This is an interesting question because generally people don’t ask it unless they’re already concerned and they’re wondering if they’re overreacting, which obviously points to some anxiety on the part of the parent.
I do sometimes hear from parents who are concerned about their child’s anxiety and then a thorough assessment shows that their child doesn’t have anxiety or at least not clinical levels of anxiety. Because of course we all have anxiety or at least we should, because anxiety is part of being a healthy functioning, human.
Think about it, it’s normal to get anxious before a big exam or before a big presentation or before you’re going to run your first 5k or before your first date with someone new. Anxiety is just part of life.
Clinical anxiety is when that anxiety is interfering with life. So if you’re throwing up before a big exam, or if you’re having panic attacks before your big presentation.
Or if you want to run a 5k, but you never sign up because you’re so sure you’re going to fail.
Or if you want to go out on dates and you never do because you’re too nervous.
Now those would be clinical levels. But back to that worried parent who is maybe worried even though their child isn’t showing clinical levels. Well, I think that worry needs attention too. And again, it’s not uncommon.
Let me break this question down a little more. Instead of asking when you should be concerned, let’s change it to two different questions.
The first would be when should I get help for my anxious child? And the second would be, what do I need to do to take care of my own concern, unrelated to whether or not the child meets clinical levels?
So the first question, when should I get help for my anxious child, that down and dirty answer is if your child is stuck or you are stuck.
If their anxiety is limiting their life or your life, then it’s time to get help. If they’re missing out on social or educational opportunities; if they seem unhappy or frustrated with themselves; if their self esteem is tanking because of what they can’t do then it’s time to get help.
And if you are missing out on social or educational or work opportunities; if you can’t go have coffee with friends because your child melts down; or if you are having to miss work because the school is calling about your child’s anxiety; or if you are just so nervous about them that you’re losing sleep then it’s time to get help.
But what if your child is managing pretty well and you’re still worried about them? What if they’re able to do the things, all those things I listed, but you see them struggle and the struggle is upsetting to you or scares you?
Well, then we’re talking about your anxiety and it’s time to get help.
One of the things that we know about anxiety is that anxiety occurs when people have a more negative outlook or look at a neutral situation and interpret it in negative ways and sometimes this is happening with parents. So again, they’ll tell me that they’re concerned about their child’s anxiety and we do an assessment and the child is not actually anxious.
But it’s clear that the parent is experiencing them as anxious because the parent has anxiety. So they’re reporting things more negatively.
When we look at the child from an objective clinical point of view, we see the kid’s functioning is fine, but they are struggling because to struggle is part of being human.
The child might be anxious before they have to speak in front of the class and they maybe get a tummy ache and they’re worried about it and they fret a little bit but they’re able to do it. However the parent is seeing them fret and struggle and it’s upsetting the parent and that’s the parent’s anxiety. That doesn’t mean it’s not real because of course it’s real it’s just real for the parent and that deserves attention
Happily anxiety treatment is a family affair. So if you’re concerned it makes sense that you should get help. As I’ve said in previous posts, research shows that when you get help, it will help your child. So I’d say the first step is for you to get help and then in the context of you getting help, you can start to figure out if your child needs their own individualized support.
I’ll talk about finding a counselor for your child in a future post. But let’s focus on what you getting help can mean for your family.
This is the wonderful thing about a parent getting help for their child’s anxiety: Your child is part of the family system. The research shows that the family system needs to shift in order for your child’s anxiety to shift. The shifts we recommend in anxiety treatment really come down to helpful boundaries that support instead of accommodate anxiety. I know in order to set up and hold those boundaries parents need to work on their own coping skills because setting boundaries with anyone — let alone our kids — is hard. At first we’re sure to feel anxious about it but feeling anxious is how we overcome anxiety.
I’m simplifying things a lot here, but I hope you catch my drift. When the parent changes, the family system changes. And when the family system changes, the other family members change. It’s just how it works. In short, if the child’s anxiety is an issue the parent getting help will help. And if the child’s anxiety is not an issue, if it’s the parent’s anxiety, that is an issue the parent getting help will help. Which is all to say, when should you be concerned about your child’s anxiety? The answer is when you’re concerned. Then it’s a concern.
It’s either a clinical level of concern for your child, or it’s a concern for you because if you’re worried that worried, deserves attention.
I think it’s really important that we acknowledge that when it comes to family systems, that parents are part of the system, the child is part of the system. And any time we introduce more supports and information and interventions into one part of the family system, the whole system shifts.
You are the most powerful person in the system (although I know sometimes when we’re dealing with child anxiety, we can feel pretty powerless) and you’ve got the power to shift things in your family. You just need the information. So you know how to shift things and the support so that you’re able to shift things and I promise you that things will change.