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

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

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

Ok, let’s back up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s try another scenario. 

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

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

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

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



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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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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 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.



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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. 



Am I being protective or over protective? Read More »

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 help a child with separation anxiety go to sleep? Read More »

How do I calm down my anxious child?

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

Dawn Friedman MSEd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, doing nothing can be a help.

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

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

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

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

Let me know your thoughts!

Have a question?

How do I calm down my anxious child? Read More »

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