What do I need to teach my child about anxiety?

Last week’s podcast episode, that’s number 60, how do I find time to work on my child’s anxiety, I talked about anti-anxiety skills and techniques and how it’s important that we learn them so we can teach them to our child and a listener wrote me after to ask more about this. They wanted to know what I meant by skills and techniques.

Ok, so tackling child anxiety has two basic pieces. The first piece is about confronting the anxiety itself. And that’s the Parenting Pitfall piece. That’s where we need to learn how to parent our specific child to help us stop avoiding the things that make them anxious. I’ve talked a lot about that.

The second piece is learning the cognitive behavioral tools so your child understands and learns how to manage their anxiety.

Anxious people, anxious kids are gonna be anxious. If we are sensitive, a bit more negative — you know, like we can spot potential problems before they even show up. This would be someone who always has a Plan B because they’re worried Plan A might work, or someone who tells you all of the reasons why things are likely to go badly. Anyway, if we have a brain that’s prone to anxiety then anxiety is going to be part of how we operate. Instead of trying to eliminate anxiety, we need to understand it — understand how it works, how it shows up for us — and we need to know what to do when we’re feeling it.

Both of these things — not avoiding anxiety, also called exposure and managing anxiety — are necessary. Learning one without the other is incomplete but that doesn’t mean you have to be learning both simultaneously. It’s more like you start chipping away at it wherever it feels most accessible. Which is what I was talking about last week.

We need to learn them first and figure out how to make sense of them so that we can interpret them for our children. And they also need to become sort of embedded in our thinking and in the way our family operates. We often segregate big discussions but I want you to understand that anxiety is a way we operate and so we can’t segregate anxiety work to a once a week thing. Anxiety is not a Topic with a capital t; it’s a way of functioning and that’s how anti-anxiety needs to be, too.

Think about other values that are automatically practiced in your family like living out kindness by saying please and thank you or living out responsibility by prioritizing homework or whatever. These value practices might be so automatic that you don’t notice them unless you visit someone else and you realize, oh so not every family greets each other when they get home. Or not every family has a chore list. A value of anti-anxiety needs to be practiced. It needs to become a way of functioning. First we learn it, we learn how to enact it in our family, and then we practice it.

Let’s discuss more what those skills, those cognitive behavioral tools, look like.

I’m going to use the section headings from my CBT Family course in the membership to illustrate this. It’s important to know that in real life these skills aren’t so neatly classified. They overlap each other and they build on each other. But this will give you a general ideas.

Section 1 Understanding Anxiety

We need to know how anxiety shows up for us. How does it show up in our bodies, how does it work. We need to be able to spot and label it. Remember anxiety is not danger but it can feel and look like danger. Understanding the difference is a big part of learning to overcome it. 

Section 2 Feelings Literacy 

I meet lost of people — kids and adults — who struggle with knowing how they feel. But recognizing, labeling and learning to handle our emotions is an essential part of resilient functioning. This is also important as part of that first bit of understanding anxiety. Because anxiety can sometimes feel like anger — anxiety can make us irritable and it can also make us meltdown and it can also feel like sadness — we may feel anxious that no one likes us or that we are failing, which can make us sad.

Section 3 Self Esteem/Self Concept 

Self esteem is what we think other people think of us and self concept is what we think of ourselves. Lots of anxious kids struggle with self esteem as just part of that anxious functioning. They may worry excessively about what other people think or their negative emotional bias may make them assume they know that other people don’t think well of them. And with self concept, the anxious child needs to start believing in their ability to face and deal with their anxiety. This can be a chicken and egg thing. They may need to feel strong to face anxiety but they may need to face anxiety to feel strong.
Section 4 Calm Down Tools 

Lots of families start here. Most families I talk to have done some calm down practice, especially deep breathing. But starting here is putting the cart before the horse. These are important skills for sure but they are absolutely not the be all end all of anxiety. Just calming down is not enough to bring to the anxious table.

Section 5 Understanding Thinking 

This section is meta cognition, which is thinking about thinking and this is some big philosophical work. Little kids aren’t going to be able to do this, they’re just not going to have the developmental capacity. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get ahead of that. This is hard work even for adults and it can bring up a lot of different feelings, which takes us back to emotional literacy. See what I mean about how this builds on itself? Don’t let that discourage you though because Understanding thinking is a lot of fun, too. Or at least it can be and it’s definitely something we relearn in new contexts.

A basic example of this is learning that story The Blind Men and the Elephant. There are picture book versions of this so I’m hoping it’s familiar but the gist is several blind men come across an elephant and they all experience the elephant differently. One gets a hold of the trunk and thinks an elephant is like a snake, one gets a hold of the ear and thinks the elephant is like a fan. One gets a hold of the leg and thinks an elephant is like a column. Anyway, That’s thinking about thinking, understanding that our perspective defines our reality and not always accurately.

Section 6 Shifting Attention 

This is about learning how to distract ourselves when anxiety threatens to take over. These are mindfulness tools, giving ourselves space to appreciate anxiety from a distance. This has overlap with calm down tools, it has overlap with meta cognition. And of course feeling literacy and understanding anxiety. These are powerful skills and again, take practice.

Section 7 Exposure Tasks

Eventually as we get better at staying out of the parenting pitfalls, our children will be able to take over designing exposure tasks or recognizing opportunities to confront their anxiety. This is also a skill and it’s based on all of the other skills. At the beginning exposure tasks may be fairly formal — if you join and take the Strong Kids Strong Families course you’ll see how confronting pitfalls is at first organized and formal — but as we get better at spotting them and confronting them, it can become second nature. That’s what those tasks are about.

You of course can find ways to teach these skills to yourself. You can buy some of the anxiety workbooks and looks hem over — they’re generally organized like this but might use different names or break things up a different way. These are also the kinds of things you’re likely to learn in therapy. 

And there is CBT Family inside my membership.

I hope this has given you some ideas about building those anti anxiety values and practices into your family. I welcome any specific questions you. Might have. 

Do you have a question you'd like me to answer on the show?

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