How to Conquer Anxiety in Baby Steps

When we are dealing with anxiety, we must be careful not to confuse anxiety for weakness. This is especially true for children. When anxiety attacks, children can easily think of themselves as weak. And sometimes it's us, the parents, who equate fear and weakness. And linking fears with weakness is a self-esteem killer if there ever was one.

Sometimes toddlers are afraid of the dark, right? And usually, you wouldn't worry about it. But what happens when that fear lingers into middle-school?

When anxiety comes more frequently, children can start to change their behavior. They stop going to social gatherings. losing sleep, or get lower grades. In my experience, usually, that’s when families will reach out to therapy. Parents dealing with anxiety hate seeing their kids withdraw from their favorite activities, and they tend to ask me if I “can just take his fears away?”

Wanting the bad things to go away quickly is a hallmark of our society today. It’s definitely one of the major problems I recognize when working with parents. Our society tells us that we have to be our best and show our best to the world. Oh, and society also tells us that we can achieve anything.

So it’s no wonder many parents find themselves feeling worn out trying to be the best parent there is. And when their kids are dealing with anxiety they feel ashamed. What happens then? They want to get rid of those bad feelings in themselves and in their kids.

As much as I’d love to help with that, usually fears can’t go away as easily and quickly as parents would like to. What I can do, however, is work with the parents (and child) to help them hold their emotion better.

This is a different kind of post. I'm going to share with you the story of one family that I’ve counseled. My goal is to illustrate how crucial it is that we – as parents – will honor the small steps that our kids (and ourselves) make on the way to leading a better, less fearful life.

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Dana’s story – Dealing with Sudden Anxiety

Dana was a sweet seven years old girl (as with every case illustration in this blog, all the names and identifying details have been changed to respect the family's privacy). The only daughter of Mike and Janet, she was an outgoing and curious girl, that never had any significant fears or other problems.

In the weeks before Mike and Janet called me, Dana started refusing to go to her grandparents’ home. She used to love visiting their wide, beautiful home with its large yard. But one weekend, as the family was getting ready to go out, she said she can’t go because her tummy hurts.

Mike and Janet suggested that a cup of her grandma’s famous soothing tea will do her good, but Dana just started crying inconsolably. Perplexed Mike and Janet decided to cancel the trip and for the rest of the day, Dana felt great and had no more complaints.

In the following week, Dana announced that “My tummy will hurt tomorrow so I won’t go”. Mike and Janet understood that something is going on and asked her about it. All Dana could say is that she doesn’t want to go to her grandparents’ home anymore.

Mike and Janet reached out to me and came for a consultation. During our conversation, I have learned that Mike’s father had Parkinson’s Disease for the last couple of years. Dana was born after the disease broke out but in recent months his condition has worsened and he started using a wheelchair. Also, the family hired a male-nurse to take care of him.

However, no conversation was made with Dana to explain the new condition. We realized that Dana has developed fears both of her grandpa’s condition and also of the caretaker, a new stranger that was introduced into the family.

 

Kids Need Emotional Mediation

As adults, we are used to seeing the world and understanding what’s going on. We tend to forget how things looked when we were kids, without the knowledge we have today.

Children have to learn SO MUCH about the world and they need to have tons of experiences that will teach them how things work and relate to each other. That’s how they develop this crucial understanding, and they really need us to help them.

When you have a baby, you do this all the time. You sit together and look at a picture book, saying “That’s a cow, and this is a cat!”. During the day you explain what is going on as you say things like “You’re hungry, that’s why you are crying, here let me give you a bottle”.

emotional mediation
Me teaching my daughter about daily events

As children grow, we naturally do this less and less. Of course, they need it less than babies, but more often than not, we stop explainin’ long before they stop needin’.

But the problems start when we stop explaining what is obvious to us. That's because children's minds will do whatever they can to fill in the gap. Usually, children use their imagination to fill in those blanks. And if you know children, you know how far their imaginations can go.

In Dana’s case, the adult expected her grandfather to need a wheelchair. But she didn’t. As she was already in an age where you have a fine grasp of sickness and death, she made the connection between her grandfather’s condition getting worse and his imminent death.

I’ve talked with Janet and Mike about explaining to Dana what is going on. Together, they found a way to explain, in a language she can understand, what exactly her grandpa’s disease is and why he suddenly needs a wheelchair.

During the conversation, they realized that Dana thought she can catch the disease from her grandfather and that scared her. So, they taught Dana about how microbes and diseases, and as Mike told me later: “It was amazing to see her perplexed face and how she relaxed when it sunk in that she can’t get sick by hanging around her grandfather”.

learning about emotions
Children need us to teach them to use emotional language

How to Teach Kids Emotional Lingo

As they grow up, children learn how to recognize and name their feelings. Dana was scared about her grandpa’s condition but she wasn’t able to say “I’m scared” about this or that. 

 

As parents, we must give our children these words and help them explain to us what they cannot explain to themselves.

So, her parents started to talk about feelings and explained that she was feeling anxious and afraid. They gave her examples of other times she was afraid. The told her of times they themselves were afraid. They normalized these feelings and again explained that her grandfather’s condition – although worse than before – is still ok and that it can’t hurt her.

Other than fear, they also discussed with her the feeling of sadness. We tend to put this feeling aside, telling our kids “Don’t be sad”, but sadness is a really important emotion. It signifies that something dear to us is gone. What Dana was actually sad about is the loss of the grandfather she used to have: the one who could play with her on the grass or take her to eat ice-cream.

Get the free SAFER Method Cheat Sheet

Download the free cheat sheet with The SAFER Method that will help you and your child deal with emotional waves

Step by Step to Dealing Successfully with Anxiety

However, it wasn’t enough. Dana expressed her fears of her grandfather’s male-nurse. This unfamiliar character – again, they didn’t really explain why he’s there – caused her to withdraw. And who can blame her, right?

I suggested the family will have a gathering in a neutral place, to make it easier for Dana. They decided to meet at a restaurant. At first, Dana didn’t want to come and explained she doesn’t want to see her grandpa’s nurse. Eventually, she agreed to come as long as she won’t have to look at him.

And so she did it. She saw her grandparents at the restaurant, sitting as far from the nurse as possible, not looking at him (actually sometimes hiding in her mom’s lap) until the meal was over.

Two weeks later the same arrangement was done. Now Dana was able to sit through the entire lunch without coiling into her mom’s lap. But she still refused to communicate with her grandpa, which was really frustrating to Mike, who felt there’s no improvement.

But actually, there was. Dana succeeded to stay for the entire course of the meal and not run away from her feelings of anxiety. That was an awesome step forward, even though it’s a small step. It’s all about what scale we are using.

 

Small Steps are Big Steps

When dealing with emotions, especially with fear, it’s important that we notice the little nuances in our kid’s behavior. If we only look at our end goal we miss significant steps they make. They may seem like baby steps, but they are huge. Dana’s ability to go to the lunch and stay without hiding or wanting to leave early is a big thing for her.

Dealing with anxiety doesn't really work by jumping into the cold water. Not at all. What you should do is ease your way in. Children's fears need you to respect the process and move gradually. You should challenge your kid but do so slowly with lots of respect to their window of tolerance.

We should recognize the little steps, because hey – they let us get from one place to another.

Eventually, after working with Mike and Janet, a few weeks went by until I got the following message from Mike:

Hi Eran, I wanted to share with you that we went to my parents today and Dana joined us easily. She’s back to her usual self, happy and outgoing. Yes, she still doesn’t engage with the nurse, but she does look at him every now and then and even dare to walk by him quickly. And more importantly, she’s able to play and laugh with her grandpa.

 

Featured image by Brittany Simuangco

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