How Am I Supposed To Deal With My Kid’s Anxiety When I Can’t Even Deal With My Own?
Sometimes when he cries I just start crying too.
My 6-year-old son and I have the same color eyes and we both wear glasses. We both save our favorite food for last at meals. We both like to follow instructions step by step (building LEGOs is a meticulous process in our house) and when we start a project we like to finish it promptly.
We also both wrestle with anxiety.
My son struggles with numerous intense, unexplainable fears. He walks around our house with a blanket over his head, shrieking if he’s left alone in a room. He has trouble falling asleep at night because, he wonders, “What if I simply can’t fall asleep?” He asks frequently if tornadoes or floods could occur in our neighborhood.
When he was 2, he would walk up the stairs in our home, get to the top, glance around, and whisper: “No bears?” We laugh about it now, “Why in the world would you think there were bears in the house?”, but I look back and realize his fearful nature started young and I have no idea why.
So I put him in therapy, and every week we make emotion charts and talk about how we can cope if things don’t go our way and how I can help him navigate big feelings.
Inevitably, his therapist will ask how I responded to various situations we faced during the previous week, and I’ll readily admit that I struggle with how to help him, and then I feel helpless that I can’t help him, and I spiral. “Sometimes, when he cries, I just start crying,” I once told her. She nodded sympathetically, assured me I was doing my best, and gave me some tips on how to hopefully stop future tantrums before they start.
I try not to spend his sessions unloading on her; that’s what my own weekly therapy sessions are for. My own therapist helps me deal with what I can control, but my son’s helps us both.
With a rising number of kids struggling with anxiety, I knew I wasn’t alone in figuring out how best to deal with the situation, so I reached out to some experts.
“A lot of times for parents of anxious kids or kids in an anxious moment, it becomes this anxiety in stereo,” said Tamar Chansky, psychologist and author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety.
“The child is spiraling ahead about, “What’s going to happen about da da da,’ and the parent is, “‘Oh no. If they’re having this problem at 6 years old, what’s going to happen to them?’”
She reminds parents to come back to the moment at hand:
“If we can come back to the present then just very strategically we can empathize and say, ‘It’s scary when you don’t know, is that what you’re feeling? I feel that way sometimes.’”
As parents, we want to make the bad things go away. But it’s important to remember that it’s not possible for us to remove our children from anxiety-causing situations.
“Our goal as parents is to be regulated more than to be sort of rescuers,” Chansky said. “It really goes against our wiring in a sense of just our own fight or flight, if you see your child struggling, you get activated: ‘Get them out of there!’” But what kids need from us is our stability and regulation, she explained — not for us to bail them out of every moment of discomfort.
Dr. Lynn Lyons is a psychotherapist and author of numerous books, including “Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children,” which she co-authored with Reid Wilson. She said, “The goal is to have your child be able to step into a situation in which there is uncertainty or there is discomfort and have them be able to manage it.”
When you allow worry to show up rather than working so hard to get rid of it, it becomes less powerful, she said. When you pull worry out and externalize it, you can put space between yourself and your anxiety.
Parents and children can each give their anxiety a name and talk to it. If my child tells me he’s afraid he won’t be able to fall asleep, I can tell his worry part that they are being silly because my son knows how to fall asleep.
Keeping things light and simple is key, Lyons said. Bringing humor into the situation and telling your child’s worry part that they are so silly will work wonders.
“There is going to be a ton of stuff going on inside of you and that’s ok, but I want you to be pretty cool as a cucumber, use your humor,” Lyons said. “Anxiety wants us to be really serious about this, it’s very catastrophic, so a little playfulness is great.
“You’re modeling how to not get sucked into [anxiety’s] narrative, because [anxiety’s] narrative is always, ‘oh no,’” Lyons said. “If we’re talking about a parent who has their own anxiety helping their child, it is really fine and helpful for you to all talk about how this anxiety thing works and how it shows up for you and how it shows up for your child in a very concrete, non-reactive way,” Lyons added.
Those words comforted me the most during our talk because maybe facing my own anxiety is making me uniquely equipped to help my child. My son and I have named our anxiety; Lyons suggested calling them Bob and Edith. Last night, when my son worried about falling asleep, I told Bob that my son is good at falling asleep. Then I went to my own room and told Edith that I was a good mom.
When she pops up again, whether she tells me this is all my fault because I passed my anxiety on to him or she tells me his fears are slowing stamping out his childhood joy, I’m going to tell Edith she’s wrong. I’m not going to try to make her go away, just as I can’t make my son’s worries go away. I’m going to face my anxiety, and manage it, and while I learn to do that, I’m going to learn how to help my kid do it, too.
Lauren Davidson is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor focusing on parenting, arts and culture, and weddings. She has worked at newspapers and magazines in New England and western Pennsylvania and is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with degrees in English and French. She lives with her editor husband, four energetic kids, and one affectionate cat. Follow her on Twitter @laurenmylo.