Years ago, I worked with a little boy who was terrified to separate from his mother. Even in their home, his mother could not go into another room (not even the bathroom!) to be by herself. Her son was extremely fearful, and she was beyond exhausted by it. After the first session with me, the little boy refused to come back to see me. He didn’t like me, and I had offended him in some way. The mother asked for referrals to another therapist, but I told her to try and give it a shot a little longer. I explained that sometimes children avoid going to therapy because it causes them anxiety to come and talk about their anxiety. The mother agreed, and we continued.
The second meeting, we named his worry and talked about what his worries were telling him. After several questions, he began telling me that his worries told him that while he was in the office with me, his mother would leave and never come back. We then used a worry thermometer to identify how worried he was that this would happen. On a scale of 0 (totally calm, no worry) to 10 (the worst anxiety he could imagine), he said he was at an 8, and it was hard to be in the office with me. I had his mother come back, and we talked about his fears together. To his mother, this seemed like such a silly fear, and one that should easily be resolved. His mother absolutely adored him, and there was never any indication that she would leave. She didn’t understand how he could not be talked out of the worry by explaining that she wouldn’t leave and loved him dearly. If you have any experience with worry, you know it is often silly, out of proportion, and illogical. But when our body responds with that adrenaline rush, it feels very real. If your child is experiencing worry, the first step is to help them understand anxiety and talk back to it.
Validate and Normalize
If your child is anxious and worried, make sure to validate your child’s emotions. Tell them, “I see you’re worried or afraid right now. It’s ok, I get worried and afraid sometimes too.” Through our blog, social media, and free resources, we talk all the time about how all emotions are allowed. One of the reasons we want you to communicate this to your child is because the more your child tries to hide or control their emotions, the bigger they become in their lives. We are all going to feel emotions and that is ok. We just want our children to learn how to manage them, so that worries do not end up controlling how they live their life. Additionally, let your child know that worries are normal and something that everyone experiences. For instance, most children are afraid to get shots, sleep over at a friend’s house for the first time, or be in a dark room alone. Fears can help protect us, and we need them. However, sometimes our worries get stuck in our brain, and they just don’t want to go away. When that happens, there are some things that we can do to help.
Teach your Child How Worries Get Started and Stuck
The type of treatment that we use to help children understand and overcome worries is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy has been well-researched and is effective in helping both children and adults ovecome anxiety. In CBT, we learn that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors all interact in a way that can either help us overcome anxiety or be trapped by it. As we learned a few weeks ago, when we are faced with a threat, our body goes into fight, run, or freeze mode. But sometimes there is no actual threat, it is just a thought that a situation might be a threat. For instance, in my example above, the boy thought that his mother was going to leave and never come back. She wasn’t actually going to leave him, but the thought triggered fear and danger (feeling), which then triggered the desire to flee or escape (behavior). He told his mother he didn’t like me in an effort to avoid going to therapy and be separated from her. In this example, you can see how there can be a powerful and upsetting chain reaction of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Help your child to then identify those feelings that start in their body when the worry starts. This might be a headache, stomachache, feeling faint, tearing up or crying, sweating, trembling, feeling dizzy, feeling nauseous, fast heartbeats, or difficulty standing. Let your child know that what they are experiencing is real and the feelings are very uncomfortable. It can be scary and feel absolutely awful. Because of how awful it feels, most children then “flee” situations in order to avoid those feelings. For instance, the boy in my example avoided these feelings by staying next to his mother at all times. If she was apart from him, his worry that she would leave him came back and the panic started. So to keep those anxious feelings away, he stayed close to his mother at all times. Though this made him comfortable in the short-term, it made his anxiety grow stronger and stronger. It is important for us to let our kids know that anxiety grows bigger and stronger in our lives through avoidance. Why? Because each time we avoid, we are saying to anxiety, “I believe you.” The more we listen to it, the more it takes control. But, we can make it go away by talking back to it and not listening to it.
Give Anxiety A Silly Name
Now that your child knows how anxiety got started and stuck, they need to learn how to take control of it. Sometimes anxiety can feel like it is who we are and a part of us. It takes control of our bodies so fast, it feels like it is us. We want our kids to feel like anxiety is something that is NOT a part of them. It is no more a part of them than an infection that is temporarily in their body. To do this, we like to have kids give their anxiety a name—the sillier the better! The Stinky Bully, The Grouchy Monster, The Overreactor, Mr. Nag, etc. It’s not only fun to make it silly, but it also lightens the mood when talking about a subject that can feel scary and serious. Anxiety hates laughter and humor. It’s hard to feel worried when you are laughing, so have fun with this!
Talk Back to Anxiety
I like to introduce kids to anxiety and liken it to a bully. Most kids know of bullies through experiences, television shows, or books. Bullies are mean, bossy, and often tell us things that aren’t true. Just because bullies are loud and scary, doesn’t mean they are telling the truth. Anxiety is the same way. We need to teach our children to be assertive and stand up to their anxiety bully. When talking to your child, use the name you chose and talk about it as if it is outside of your child. In the example above, I might say, “What is Mr. Nag telling you will happen if mom goes into another room? Do you believe Mr. Nag? Are there things that might tell you Mr. Nag is wrong?
As parents, we often want to reassure our kids. In the example I gave you, the mother often tried to tell her son, “I won’t leave you and I love you.” Instead, we want you to communicate to your child that worry is not to be trusted and often lies. By asking questions, you can have your child use their own language to talk back to their anxiety, which is far more effective than you giving them that language.
Lastly, help your child separate feelings from facts. Their emotions are so strong at times, it can make them feel that the thought must be real. Help them to understand that their emotions and their anxiety are not to be trusted. To go back to our example above, the boy might think, “My mom is going to leave me and never come back.” You might say, “Is that what Mr. Nag is telling you will happen? What do you believe might actually happen?” The boy might say, “That is probably just Mr. Nag telling me lies. Mom has never left and not come back. So I will probably be fine.” By focusing on the facts, the boy could see that it was very unlikely that his mother would leave and never come back for him, given that it never happened his whole life.
Be a Supportive Parent
Remember, helping your child develop this type of thinking and separate facts from feelings takes time. Be patient and understanding. If your child makes the decision to enter a situation that is scary or demonstrates coping thoughts, praise your child and reward the coping behavior. Standing up to anxiety is hard work!
In a few weeks, we will continue the discussion on anxiety with making a plan to face your child’s fears. In the meantime, make sure to download our Free Relaxation Guide to get started on teaching your child skills to relax their body and unplug their body’s false alarm. As always, let us know if you have any questions.
Have a wonderful week!