It seems that on every swing, in every class room and grasping on to every mothers leg, is an anxious child. Behind every anxious child, there is usually an anxious parent. I say this because it is the reason for most referrals to a counsellor or psychologist. It is the reason why I have to speak more with a parent when helping these children than I do with the child. I say this because my posts on anxiety and how to help children that are suffering are still the most searched for posts on my blog.
I am not about to go in to reasons why I think we have more anxious kids than ever before. The reasons are many and varied and probably require a whole other series of posts. I am not talking here about those kids who have been diagnosed with other disorders that means anxiety is a part of that disorder that requires specific treatment. In saying that however, I do think that many disorders are over diagnosed when what we are really looking at is simply anxiety. No it isn’t always simple. But that is what it is. Again that is another post!
So how does the parent feed this anxiety?
Two ways I believe.
The first is simply by having anxiety themselves.
Sometimes the parent is aware of this, sometimes they are not. I have heard on numerous occasions “Oh she probably gets it from me as I suffer from extreme anxiety”. So the best way to treat anxiety for your child is to get treatment for yourself.
- Listen to how you talk around your child.
- Are you giving them signals that the world is a scary place?
- Are you challenging yourself to face fears and move out of your comfort zone?
- Are you constantly focusing on the things that can go wrong no matter how likely or unlikely?
- Are you prefacing every statement with a ‘be careful’, a ‘don’t do that because this could happen?’ or an ‘I’d better come with you, do it for you, help you?’
Easy things to do as we want to make sure our kids are ok. We all do it at times, but are you doing it so much that this is the only message your child is getting? I once counselled a child who was anxious about going on school camp. When I probed further I found out that mum had booked herself in to a motel next to camp and told her son that if anything goes wrong she is going to be right there over the road. She in fact was giving her son the message that it is so highly likely that something will go wrong that I have gone to the effort and expense of hiring a motel room just to hang out and wait for your distressed call. I made mum cancel the motel,the child went along and he had a great time.
The second way parents fuel the fear is by being too accommodating. In their endeavours to help their child they invarioubly put them at greater risk of further entrenching the anxiety. We want to protect them. A natural result of the parent child relationship. We want to ensure they are safe and secure. By taking away their fears we believe we can help with their anxiety and reassure them that the world is ok. But in doing so we are often preventing them from tackling these fears, from taking on this anxiety and from ever hoping of recovering.
We often talk about treating anxiety with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. In short it is about the way the words in our head effect our actions and behaviours. If we tell ourselves something is to be feared we are obviously going to display emotional and phsyical signs of fear. We will sweat, our heart rate will increase, we will feel sick in the stomach, feel dizzy and be unable to adequatley function or take part in an activity.
To combat this we look at the stepladder approach which you can read more about here. We slowly introduce activities to tell our brains that what we were initially thinking was actually untrue. That our fears were unfounded, and the likelihood of things going wrong is far less than previously thought.
To do so we need to expose our kids to the fear, not protect them from it. Again another difficult thing to do as a parent when we want to keep them safe and happy.
Anxiety is maintained through avoidance. By exposing them gradually to a little at a time we allow them to get used to the idea. By exposing them to places or activities that cause anxiety we are helping to combat the fears.
Having a child with anxiety can be extremely stressful for both parent and child. But it is important to know that with a few changes in talk, behaviour, strategy and belief, then kids can get back to experiencing joy in the everyday.