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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. 



How do I help a child with separation anxiety go to sleep?

How do I help a child with separation anxiety go to sleep?

I like this question because the person answering it already knows something that a lot of parents miss, which is that sometimes our bedtime challenges with kids have to do with separation anxiety.

Now remember anxiety is more than a preference. Lots of children would prefer to sleep with their parents or have their parents lay down with them to help them fall asleep. And this is absolutely fine as long as it’s fine for the family. Bedtime routines and co-sleeping are personal family choices and if it’s working for the family, great. The concern is when it’s not working for the family. The concern is when

—A parent wants time alone in the evening and can’t get that time because they have to lay down with their kids

—Or when parents and kids are losing sleep

—or when a child would like to go to a slumber party or sleepovers at a grandparents house but they’re afraid and so are reluctantly missing out.

It’s also ok to focus on change because the parents want change. MaybeThey’re sick of laying down with their kids, they’re sick of tantrums when they try to leave, they want their beds back to themselves and can’t get their kids to move out. 

Often the parents I talk to feel guilty because when they push their children to sleep on their own, the kids seem truly unhappy and afraid. the parents may worry that their own need for space or time alone or privacy is selfish.

To that I say, if it’s not working then it’s not working. And the answer isn’t always that parents  just have to suck it up, buttercup. No. This is especially true when we’re talking about anxiety — if we’ve identified separation anxiety as the issue — then it needs attention because anxiety does NOT get better without a plan. 

If you’re not sure whether or not it’s separation anxiety you can look to see if worries about separation are present in other areas for the family 

For example a child who struggles with playdates or getting dropped off at school. Perhaps the parent has trouble leaving the house without the child. I’ve talked to parents whose kids will chase the car down the road because they don’t want their parents to leave.  

Sometimes parents report to me that they aren’t able to go down to the basement to do laundry or that their child will check in if the parent is in the shower for too long. 

But often the problem starts with sleep issues. (I’ll say as an aside, if it’s not anxiety and is a preference — if separation anxiety isn’t present anywhere else — it’s still ok to change things up if you need things to change. It’ll probably just be a bit easier.)

Starting with sleep can make sense for anxiety intervention because it is a regular routine for the family. Remember that anxiety is about avoidance and what the child wants to avoid is separation from you so what you’re going to need to do is separate. 

This sounds simple but of course it’s complicated. In the child Anxiety Support program, specifically the Strong Kids, Strong Families course, we talk about the way to design a personalized plan to address your child’s anxiety. 

The plan needs to include what to do when things go badly. This isn’t pessimistic, it’s realistic. Children who don’t want to do things that scare them will try not to do them. They will cry, they will beg and plead, they may meltdown and get destructive. We need to know what to do when this happens. We need to recognize it as an anxiety response and prepare to care for our kids through it. And for ourselves. 

It’s not easy to see our children struggle and it’s not easy to be the target of that struggle. Not only will we feel impatient and even angry, we also are likely to feel guilty or worried that what we’re doing will somehow harm our child. When we plan for the worst case scenario then we are ready to lovingly, respectfully and supportively address the anxiety.  We know what to do. We already have a response plan in place.

Every child and family and parent is different so your plan needs to make sense for your child and for you and it needs safe for everyone. 

I remember talking to a parent about addressing sleep issues with their child and as they talked through their fears about what might happen, they recognized that some of their fears were unrealistic. 

They also realized that like their child, they were avoiding their own anxiety. Just as their child was avoiding separation because they were anxious about being alone, the parent was avoiding upsetting their child because the parent was anxious about their child’s meltdowns. 

This is why the process is so important; not only are you helping your child to face their anxiety, you are learning to address and manage your own anxiety about your child. This is good stuff. It’s why facing child anxiety heals the whole family.

You might notice here that the first step in helping a child with separation anxiety go to sleep — which was the original question — is not focusing on sleep. It’s focusing on the anxiety. Sleep comes later. Sometimes much later. Sometimes much later that night — I would assume people were going to get to bed late the night that start their intervention — and sometimes much later in the process.

But not always. Often when kids get a taste of their ability to face their fears, they do better. They get stronger. They grow more quickly. It depends on the child, it depends on the plan, it depends on the parents ability to execute that plan, and it depends on how entrenched the family is in their child’s anxiety. The longer the family has been avoiding dealing with the anxiety, the harder it might be to get unstuck. But what a great motivator to deal with it now, right?

If you need help for an under five and getting them to sleep, I’d encourage you to check out Macall Gordon’s work at LittleLiveWires.com. But if your child is five or older and you’re still struggling with bedtime separation, please reach out to me. If you go to my contact page you can reach out to me via the form or even schedule a quick free consult to learn more about the program and see if it’s a fit for your family.

How do I calm down my anxious child?

Let me right here right now say that if your child's anxiety is out of control, this is not because you have somehow failed to calm them down.

Dawn Friedman MSEd

This week’s question is how do you calm down an anxious child? Actually, it was much more specific. So I’m going to read the whole thing. “How can I help my anxious child calm down when they get upset? I remind them to practice their breathing tools and mindfulness and try to reason with them. But instead things escalate, they insist that only getting rid of the perceived source of anxiety will help.”

With this question we’re starting with the assumption that we should calm down an anxious child, which is not always true. That’s not always our job, but we’ll get to that in a bit. There’s also another assumption, which is that we have the ability to calm down an anxious child, which is absolutely not true, or at least not always true.

Sometimes we know just the right thing to say or do, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes our child or teen is just going to spiral beyond where we can help them. Let me right here right now, say that if your child’s anxiety is out of control, This is not because you have somehow failed to calm them down.

So let’s reconsider the question. First hat’s off to this parent for teaching their child coping tools. Because that’s certainly part of what we need to do as parents. We can’t make them use them, but we can teach them those tools and encourage them to use them. We can create a family climate where people are practicing calm, and it is a practice.

Meaning we need to be doing it on the regular and not just when it’s needed. Remember last week, we talked about ways to model anxiety, but we can also model calm that’s in our control. We can choose to learn those things and to model those things and to overtly teach those things. Calm shouldn’t be a separate event that happens only when people are anxious.

Calm needs to be built into the everyday functioning of our families. So when you’re sitting with a cup of tea, listening to your favorite podcast, that’s you modeling calm. Good for you. 

Or when you say, “Listen I had a bad day at work so I’m going to need to go for a walk.” That’s you modeling calm. Fantastic. 

Or when you’re having a conflict with your child and you stop and take a deep breath,  there you are modeling calm like a boss again.

(As an aside, one of the arms of my Child Anxiety Support membership is CBT family, which is a collection of ideas, resources, and activities to bring those cognitive behavioral tools to your family. So I encourage you to check that out if you’re interested.)

Okay. Back to the question. So this parent is already doing the most important thing, which is empowering their child.

The other piece of this question is the part that says, and I quote, “They insist that only getting rid of the perceived source of anxiety will help.” Yes, absolutely. And this is what we mean when we talk about accommodations.

Think about it. If there’s a tornado coming, you want to get away from it. You run down to the basement and you hole up. That’s how healthy anxiety is supposed to work. It’s supposed to protect us from danger.

Unfortunately, if we are sensitive and prone to see danger when there is no danger then that appropriate want to get away from danger isn’t inappropriate. It’s not working for us and we need to learn how to tolerate feeling like we’re in danger so that we can assess the situation and make a more accurate decision.

The way we learn to live with anxiety is twofold. One, we learn how to tolerate it long enough to acclimate to it. Two, we learn how to tolerate it long enough to acclimate to it so we can think our way through it. Basically, we need to hang in there long enough to get out of our survival brain that’s got us in fight flight or freeze so that we can access our higher order thinking brain.

A child who is prone to anxiety will probably always be someone who is sensitive to the idea of danger, but they will get better and better at accessing their higher order brain so that when they’re feeling scared, they can think, is this a tornado? Or am I just worried about tomorrow’s work presentation?

Of course, this sounds a lot easier than it is. When your child is in fight flight or freeze, that’s just where they are. And they’re expecting us as their parents, their protectors, to protect them. I want you to know, and to remember that you are protecting them, okay? They are safe. They don’t feel safe, but they are safe. You may need to tell yourself that and to sit on your hands. So you don’t react.

When we take action we’re telling them that they’re right to be afraid because we’re matching their level of urgency.

I encourage you to remember that your presence, your literal presence, if you’re able to tolerate enough to stay in the room with them. Or your figurative presence– because you have been a loving, supportive parent all of their lives– is a help. You are helping. Doing nothing is helping even if they don’t think so.

If you can stay calm, then you are helping by raising the level of calm in the room. If you are able to practice your own CBT tools, then you were helping by modeling practicing CBT tools. Please remember that. In other words, you don’t always need to do more; doing more when kids are already agitated can add to the agitation or prolong it.

Again, doing nothing can be a help.

I’m going to add here that sometimes in my therapy practice when I feel the urgency of my anxious clients and they want me to do something, fix their pain or worry, I picture a big sign behind them that says, “Don’t just sit there, do nothing!” as a reminder that being present and calm is my job in the moment.

You can tell that doing nothing is doing something because it’s so hard, it’s work. Right?

Now there are nuances in the answer to this question, depending on your child’s age, what’s upsetting them and what you’re trying to do, like if you’re trying to get out the door and you’ve got a timeline that you’re stuck with.

But right now for this episode, I really want to give you a new way of looking at support. Next time your child is flipping out and you feel the urge to calm them. Take a step back, even if it’s just for a few seconds and remember that sometimes the only way out is through and learning to tolerate the distress of anxiety is a skill that our anxious kids need to learn and that we need to learn. We also need to learn to tolerate the distress of their anxiety.

Let me know your thoughts!

Have a question?

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