Even though I’m a psychologist, I have a child with anxiety. It turns out that being a therapist doesn’t automatically protect our family from that reality. My little boy can’t help it, I can’t help it; some of us are just hard-wired that way.
My son Jake is a sweet, active, thoughtful, wild, kind, cheeky six-year-old. Even at such a young age, I already see that he struggles daily with the worry monster. You know the one I’m talking about. We’ve all met him on one occasion or another. But the worry monster has taken up residence in Jake’s brain, and he battles it with a fierce intensity. As his parents, it falls on us to help him through it. Whew… Heavy burden, no?
Jake is incredibly gifted in the art of verbal debate, and his debates with me are often manifestations of his internal angst. I have learned to listen carefully to whatever he is fighting for, because it gives me a glimpse of what the worry monster is nagging him about. If he argues with me about staying after school for a special activity (one that I know he really wanted to do yesterday)…. it’s a clue that there’s something there that he’s worried about.
Sometimes I forget to read the clues he’s offering me; in moments of frustration I feel like he’s just trying to be difficult. Like when he balks at walking 2 houses down the street to his friend’s for a play date he’s been dying to have. But he’s not really trying to be difficult. He’s just anxious.
It’s that damn worry-monster riling up his nervous system, leaving him feeling agitated and frightened, heart and mind racing, palms sweating. But he’s 6, so it’s hard for him to realize and verbalize that it’s worry driving his angst and arguments.
Dan Peters, Ph.D. wrote a wonderful book about helping children with worry. As a psychologist who has worked with many kids and families, I can tell you that Peters’ methods and suggestions in Make Your Worrier a Warrior are tried and true. If you take your child to a therapist tomorrow, these are the things any good one will tell you. And his book is a lot cheaper, so give it a try first.
So what do my husband and I personally do to help Jake when he gets anxious? Whether he’s afraid to leave me to go play with a friend, or getting out of the car to walk into school in the morning, the steps we take are always the same.
1) Set predictable routines…
I can almost guarantee that the times Jake (and dozens of other kids I have worked with in my private practice) has an anxiety-based meltdown, something has been altered in his universe in a way that has made him uncomfortable. Routines decrease anxiety. It’s that simple.
2) Teach him breathing and relaxation exercises (when he’s not anxious!).
The key is that you have to do this when he’s not anxious!! Then when you’re knee-deep in an worry-meltdown moment, you can say, “Let’s breathe together.” Breathing by itself may not solve the whole problem. But it’s important for both of you. When your child is upset, you feel upset. So don’t rush (embrace the fact that you will be late to wherever you were planning to be at that moment), and take some time to get calm together. Here’s a link to my favorite YouTube video by Leah Kalish demonstrating breathing relaxation exercises for kids.
3) Call the worry-monster out for being a big, ugly, mean bully . Yes, he’s a bully that lives inside each of us. In this era of bully-awareness, kids can relate to this idea. The solution to his bullyness? We have to talk back to this bully and keep him from pushing us around. Every time we talk to him and about him, it makes him weaker. This is a concrete image that children can grasp. With practice, it becomes second nature. Following Dr. Peter’s tips will help you give your child the tools she needs to deal with her worry for the rest of her life. So give it a try, and just say no to the bully-monster.
I hope these tips and ideas help any of you who struggle with this same problem. It’s tough being a parent. We have to stick together.