — that is whether or not people tell you that your child is manipulating you or if you wonder if they’re manipulating you. So let’s talk about that a little bit.

    First of all, when people use the word manipulation to talk about a child’s behavior, what I know for certain is that family is struggling. Manipulation is another word for “doing things to get what we want” but it’s a really negative word. The truth is, we all do things to get what we want. We may be extra nice to our boss even if we’re annoyed by them because we want to get a raise. Or we might pretend to like a book we dislike so that other people in our bookclub will think we’re smart. 

    According to Kohlberg’s moral development, children tend to behave selfishly until around the age of 7. They are reward oriented — behaving in ways that serve them rather than because it’s the right thing to do and they are selfish — looking out for their own self interest rather than ways to serve others. Now I know you’re going to give me examples of your child’s selflessness at younger than seven. It’s not that they don’t do lovely things like give a toy to their sibling, or bring you flowers, or give up the last cookie because their friend is crying — it’s that they do those things because they want to. They want your praise, they want your approval, they want their friend to play instead of cry. This again, is developmentally appropriate. And we help them learn our moral code with that praise and approval. That’s part of the teaching we do. 

    I’ll tell a story about my daughter here with her permission to illustrate this. When she was about five she figured out that if I said no to something like a popsicle just before dinner, she could get a popsicle by going to her dad and looking very sad and saying, “Gee, I sure wish I could have a popsicle” and he’d say, “Well, go have one then.” Of course she was manipulating him because she wasn’t telling him the whole truth by explaining why she didn’t have one. But that’s typical manipulation. She didn’t know that lying by omission was a thing. We had to tell her that. If anything she was showing some good problem solving and people skills. 

    From 8 to 13, their moral code is still about meeting rules and getting praise. Kids want approval. They are growing into the idea that morality can be more personal and that the greater good may sometimes mean they will miss out but they definitely haven’t mastered it. Heck, we adults struggle with this so of course we can expect children to still be learning and exploring what it means to behave in a moral manner.

    Back to manipulation. Manipulation, as in manipulating people to get your own way, isn’t a moral issue for kids the way it is for us. A child who is anxious and who is avoiding through fight or flight or freeze, is definitely trying to get their own way. If they don’t want to do the scary thing like sleep alone, or talk in class, or go to the baseball game then they may meltdown, cry they may threaten to hurt themselves, they may punch someone or punch a wall and then parents often give in. Is the child being manipulative? Is the child really that scared? That in danger? Or are they pretending to be to get their way?

    My take is it kind of doesn’t matter. We need to take threats seriously, always, especially when there is threat of harm. They might be exaggerating their threats but exaggerated threats have resulted in real harm when we don’t take them seriously. They are trying to get us to take their fears seriously and yes, they may blow those fears up so that we will. 

    That doesn’t mean we help them avoid. It may mean we need to start smaller in addressing their anxiety because the big stuff is too big at the moment. Or it may mean that we need to create a plan that keeps kids and other people and things safe even as we continue to challenge their avoidance. (I will add that when a child blows up their fears so we take it seriously, they are also blowing those fears up for themselves. I don’t know how many of you read Anne of Green Gables. But there’s a chapter where she’s imagined a haunted forest and she’s done such a good job of imagining it that she is terrified to walk through the woods. Her imagination has run away with her. Our anxious kids do this, too. And sometimes that manipulative behavior may raise things to another level not just for us but for them.)

    So I guess what I’m saying is that the question isn’t helpful because a child can be both anxious and manipulative and being manipulative doesn’t mean that your child’s struggle isn’t real.

    When things get to this level of crisis, it’s time to get help. This is just such a difficult place to be as a parent and as the child or teen whose behaviors have become so damaging. 

    If you’re curious where your family falls in the Parenting Pitfall quiz, which is about the family patterns that keeps us stuck in child or teen anxiety, I’d love for you to come by the site and take the quiz. If you have questions about your results, let me know. You’ll also have the opportunity to sign up for the free Get Yourself Grounded email course when you complete the quiz but you don’t have to fill anything out — like your name or email — just to take it or to get the results. 

    Is my child manipulating me? Read More »

    Kids, Impulse Control and Public Spaces

    I was not at the Cincinnati Zoo when that 4-year old bolted from his mom into the enclosure. I am not an expert on gorillas or on zoo design. I don’t know the child in question or his parents (some reports state dad was there, too, although he’s not come under fire like mom has). We do know that it was a tragedy — a child (and his family and the bystanders) were traumatized, a 17-year old gorilla lost his life.

    Preschoolers are developing their impulse control; they don’t already have it. You might have heard about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. That’s the test where researchers sat down with children 4 to 6 years old and gave them a marshmallow. The researcher tells the child something like, I need to leave and you can eat that marshmallow or you can wait and then you’ll get a second marshmallow when I get back. Then the researcher leaves the room and observes what the child does through a one-way mirror. And what they found is that the younger a child is the more likely they are to eat the marshmallow.

    Young preschoolers, they are bird (marshmallow) in hand type people.

    And then there are those children who have a harder time with impulse control. Those kids tend to be more active, less scared, more persistent (the ones who will nag nag nag you) and less concerned about punishment and reward. They are kids who live in the RIGHT NOW. These are the ones who eat the marshmallow before the door finishes closing behind the researcher. That’s a temperament thing; some kids just have more impulsive personalities than other kids and will need more support, understanding and opportunity to develop their self-control.

    Back to that marshmallow test. They’ve looked at it a lot over the years and one of the things they’ve found is that children are able to delay gratification (be less impulsive) when their environment is “reliable,” i.e., when their environment is more predictable.

    Here’s a video that explains that:

    Now I want you to think about this when we think about young children in public spaces, where reliability is generally lower. If you’re at home or at your daycare or at your babysitter’s, you pretty much know when you’ll eat and what you eat. You know where the bathroom is. You know when your little sister goes down for her nap. You count on this consistency.

    Then there’s the zoo that — with all it’s fun and excitement — is extremely unreliable. You will likely have to wait for the potty, It may be one of those scary self-flushing potties. Your juice might be warmer than you like it or be the wrong juice or the wrong straw. Your dad promises you that you’ll see the snakes but when you get there the exhibit is closed. Children have finite resources to draw on so even a child with pretty good impulse control might hit their limit at places that lack reliability.

    I’ve been to the zoo with a slew of 4-year olds (my own and other people’s including some pretty hectic trips with a whole preschool class) and I know that at a certain point everyone is tired, grouchy and done-in. For any child — not just one who’s struggling with impulse control — this is the point where the lousy behavior comes out. Stand at the exit of a zoo sometime and watch how many kids are carried (or dragged) out sobbing. Notice how many wrench free of their parents’ hand or let go of the stroller or their parents’ back pocket to run to the cotton candy stand or souvenir store with their parents hollering at them to “Get back here!”

    This time it was something far more dangerous with tragic results. On another day it might have just meant a lecture or a time-out.

    Like I said, I wasn’t there and I didn’t see it. I don’t know that child or his parents and I’ve never been to the Cincinnati zoo so I can’t speak to the efficacy of the barriers around its exhibits. But I do know 4-year olds. Events like these are blessedly rare but impulsive behavior by preschoolers is not.

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