teen anxiety

Why do gifted children have anxiety disorders?

Why do gifted children have anxiety disorders?

gifted children

Why do gifted children have anxiety disorders?

gifted children

Are you ready to bring calm to yourself so that you can bring calm to your family? Subscribe to my newsletter and you’ll get my FREE 7-day Get Yourself Grounded course!

Are you ready to bring calm to yourself so that you can bring calm to your family? Subscribe to my newsletter and you’ll get my FREE 7-day Get Yourself Grounded course!

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?

What are some signs that a child has anxiety?

When you don't feel good in your relationship with your child, that's a symptom and symptoms are useful because in symptoms we find answers.

Dawn Friedman MSEd

Our first question for the Child Anxiety FAQ podcast is, “What are some signs that a child has anxiety?” I think what this questioner is asking is how we can tell if a child is having a problem with anxiety because we’re all going to suffer from anxiety. 

When I first started offering trainings, I definitely suffered from anxiety before every single presentation. Shaking, sweating, lots of worrying about things that could go wrong. In that case, my anxiety was productive because it made me prepare for those trainings, you know, and inspired me to plan ahead, plan for disaster. I’d print out two copies of my notes and I’d practice and time my PowerPoint. I’d pack extra connectors for my laptop because it seemed like the hotels were I’d present never had the right one for my Mac. 

By the same token, a child who is worried about doing well on an exam is more likely to study for it than a child who is not worried about doing well. 

Being alive means we’re going to have anxiety and we can’t protect our children from that. Right? So the question is, how do we know if that anxiety is a problem.

So first, the most important way to know is if that worrying is trapping the child. So in my presenting if I was worried about presenting so much that I refuse to do it or canceled at the very last minute or couldn’t go on because my nausea was so bad that I was enabled to take the stage. That would be an indicator that my anxiety was no longer productive.

A child who is so worried about their exam, that their relationships or their functioning are disrupted in some way is by definition having problems with anxiety. 

How does anxiety disrupt things? Well, let’s look at that. Maybe there are sematic symptoms and this is often the reason why people contact me is their child is having somatic symptoms like stomach.

Butterflies in their stomach, a pain in their stomach. Maybe they’re asking their parents to come pick them up from school because they’re getting stomach aches at school. They’re going to the nurse’s office. Maybe they have difficulty eating because their stomach is bothering them. Maybe they’re having a lot of headaches.

Uh, maybe you’ve had them to get their eyes checked and their eyes are fine. And yet they’re still having. Maybe they’re having a lot of bathroom accidents. It’s really common to need to go pee or poop when you’re very, very anxious and maybe their wedding, their pants. Maybe there are behavioral symptoms and that’s the other most common reason.

These are the two most common reasons why people contact me either their child was having somatic symptoms and the pediatrician says this might be anxiety, or the child is having behavioral symptoms. And the behavioral symptoms that we’re looking for are ones that are outside. What is developmentally appropriate and what is culturally.

So let’s dig into that little bit. So developmentally we would expect a toddler to have separation anxiety. We would expect a three-year-old to maybe struggle getting dropped off at preschool, at least at the beginning. But if that continues for longer than. Let’s say three to six months depending, or if they’re eight and having trouble separating that tells us that’s outside of what is developmentally expected for that child as for culturally appropriate?

Well, a lot of people point to, uh, my child won’t sleep alone and that might be an issue for your family, but for another family that would not be an issue in many family cultures. It is not reasonable for a child to sleep alone. And so we can’t. This behavior always means anxiety. It’s an issue if it’s an issue for your family.

So if you were needing your child to sleep alone or that’s important to you, and they’re unable to do that, it, it might make sense to look into anxiety. Now, the other behavioral issues that we see in anxious, kids are Melton. So falling apart before or after school for the child who is struggling with school refusal, a child who melts down before or after visitors or playdates, many, many, many families tell me that my kid does great at school.

They do great with other people and then they come home and they are just a mess. Those are the kinds of meltdowns that we see in anxious, kids who are holding it together for as long as they can, and then coming home and unleashing it on the family. Many anxious kids are also very rigid for some kids.

This is a personality trait, uh, a child who has a preference. They like things to be this way is different than a child. Who’s rigidity is a necessity. So the child who might whine a little bit because their shoes aren’t fitting right, or their brother or sister did something out of order or. Something out of order versus the kid who completely falls apart.

So for example, you show up to pick them up in a car they’re not accustomed to, and they can barely get in the car or they scream and cry the whole way home, that kind of rigidity. And in older kids, perfectionism is often a sign of anxiety. And of course the child may say, I feel anxious. I’m afraid I’m worried.

Or they might not have the language for it. And instead you just see a lot of reluctance or they are verbalized in a lot of reluctance. I don’t like that. I don’t want to go. They don’t always have the language to explain their feelings, but if they’re often resistant to new things or even accustomed things it’s worth considering whether or not this is anxiety.

And remember we said developmentally or culturally appropriate. So if you have a child who doesn’t want to jump on a trampoline, but you’re not a trampoline jumping family, that’s not a big deal. If on the other hand, you’re the flying Melendez and jumping on a trampoline needs to happen. Well, maybe you need.

Dig in a little bit and see why that child is resistant. It’s complicated. Right? So remember when I said that one way we know when a child or teen is having anxiety issues is if the relationships are disrupted, I want to talk about that a little bit, because that includes their relationship with you and other families.

Now it’s certain times in their development, it is normal and expected for us to be knocking heads with our children. So how do we know when it’s beyond what is developmentally appropriate? How do we know when our arguments with our 13 year old are appropriate for a child who is at the stage where they’re learning to separate and how do we know when something bigger is going on. Well, the biggest indicator is you. If you feel stuck, if you are feeling ground down by the relationship, if you feel trapped in it or start to dread spending time with them. If you are so worried that your functioning is disrupted, if you’re being interrupted at work or when you’re out, if you are getting repeated phone calls or texts, when you’re grocery shopping, if your world has started to get smaller, because you’re trying to manage your children, child’s react.

If you feel like you’re walking on eggshells, worried that you’ll set them off by bringing up the wrong topic, asking them to do the wrong thing, then that’s a sign that anxiety may be an issue for your family. So often I’m talking to parents who think that they are doing something wrong because they’re feeling unhappy in their parenting.

They feel guilty. They often feel ashamed. Let me tell you something. When you don’t feel good in your relationship with your child, that’s a symptom and symptoms are useful because in symptoms we find answers. If you are struggling, that doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong, but it does mean that there is something that might need to change.

Parenting is not stagnant. You grow up. Your child grows, your circumstances change and what might have worked before may no longer work. The only way we know that is when we start struggling or a child starts struggling. It’s like when your back starts to hurt, because you need a new. When your relationship is hurting, you might need a new approach.

My experience has been that parents often hold back from getting help because they think that they just need to try harder, be more patient, do more. They blame themselves a lot. When it comes to child anxiety, a new perspective makes a big difference. It really, really helps to have someone from outside.

Looking in to help you figure out what’s happening and support you in figuring out how to extricate yourself from the patterns that are making your child more anxious or keeping them and you stuck. All right. So let’s go back and look over our answer to know how do you know if your child has anxiety?

So one sematic symptoms, stomach aches, headaches, et cetera, behavioral symptoms, meltdowns, rigidity, uh, Lots of arguments. Uh, if they tell you that they’re having a hard time, you can believe them. And what I think most importantly, if you are having a hard time with them.

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