Is There Anything I Can Do To Really Help My Anxious Child?
I stumbled across an old journal last week.
It was for the year 2010 when my oldest son was six and my youngest, three.
I read through it and smiled at all the cute sayings and sweet moments, grateful I had taken the time to record them. (I had completely forgotten that my little guy said “Betty” instead of “belly.”)
I also read through a year’s worth of fears, concerns, and prayers.
All year-long, for both of my boys, I wrote about their increasing levels of anxiety and worst of all, my seeming inability to help them.
My heart hurt, reading my own words, remembering the crippling separation anxiety, and near constant anxiety fueled meltdowns.
The truth is, as much as I wrote about these concerns, I operated as if their anxiety was something they could easily control and manipulate. Seven years later, I know better.
Seven years later, I wish I knew then what I know now.
Those little guys are growing up.
Seven years have brought too many therapists visits to count, a haze of school related anxiety and pressure, numerous diagnoses, and even a couple of prescription medications.
I am happy to say that I don’t feel quite so helpless (as least not as much).
I am overjoyed at the progress they have both made.
I am relieved to see anxiety being slowly replaced by confidence and joy.
But the reality is, that anxiety is still here. It doesn’t go away, at least not entirely, no matter how many therapies we employ or prescriptions we fill. It’s worse some days than others and in some seasons than others, but it is always here – an undercurrent in my boys’ lives.
Over the years, I have received advice from so many well-meaning people, many of them experts.
“If you give in to him, he will just do it again next time.”
“It’s healthy for him to have some time away from you.”
“If you ignore it, he will stop doing it. He’s only trying to get attention..”
Over the years, I have blamed myself and my children for so many things that I can see now are far beyond any of our control.
And over the years, after so many failures and so much trial and error, I have slowly but surely found some things that help.
Is There Anything I Can Do To Really Help My Anxious Child?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy focuses on the relationship between what we think, how we feel and what we do. It’s not “talk therapy” nor does it focus on anything from the past. It deals primarily with what is currently causing anxiety, encouraging self-discovery to find what works.
While there are conflicting opinions about whether or not formal CBT really helps younger children (CBT requires active participation and motivation on the part of the patient), there are many ways we can implement elements of CBT at home and with helpful results.
The first step in this approach is to introduce our children to the basic idea that feelings, thoughts, and actions are all connected. For my son, this hastily drawn visual has been the most helpful in explaining this concept.
I have also found it helpful to encourage my boys that everyone feels anxious at times. Helping them see that anxiety is actually a normal emotion, and something that we can learn to feel without being totally overwhelmed, has been important in their overall development.
In the past, I tried to tell my children what they needed to do to calm down. (Incidentally, no one every actually calms down just because someone tells them to calm down. And yet, I still find myself saying it all the time. ) Ownership breeds confidence, and confidence is critical in helping our children manage their overwhelming anxiety.
For both of my boys, it seems that strategies for calming down fall into three basic categories –
Knowing this, I want to ask them what they need and what they think may help when they are feeling anxious.
What Helps Me Relax?
What Are Helpful Distractions?
What Gets Me Moving?
Important Note: I ask these questions when my child is completely calm. A child already feeling anxious and in “fight or flight” mode will not have the presence of mind nor patience to consider any solutions.
Here is an example –
Once my child has thought of some things that he thinks will help him calm down, we go back to the initial diagram and talk through stressors, feelings, thoughts, and actions. I do this part after thinking of solutions because it helps my child feel calmer and more confident when discussing the more difficult stressors and feelings.
Completing these types of exercises regularly (and casually – the last thing an anxious child needs is more pressure) has been instrumental in helping my children cope with often crippling anxiety. It gives them tools to cope. It gives me tools to help them cope.
When I see my child’s anxiety escalating, I can say, “Oh no, this is making you feel angry and anxious. Let’s think about some of the things you said help you. Remember when Harry Potter fought Snape with his mind? That’s what you are doing right now. You are as brave as he is. You said art was a good choice. Would you like to do some chalk art while you calm down a bit?”
Sometimes, my child will easily transition into an activity, but honestly, most of the time he resists at first. I stay close and calm, referencing the options and eventually, he settles enough to transition to a self-identified calming activity.
Depending on the age of your child, you may need to change the activity a bit. When my youngest son was six, this conversation happened at the park and did not involve a worksheet. We just made a big list of all the things he loved and then put it up on the fridge.
If you are interested in learning more, there are several workbooks and resources I have used and would recommend.
If you think CBT might be a good next step for you child, I would encourage you to look into providers in your area. Although these exercises at home are incredibly helpful, I have also worked off and on with professionals when needed.
Most of all, I want to encourage you that you are not alone in this and your child is not the only one. Yes, anxiety can be devastating in our daily lives and in the hearts of our children. Please, let me encourage you, small steps, taken one right after the other, make a significant difference over time.
You know your child best. You see what works and what doesn’t work.
It is my hope that in providing this overview, you can take that essential, mom-only knowledge and help your anxious child in ways that are practical and meaningful.
Shawna Wingert is a special education teacher turned educational consultant, and mom of two brilliant boys who have learning differences and special needs.
Shawna has also written four books: Everyday Autism, Special Education at Home, Parenting Chaos, and Homeschooling Your Child With Special Needs. A passionate advocate for individualized education, Shawna is frequently featured on Today.com, Simple Homeschool, Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers and The Mighty. She can also be found supporting parents online at her own site, DifferentByDesignLearning.com.