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Parenting an Anxious Child

Parenting Your Anxious Child(1)After last week’s information workshop about Kids & Anxiety, the parents expressed interest in an ongoing, drop-in group for parenting the anxious child. I think this is a great idea for several reasons:

  • Parenting an anxious child or teen is stressful. Peer support is a great way to feel less isolated and more hopeful. Getting encouragement from parents who know your struggle can go a long way to helping you help your child.
  • Overcoming anxiety is a matter of learning certain skills and practicing them regularly. We will learn anti-anxiety skills and discuss ways to implement them in your child’s daily life.
  • We will explore various options including but not limited to therapy, classes, workbooks and apps so that you can figure out what will work for you and your child. I will regularly share resources from around the community to help you be the best advocate for your child.
  • Since many anxious kids have anxious parents, we will also explore our own anxiety and talk about ways to support ourselves in becoming great role models for our kids.

I’ve decided to start the group on the second Wednesday of each month starting June 10th at 7pm. It will be a monthly drop in group and ongoing meaning that you can come when it makes sense for you.

If you are interested, please fill out the form below and I will add you to my list to get meeting reminders, which you will be able to unsubscribe from at any time. Or give me a call to learn more: (614) 301-8030.

Parenting an Anxious Child Support Reminders

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What Kids Understand

what kids understandParents can get stuck when it comes to talking to kids about difficult subjects. Sex, divorce, adoption — parents come to me wanting to know what to say and when.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because there aren’t easy answers. Like I always say, kids are individuals so even though we can look at child developmental tables and make general guidelines (like these from Child Welfare Information Gateway about adoption and these from Today’s Parent about the birds and the bees) applying them to your actual real life and actual real child is more challenging.

Like, what if you’re not comfortable with the topic? And what if your child is asking questions that the guidelines say they shouldn’t be asking yet? Or what if they’re not asking questions the guidelines say they should? Or what if your 7-year old asks while his 4-year old brother is in the car with you both? Whose development are you supposed to be talking to then?

Here’s the thing I want parents to know — those of you concerned about doing it wrong are unlikely to do that. Seriously. Parents who are putting thought into this — enough thought to read through this post — are pretty darn likely to be thoughtful in their sharing. So know that. Know that you may not say the exact right thing but that’s not the same as saying the entirely wrong thing.

Kids do get confused. We tell them things and they don’t understand it. This doesn’t mean that you told it wrong or that they weren’t ready to hear it. You say something and they listen and they think about it and they mix stuff up or get things wrong or forget what you said and then they need to hear you say it again.

Ok, my daughter gave me permission to share this with you.

When she was 5-years old she started asking some very particular questions about her adoption. (She hasn’t given me permission to share those particulars so let’s just stay general.) I answered them. They weren’t easy questions — they were a little more in depth than those charts say she’d be asking — but she asked so I answered. Two weeks later she asked them again. A few days later she made a statement that made clear that she was still confused.

Each time was an opportunity to correct her confusion, to help her process the information and to move her forward in her thinking. After those three times she could talk about the topic clearly and could even reflect back on her confusion. She could explain to me why she thought what she did and — importantly — move past the facts that were tripping her up and share with me her feelings, which in some ways informed some of that confusion.

This is the thing about learning — learning needs to happen at different times and in different places to really stick. When we say, “I don’t think a child that age can understand that” we’re ignoring the fact that how children grow in understanding is through discussion.

Think about a common kindergarten activity, the one where you put a wet paper towel in a ziploc bag, stick a seed in it and tape the whole thing to the window so you can watch it germinate. Do kids really get what’s happening? Do they understand the entire complex process? No, of course not but they are beginning. We don’t wait until they get the hard core science and then tape the bag to the window, right? Of course not. We introduce it early, we introduce it again later, we build on the complexity, we answer their questions. We work to be age appropriate but we also push a little. A kindergartener is not necessarily going to ask you to show her how seeds grow but that doesn’t mean she won’t benefit from watching a bean sprout against her window.

New context and repetition leads to understanding.


Five Nights at Freddy’s: What it is

tunneldark-inside I decided to write this after someone on my Facebook posted about how scared her child is about this game. I’m hearing about it a lot these days — in the anxiety groups, in sessions and in my own home.

Five Nights at Freddy’s is a video game that has both computer and app versions (for Kindles, iPads, etc.). The plot is this: You work at a place like Chuck E. Cheese where animatronic animals come alive at night. You’re the security guard. Your job is to stay alive over all five nights. The animatronics are murderous and the game relies on a lot of jump scares to keep you tense. Here‘s the whole back story if you want to read it.

Besides the game, there are a number of YouTube videos of people playing it with commentary. (My daughter wants me to tell you that there are “not scaries” of it, too, for kids who want in on the game but can’t watch videos with the scary parts. But there are still a lot of jump scares in them. If I had to watch a Five Nights at Freddy’s commentary video, I’d watch this animated one because it’s not scary at all.)

I’m hearing from kids that this is at peak attention right now (in fact, as soon as I publish this they will probably move on to something else terrifying because it’s so peak it’s probably peaked) but I’m talking about it because if you’re not aware of it you should be and because the issue of viral fear on the internet is going to be an issue whether it’s Slenderman or Five Nights or whatever else the kids are talking about that we’re not hearing about yet.

And that’s really what’s important to know here. In our day it was Ouija boards and Bloody Mary in the mirror at sleepovers and in their day it’s what the internet has to offer. The big difference is that the internet has the capacity to make things more real. People can create whole worlds online to populate their creepy fantasies, which makes urban legends feel a lot less legendary and a lot more like fact. (My friend on Facebook says that what pushed her child over the edge is that people have created a digital footprint for the pizza place featured in the game to help cement the idea that the whole thing is real. Here’s a kid who made a video about that.)

What I’m saying is that Five Nights at Freddy’s may be what’s happening now but the challenge is not Five Nights at Freddy’s. The challenge is helping our kids be critical thinkers, to manage their anxiety, to figure out how to curate their own internet experiences and to stand up to people out to scare them.

Middle grade kids have some developmental demands that make them particularly vulnerable:

  • They are shifting to be more peer-oriented and independent, meaning that if their 10-year old friend says it’s true then his voice might carry a tad more weight than your voice of reason does;
  • They become more aware of the wide, wide world and the scariness in it, which is why they may be fascinated by scary stories;
  • Their bodies are changing and/or their friends’ bodies are changing and/or they’re becoming more aware of impending change, which may cause them to sublimate this fear into urban legends. Think about it, adulthood is for real and true pretty scary but kids can’t really verbalize this kind of existential fear. It’s a lot easier to be terrified of murderous robotic rabbits.

And now you see why Goosebumps were all the rage for middlegrade 90s kids, too, right? These fears serve a developmental purpose and many of our kids will need grown up help to meet that challenge and grow past it.

So what can concerned parents do?

Set limits: Learn about parental controls. Turn on YouTube safety mode. If you want to install a blocker then by all means do. You may want to create rules like screen time happens in community rooms of the house or that certain apps may not be installed on a child’s tablet. You decide and stick to it.

But be realistic: You can limit access to these games and web sites and videos but you do need to know that your ability to do this will be hampered both by the limits of parental control and by all the kids whose parents don’t block access. Between phones and iPods and Kindle Fires and family computers at someone else’s house, you need to expect that even the most protected child is going to catch sight of these things. That doesn’t mean you should throw up your hands and have a Freddy’s free for all. No, you can still limit it in your home because you’re not just trying to protect your child from the sight of it, you’re also modeling how we care for ourselves in the internet age. We are modeling that if something disturbs you, you should click out. So, yes, live out your family values and set those limits up but don’t assume your work then is done. You’re still going to need to deal with it because your child is going to need to deal with it.

Focus on real consequences instead of punishment: Part of learning to handle the internet and peers is messing up. Kids have to watch a video sometimes to know, oh rats, I should not have watched that. Very often that sinking feeling is a big enough consequence that you won’t need to create any of your own. The internet has a lot of yucky things on it and even the tightest of parental controls won’t keep all of it from slinking through. It is very likely that children will see naked ladies and creepy videos on purpose and on accident. Talk about this possibility before it happens. Talk about what your family values are around this. Talk about what you expect them to do. Let them know that if they see something online that they don’t like, you want to hear about it. When the time inevitably comes, listen with sympathy and then reiterate the rules. What can they do (if anything) to prevent the likelihood of that happening? What should they do if it happens anyway?

Explain to them about their vulnerability: Let them know that this is part of being 8 or 9 or 10. Explain that scary things won’t always feel this scary. Let them know that you are there to help them get through this developmental hurdle. Talk to them about fears that they used to have (that they’d go down the bathtub drain, for instance) and tell that this is like that. You can say, “I know Five Nights at Freddy’s seems really real but it’s no more real than the bathtub drain.” Promise them that they won’t always be this scared. Sometimes knowing that there is a way out (even if you can’t see it) can help. And along those lines…

Share your own middle-grade struggles: I’m not saying sit down and watch old school Poltergeist with them but talk to them about the thing that scared you when you were their age and tell them how you grew out of it. This can be a good exercise for you, too, to remember how scary unreal scary things can be; to maybe come up with solutions (what worked for you?); and to give your child a concrete demonstration that these fears can be conquered. (Ok, maybe you still wouldn’t keep a clown doll at the end of your bed but I bet you no longer quake in fear about that tree outside your window, right?)

Help them get to the bottom of things: You don’t need to bookmark Snopes.com on your kid’s tablet but you can teach them basic information about truth, lies and urban legends. Understanding the way stories get written, how they spread and why we do it can help diminish some of their power.  How Stuff Works has a series of posts on urban legends and AmericanFolklore.net has resources for teachers and parents who might want to delve in further. For some kids, being able to get control in this way can help them feel more powerful and less scared.

Ask for help: Come to the Kids & Anxiety workshop next week to learn more about helping kids handle their worries appropriately. If you can’t be there, contact me and ask for my hand outs. If you think your child might benefit from counseling, let me know. If I’m not the right person to help him or her, likely I know a therapist who can. I’m also going to be running a group again this summer and you can learn more about that here.

Before Kids Will Listen: Relationship Required

Discipline depends less on distance andSometimes when I’m working with a family we need to confront this fact: you have to earn the right to discipline a child.

This can be frustrating to adults who are used to thinking that kids should listen to adults because grown ups are grown ups and therefore get to tell the smaller people what to do. The problem is discipline is about relationships. Children need to know that the person in front of them is someone that they can trust.

This can be an issue for teachers too — why do you think kids are often so terrible to substitutes? The difference is that the teacher’s role as teacher (a position that’s been invested with authority by the culture of the school) buys some time.

But for babysitters, childcare providers, stepparents, grandparents and other loving adults who are stepping into a temporary or permanent parenting role, it’s not realistic to expect blind obedience right from the get go.

This can be frustrating for grandparents who come for a visit and don’t understand why the child won’t listen to them or for stepparents who don’t understand how they got cast in the “mean stepparent” role. There can be lots of frustration and lots of hurt feelings — on both sides and for the parents, too, who may be at a loss to how to support their kids and their loved ones.

So what can you do?

  • Understand that relationships take time and some kids are slower to warm than others. Just because your granddaughter loves it when you treat her to ice cream doesn’t mean she’s ready when you correct her for whining to her mother.
  • Although you may be crazy in love (or like) with this kid, that doesn’t mean he feels the same way about you. You may absolutely adore your stepchild but he may be struggling with issues of loyalty to his mom, or be worried about sharing dad with new step siblings, or feel angry and resentful that a relationship he believed was temporary is clearly not going away.
  • Respect the child’s boundaries and appreciate that a child’s natural tendency to be cautious about listening to authority can stand her in good stead down the line. Blind obedience is never a good thing.
  • Appreciate a child’s need for consistency especially during times of stress and change. If big things are happening — like holidays, like divorce, like moves, like vacations — a child is going to be even more leery about listening to someone new. His instinct will be to shut down and go for the familiar. For grandparents, this may mean remembering that Christmas is super fun but it’s also super stressful and kids are often naturally more clingy and less willing to listen to you. For stepparents, this may mean being patient and waiting for things to settle before you try to get your stepdaughter to clean her room up; let your partner do the heavy lifting.

Remember that discipline is way more than just telling kids what to do, how and when. Discipline happens when we create connection so that the child can trust us when we assert our authority.

Is it all my fault?

Is it all my fault?It’s the therapy stereotype, right? It’s always your mother’s fault! No wonder then that many of the parents I see come in feeling defensive or feeling guilty.

“Did I do something wrong?” they ask me. “Did I create these issues? Is it all my fault?”

My answer to this is probably going to feel frustrating: I don’t know and what’s more, I don’t think it matters.

Here’s the deal: different kids need different kinds of parents and sometimes those different kids live in the same family, which means the fool proof technique you had for dealing with one child’s tantrums is not necessarily going to work with dealing with the next child’s tantrums. In fact, it might make things worse. Remember there is no one size fits all parenting.

Let’s take childhood anxiety. Anxiety has at its core a whole lot of nature and a healthy dose of nurture. Parents with anxious temperaments often give birth to children with anxious temperaments. That’s not anyone’s fault; that’s genetics. Also parents who deal with the world in an anxious way inadvertently model that anxious way of dealing with the world for their children. That’s nobody’s fault either anymore than the way parents who read a lot tend to have kids who read a lot. Modeling is powerful.

That said, once the family realizes that their child is struggling with anxiety there is an opportunity to explore the way that parenting choices may be influencing that struggle.

Let me give you an example. Consider bedtime routines. Any parenting expert type out there will tell you that bedtime routines are terrific, right? Do a quick google and you have people promising you that having a routine will make your evenings “battle-free” and “sleep-inducing.” And I agree — having a predictable routine before bed is great sleep hygiene. But if you have a child with an anxiety disorder then that friendly little routine can become a prison where mom or dad has to stand in the doorway and say “Good night” exactly this way with exactly that inflection or the whole routine has to start over again.

Then it may be that changing the parent’s behavior is part of what needs to happen next — the solution may lie in part in the parent’s actions — but that’s not the same thing as saying that it’s all the mom and dad’s fault for creating a bedtime routine in the first place.

When my son was small I used to fantasize about having a Sims-type game where I could program all of my son’s characteristics into the computer and try out different parenting choices to see which would be the best one. Like, this Sim-baby I could send to preschool and that one I could keep home. This one I could be really stern with and that one I could lean more towards permissive. At the end of the game I’d know exactly the right way to raise my actual baby here in front of me.

Unfortunately we don’t have that. Instead we have a lot of advice and a lot of research, (which is helpful but not definitive) and a lot of books and neighbors and teachers and therapists and then we have our own hopes and dreams and histories and expectations. Then throw in kids with wildly different temperaments, abilities, interests, talents and challenges and well, we end up with a whole mess of confusion.

In short, we’re going to do some things right and we’re going to do some things wrong. Sometimes the wrongs are no big deal and sometimes we’re going to have to course correct. Sometimes a bedtime routine is awesome and sometimes it’s ripe with dysfunction for no other reason than there’s a perfect storm of this parent, this technique and this child and it’s not working.

(This is also why none of us should ever be smug with each other. Show me a parent who has a child who is a shining beacon of perfection and I’ll show you a parent who got lucky. In parenting, like in all things, some of us have it easier than others just because.)

So if you come to me and say, “Is this all my fault?” I’m going to say that I think you’re asking the wrong question. I’m going to encourage you to say, instead, “What can we do now to help things be better?”

Upcoming Developmental Screenings for Kids 0 to 5

bottlebaby-insideWay back when, back when Hector was a pup and I had a lot less gray hair I used to schedule screenings like this at the YWCA in Portland. Now I’m sharing this with you but you gotta get on it — the screenings happen this Wednesday. If you can’t make it then give the ECRN+ a call and find out when they might be happening in the future.

Child Developmental Screenings - Mind and Body

Wednesday, January 28th 9 a.m. - 12 p.m.
Grove City YMCA - 3600 Discovery Drive, Grove City, OH 43123

What is a developmental screening?

A developmental screening is a snap shot look at a child’s development to determine if a child is reaching appropriate milestones. Your child’s social-emotional development (mental health) is an essential part of their overall growth. Mental health in childhood simply means reaching developmental and emotional milestones and learning healthy social and coping skills. Children with good social-emotional skills function well at home, in school and in their communities. In addition to their social-emotional screening, your child’s speech and language, fine and gross motor skills, self-help skills, vision, and hearing will also be checked.

Thanks to the generous support of The Columbus Foundation, the Early Childhood Resource Network+ will be providing FREE screenings to all children ages 1 month through 5 years. Screening appointments are not necessary but encouraged.


Katie Lombardi or Margie Dalton—Developmental Consultants 614-543-9000 ext. 218 or klombardi@ymcacolumbus.org

6555 Busch Blvd, Suite 112, Columbus OH 43229 614.543.9000 ymcacolumbus.org/ecrn