teen anxiety

Understanding the Roots of Child Anxiety: It’s Not Just About Parenting

Welcome to today’s discussion on a topic that I find crucial and yet often misunderstood – child anxiety and the role of parents in it. As someone who has been immersed both in clinical work and providing support through child anxiety parent education, I’ve encountered numerous instances that leave me shaking my head in frustration. The narrative of blaming parents for their children’s anxiety is not just prevalent; it’s damaging. Let’s delve into this topic with empathy, understanding, and education, to dispel some myths and shed light on the real issues at hand.

The Blame Game: Why Professionals Shouldn’t Point Fingers at Parents

One of the most distressing experiences for parents seeking help for their anxious child is being met with blame. Imagine mustering the courage to ask for support, only to be told that the problem lies with you – that you are the cause of your child’s struggles because “you’re doing it wrong.” It’s a narrative I’ve encountered all too often, and it’s one that needs to change.

When professionals hastily judge parents without fully engaging with the child, they overlook a crucial fact: parents reaching out are already taking a positive step. These are the individuals we should be supporting, not chastising. Moreover, the simplistic notion that a child’s challenges can be pinned solely on parental actions ignores the complexities of human behavior and development. Two children raised in the same environment can have vastly different outcomes because the equation of human emotion and psychology is not a one-size-fits-all scenario.

Focusing on Strengths: The Constructive Approach to Parental Support

In my work with families, my approach is to identify and build upon what parents are doing right. Believe me, no matter the situation, there are always strengths to be found. It is from this foundation of positivity that we can create effective strategies to support both the child and the family as a whole.

Supporting a child with anxiety is not just about addressing what’s “wrong” or “lacking” in the parental approach. It’s about recognizing the unique strengths and skills of each family member and leveraging these to foster a nurturing environment. By focusing on what parents and children are doing right and how we can enhance those behaviors, we create a more robust support system that benefits everyone involved.

Child Anxiety: A Family Pattern That Can Be Rewoven

Child anxiety does not exist in a vacuum; it is often a reflection of family dynamics. Yes, parents play a role, as do the children. However, by understanding that each family member contributes to the pattern, we can begin to make meaningful changes that benefit everyone.

It’s important to start with the parents who have already shown their willingness to seek help. These parents are not the problem; they are part of the solution. By working collaboratively with them, we can make significant strides in reducing child anxiety and improving the family’s overall wellbeing.

In conclusion, if you’re a parent struggling with your child’s anxiety, know that you’re not alone, and it’s not about assigning blame. It’s about finding solutions and building on the love and strengths that already exist within your family. For those who are ready to embrace a supportive and constructive approach to addressing child anxiety, I’m here to help. Let’s have a conversation and begin the journey towards healing and growth together.

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Can I parent so well that my child won’t have anxiety?

The question this week is a subtext to so many of the questions that I get. People say what if I had done this, would my child still be anxious? Is it because I ddi that? Is that why my child has anxiety. And the gist of it is: Can I parent so well that my child won’t have anxiety? Is there a perfect way to parent? If I avoid all of the parenting pitfalls will my child never struggle with their anxiety?

Boy being a parent is so hard, isn’t it? Not just the lack of sleep, lack of time to yourself, the drain on your resources. No, the hardest part is how it feels when your child is struggling. Or how it feels when we are struggling as parents, as people.

Let’s just stop for a minute and acknowledge how fragile we can feel as parents, which is so hard since we’re supposed to be the strong ones, right? Didn’t you think you’d have it more together when you became a parent? 

I remember as a kid watching my mom wrap presents and she was so good at it. And I wanted to be that good. I wanted my folds to be razor sharp. I wanted the tape to disappear like hers did. And I thought that it would be like that when I was grown. I thought that was one of the secret things that adults just knew how to do. 

So imagine my surprise to hit eighteen and still wrap lumpy presents. Of course you don’t have to imagine your surprise because I’m sure you have your own stories of running up against your incompetence in some thing, some event where you realized, “rats, I’m the grown up and I don’t know what I’m doing.” And this is especially difficult and even painful when you come upon this within your parenting relationship.

If you struggled as a child, you will revisit that in your relationship with your own child. You may be especially vulnerable when they hit certain ages where you struggled. Or when they arrive at certain events that you found especially difficult. There may be aspects of yourself that you see in them that scare or worry you. Or aspects that you didn’t like in other people and then you see it in your child. 

Parenting is indeed the most triggering thing you can do.

It will be tempting to think that there’s a perfect way of parenting where you can avoid all of that. You might look at other parents who seem to be having an easier time and think they have better answers.

So let me dissuade you of this notion. 

Here are some truths, some facts, about the reality of parenting that I have learned in my 30 plus years of working with parents and in my 26 plus years of being a parent.

The first is that, some kids are harder than others. That’s just a fact. Some parents have it easier not because they’re better parents or have made better choices, but because that’s the luck of the draw. They got a child who is objectively less demanding and/or a child that meshes with them in ways that makes parenting easier. 

The second is that parenting is a job and sometimes jobs aren’t fun. You can love your kids and not like the job of parenting. You can love hanging out with a toddler and struggle with a ten year old or vice versa. Parenting is a job that changes because your child is growing and changing and you are growing and changing and sometimes you will have bad days. IT’s also a job that you learn as you’re doing it which means it’s inevitable that sometimes you’ll have to course correct. I think a big part of effective parenting is being willing to change it up because it’s not working.

The third fact about parenting is that your child is not an accurate representation of what a good job you’re doing. This goes back to that first one about some kids being easier. Sometimes you can do everything quote unquote right and your child will still be a mess. Great parents can and do have children who aren’t always doing great. Sometimes your patience and your wisdom won’t show. People will look and say, “I would never let them get away with that” but the truth is, they don’t have your child and they don’t know. 

The fourth thing is that your child is the protagonist in their own story. They’re starring in their own show. You are the protagonist in your story and starring in your own show. Once you realize that — I mean, really realize that — you’ll understand that even though you feel very consumed with what’s happening to you including your experience of being a parent, you’re a supporting actor in your child’s experience. Their story — their narrative — belongs to them. At the beginning when they’re an infant, we are enmeshed. We are almost the same people. Because babies, especially in that first year, are relying on us so heavily, that it’s easy to get confused. Where do we leave off and where do they begin? Sleep, feeding, even for the tiniest infant whether they’re on their front or their back is all up to us. But as they get older it becomes and more clear that they have their own movie to star in. They’re in their own cinematic universe and we’re just like backstory.

All of this is to say that our child will have their own experience and functioning and preferences and personality and mental health. And we are there to support them.

Which means some of them are going to have anxiety no matter what we do. Anxiety is born and made but it can’t made — that is to say, we can’t force a non-anxious child to be anxious — if they don’t;’ have a brain that is shaped to be anxious.

We can take kids who go through the exact same experiences and one will come out with an anxiety disorder and the other will not. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

What we can do is figure out how to support them. Remember it’s their movie, right? So this is part of the narrative they are going to explore and grow through. How do we help them do that? It’s not about us being good or bad parents, it’s not about us saving them from the trajectory of their lives. It’s about being the best supporting players that we can.

And in our own show, in the story that we are starring in, its’ about learning how to uncover our own strengths, confront our own challenges, grow through OUR narrative in being parents to these particular people.

It’s not about whether or not you can parent so well that your children don’t have anxiety. That’s not the right question. It’s’ about here is what we are doing together. Here is where we stand. How do I help you? How do I become the parent that you need and that I am meant to be? 

How do I take my experience as a child and bring it to this experience as a parent. How do I confront and consolidate my past so that I can get out of the way of your future. How do I learn to heal parts of myself without visiting my own expectations on you.

Big work. This is big works. But it is work we are meant to do. I have faith in you. I have faith in your child. 

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Does social media cause teen anxiety?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean it’s an ongoing conversation.

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

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

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Do you recommend any supplements for child anxiety?

The question that showed up in my inbox this week is “Do you recommend any supplements for child anxiety?” The author of the question goes on to say, “Also is there a relationship between vitamin D and anxiety? I have read too little and too much vitamin D can make anxiety worse?”

First off I cannot make any recommendations about supplements because that’s out of my scope. My masters is in clinical mental health and I do not have additional training in nutrition. That said, I can report what studies have said. And for this I’m relying on a lit review published in Nutrients, an academic journal, in March 2021. The title of this lit review and I’ll post it in the show notes as well, is The Influence of Vitamin D Intake and Status on Mental Health in Children: A Systematic Review 

Their findings were that the studies, and I quote, “supported potential positive influence of vitamin D on mental health in children.” They go on to recommend, again, I quote, “Vitamin D intake within a properly balanced diet or as a supplementation, except for safe sun exposure, should be indicated as an element supporting mental health in children.” 

I couldn’t find any research specifically about having too much vitamin d and child anxiety although a google search on the popular web Brough tup results. But nothing in the scientific literature. That doesn’t mean it’s not an issue so I’d say that your best bet is to talk to your cild’s healthcare provider to get a better understanding of how to know what’s right for your child. 

My take on this overall is that good nutrition is good for our mental health but it’s not a cure all and more does not mean better. In other words, when we’re looking at our anxious child’s functioning, we can look at basic nutrition, sleep, physical exercise as part of the big picture. We know, for example, that anxiety gets worse without sleep and that physical exercise can alleviate some of its symptoms but as the study says, this is “an element supporting mental health.” 

Our physical and mental functioning are tied together for sure but sometimes it’s a chicken and egg kind of thing. I work with a lot of families whose children have gastric issues like celiac or IBS or allergies and it can be difficult to tease out which came first. Did the gastric issues contribute to the anxiety? Because our gut is very tuned into our thinking. Lots of us call the stomach our second brain. If you have an upset tummy, you may interpret that as anxiety even though ti might be caused bye omethign you ate. 

On the other hand, anxiety can cause upset tummies. It’s one of the most common symptoms of child anxiety.

This is why it’s so important to get a medical workup for your child when they are dealing with anxiety. And if there are gut issues or their headaches are because they need glasses, we need to address that.

So vitamin D might be part of the picture. And I’d say considering this study, it’s a good idea to talk to your child’s healthcare provider to get more information about how to test their levels and whether or not supplementation is necessary. I wouldn’t just start with supplements for child anxiety and assume all is well. 

Now as I said, my masters is in clinical mental health counseling and so I work through that lens. That’s my bias, that’s what the research says. A two-pronged approach — taking good care of our bodies and also working on our minds — is in my opinion, our best bet.

What this means is even if there are physical issues present that need to be addressed we also need to work on our mental functioning.

Anxiety can become something of a habit. That’s not to say that it’s a habit like smoking or biting your nails, it’s more a habit of thinking and processing. If we have a child who has gut issues and they develop anxiety either due to those gut issues or due to something else that is exacerbated by the gut issues or whose gut issues are caused by anxiety and we take care of their belly we still need to take care of their anxiety and vice versa.

Even when their belly feels better, they have learned to expect the world to be anxiety producing. They’ve gotten so used to feeling uneasy in the world — of expecting that stomachache, of expecting the social anxiety that can come when you might have to run to the bathroom, of associating certain public spaces with nervous feelings — they will need to address that. That takes practice and it takes exposure.

The next question might be where to start first and I’d say wherever feels most available to you. If your child is due for a well child visit soon, it’s easy enough to talk to their provider then. If you’re going to have to wait a bit to get in there, you can start working on the education and coping piece. You can’t get it wrong as long as you’re moving forward and are open to finding answers where you find them.

There is no silver bullet for anxiety. Sometimes I’ll see folks on social media saying, “Do this one thing, get this one treatment, learn this one technique” and that’ll cure anxiety but that’s not been my experience and observation in working with hundreds of families. Anxiety is more complicated than that. There are things you can do to support growth and coping but there is an element of learning that is unavoidable. 

Here’s a metaphor that might help explain this. Let’s say I have a penchant for bad boys. I’m basing this on my young adult self who had terrible taste in boyfriends. I thought the problem was I kept dating not great guys. But actually the problem was that I kept choosing to date not great guys. I mean, that’s not saying I deserved poor treatment — of course not — or that I was causing it. Again, absolutely not. But until I did the work I needed to do with a therapist, I kept dating rotten guys. I needed to learn more about healthy relationships, about setting boundaries. I needed to work on my self-concept. 

That’s how anxiety is, too. I can have enough vitamin D in my body, I can be physically centered and calm, I can be exercising and that’s all wonderful and will definitely help but I still need to work on my thinking. 

And sometimes working on my thinking, will help me access tools like getting a good night’s sleep and hitting the gym on the regular.

I love when parents are open to a multiprong approach so I’m very glad this person asked the question so that we could talk more about this and it gave me the chance to do the research, which I always appreciate. 

A reminder that April 3rd we’ll be starting the spring cohort. If your’e listening to this after April 2023 please know that the Child Anxiety Support program is always open and I tag the recorded live events so that you can find the topics your’e most interested in and revisit them. But if it’s before April 2023 or during, I’d love for you to joint he site and come along as we go through he program together. If you have questions, please reach out to me. You get 14 days free to try it out so you have nothing to lose except the grip that anxiety has on your family.

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How do I 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.

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

Am I being protective or over protective?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I being protective or over protective? Read More »

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 »

Is it ok if I miss school because of anxiety?

This is  from a message I received on the podcast page from a young teen, facing down the start of school and feeling overwhelmed. I don’t have more info from this person about their anxiety like how it started or the shape of it or how they’ve dealt with it so far. I do know that they’re going to be a sophomore this upcoming year and that they are looking for support to tell their parents that it’s ok for them to take a break when they need it.

First, young friend, I’m sorry that you’re struggling. I also struggled with going to school at around your age and used to beg my mom to let me stay home. I want you to know that I hear you and I support you in figuring this out. I hope that you will continue to talk to your parents and I encourage you to think about getting counseling. If your parents aren’t willing or able to help you connect with a counselor, I hope you will reach out to your guidance counselor at school. And if that doesn’t feel accessible or appropriate to you, there are lots of great workbooks about anxiety and you can look on Amazon at reviews or go to the library to check them out. 

The important thing for you to know is that ultimately anxiety needs to be faced. I don’t mean in a pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of way or a tough love kind of way, I mean that the cure for anxiety is learning to deal with your anxiety. That’s the crux of it. How you do that is very personal and doesn’t need to be all or nothing. Just hold it in your mind that facing your anxiety is going to ultimately help and then you can think about how best to do it.

Some of us face anxiety in the same way we get into a cold pool — we just jump right in. We let ourselves get kind of smacked in the face with the discomfort and hang in there until we acclimate. 

That is not me. That’s not generally how I do it. I’m a slow to warm person and when I get in a pool, I get in at the shallow end and creep my way towards the deep end slowly, slowly getting used to the water until it feels comfortable.

Both ways are totally legit. Both ways end up with us fully in the pool. So you get to think about the way you want to acclimate to anxiety. Most of us who are anxious are shallow end people. Our anxiety is so big and can feel so overwhelming that we need to start small. That’s just fine.

Which leads me to school. Again, I don’t know the details of your specific anxiety experience so I’m going to take about school refusal in a general way and I hope that you can make sense of it in the context of your unique experience.

Generally school refusal in the teen years is about social anxiety. For me there was some of that and also just a general disillusionment about school. It was hard to feel motivated to go when I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of it. Looking back, I wish I had reached out to the guidance counselor more and talked to them about what I needed to see if they could help me figure it out. That’s why I mention that as a first step. 

But the social anxiety piece, that was complicated by some bullying I experienced in seventh and eighth grade that colored the way I saw my peers. That may be part of your experience, too, and if so my heart goes out to you. I want you to hear and to know that school is NOT representative of the so-called real world it’s preparing you for. School is school. Yes, there may always be mean people you’ll have to deal with but you’ll have more freedom to figure out HOW you want to deal with it when you’re an adult. OK? It really does get better and the people who say that your teen years are the best years of your life, well, I feel bad for them because their best years are behind them. For most of us, the teen years are tough years and life gets better as we get older. Truly. I’m telling you being a grown up isn’t as scary as you might think and actually is a lot of fun.

All right, back to anxiety. 

Here’s the deal about missing school because of anxiety. When we avoid things because we are anxious about them, we are rewarding that avoidance so it gets harder and harder to face the scary thing. Avoidance begets avoidance. So I’m not able to advocate that as a coping mechanism.

That said, we can also consider what school is offering you. School is about academics and it’s about socializing. If a particular school experience is a poor fit for someone and that’s causing anxiety — like if the bullying is making school unsafe or a child or teen has learning needs that aren’t being addressed by the school — then pulling that person from school might make sense IF we have a plan for academics and socializing.

In other words, I wouldn’t recommend that a child or teen leave school to do fully online school alone at home without any social opportunities. And I do mean face-to-face opportunities, not just online ones.

Being online is fine, having online friends is great, but we all need the practice of socializing in real life.

We need to figure out how to manage social expectations around eye contact and back and forth conversation. That’s not to say that there is just one way to do that. I often talk to families whose children are neurodiverse and their needs are different and that’s fine. An autistic person shouldn’t be forced to mask but they do need to figure out how they want to support themselves while navigating social life. Like do they want to mask, do they want to work on specific social skills, do they want to figure out how to find a community that doesn’t demand this of them. Which is to say learning how and if you want to fit into the mainstream world is part of the job of growing up but also finding the places in the world that loves and accepts you is important, too. And those places do exist. 

For example, sometimes when I’m working with families, we’re talking about ways to find a social support system for their child that will let their child be exactly who they are without demanding that they be different. There are spaces like this. They can be harder to find especially for people who live in small communities, but they’re out there. 

Some of us do best with a wide circle of friends but lots of us are happy to have one or two people who really get us and can support us. That might mean finding a tutor who understands how we learn and can help us work with our skills and talents. That might mean finding a mentor who shares our passion for a specific hobby or topic. 

If leaving school doesn’t make sense or truly isn’t available and you’re going to have to go, I still think looking outside of school for pro-social opportunities can help us deal with the social demands of school. It’s not as painful to eat alone in the cafeteria if we know that after school we’re going to go to the library and hang with our D&D group or go to choir practice or whatever activity where we can remember that school is not the end all and be all of our experience.

I know that’s big work and we’re talking about the day to day coping in going to school when you are anxious and would rather stay home. 

Remember the metaphor of the pool. Think about ways to take baby steps. Again, your guidance counselor can be a help here. I hope they are. And parents can be advocates. And if you have one teacher who seems to get you, reach out to them. Back to baby steps. What do you need to get through your day at school. If you painted your ideal day at school — acknowledging that you’d rather not be at school but let’s just paint your ideal day there — what would help? Is it breaks? Is it being able to listen to your music sometimes? Is it being allowed to wear sunglasses or your hood up? Is there a particular class that is more challenging? Mapping our your day may help you come up with some specific coping tools to ease you into that cold swimming pool. 

But full on avoidance isn’t it. Basically you’re going to need to think about how to face your anxiety as best you can. 

I wish I could give you more specific advice but obviously that’s beyond the scope of a podcast so I hope that I’ve given you some places to start and some ideas. I’m thinking of you and know that other members of the listening audience are thinking of you, too. 

If you need crisis support, please call 988 for local resources and help.

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