People can’t learn to be brave unless they’re scared first; courage doesn’t exist without fear. It can be frustrating to be faced with a fearful child, especially when the fears seem so small or petty or easily overcome. Think of the child who won’t go outside because he’s afraid of bees (even though he’s never been stung). We can’t make him push past the fear; we can only support him while he considers the risk of bees versus the lure of the swing set. It’s frustrating to be sure, especially if we spent the whole weekend laboriously putting the climber together, all the while anticipating his excitement. But he needs to learn how to live in a world where there are bees so that he can learn how to live in a world where there are bigger fears — earthquakes and lay-offs and all of the rest. It’s not bees he needs to learn to manage; it’s his own fear.
We can be reassuring without dismissing their fears. We can let them know we understand — bees can be scary — and that we trust they will be able to overcome their fear. We can help them problem-solve and give them the information that we have like that bees are less likely to sting you if you don’t swat at them. We can be patient while they step out cautiously only to run right back in. (Or at least pretend that we’re patient. Excusing yourself to go scream into a pillow in frustration is a perfectly acceptable coping mechanism!)
And, importantly, we can sympathize with them as they lament that oh-so-out-of-reach swingset instead of giving into any temptation to say, “Well, if you weren’t so scared to go out there you could be having fun like your little sister. She isn’t letting bees stop her!” Because if there’s one thing your child already knows it’s how much more fun it would be to NOT be scared of bees or the dark or the puppet at the library story time or that part in The Little Mermaid where the sea witch goes crawling across the boat deck on her elbows with her tentacles waving wildly behind her. So you can be the one who has the confidence he doesn’t quite have for himself yet. You can promise him that the swing set will be there tomorrow and that you’ll make sure his sister gives him a turn on the swing when he’s ready. You can tell him your own stories — how you were afraid to put your face in the water until one day you weren’t. Or how you were afraid you’d go down the drain in the bathtub, too, but then you got bigger and you weren’t as scared anymore.
“You are getting bigger,” you could say. “And you are getting braver.”
Meanwhile, you can tell him that you will sit with him awhile before you go to push his sister on the swing for a bit. And then you will come back to hug him.
He might surprise you. Because sometimes the very best antidote to fear is someone who understands and loves you anyway.
I wasn’t surprised when I read this write up about how parents tend to underestimate how much their kids worry. I see this play out a lot in therapy. Parents will talk about stressors for the family and when I ask how the kids are handling it the parents will often say something like, “Oh she’s OK, she doesn’t really know about it.”
I get this because I’m a parent, too.
I think it’s a little bit of survival mechanism, an instinctive move to put on our own oxygen masks first. If we’re dealing with a big move or a divorce or a job lay-off, we can get pretty overwhelmed. Having to think too long and hard about how it’s affecting our children may be more than we can handle, at least until things have settled a bit.
But then things settle and maybe parents still aren’t ready to face the fallout.
The other scenario is that parents just don’t believe that children are developmentally able to worry. Those parents either don’t remember their own worries or they internalize the idea that their worries weren’t important (because that’s what their own caregivers said).
Preschoolers, especially, worry a lot about things that don’t seem that scary to parents. This is the age of monsters in the closets and under the bed. Parents may get frustrated when kids are scared of imaginary things but it’s developmentally appropriate, which means that for most children it’s a stage they’ll eventually grow out of.
Meanwhile parents can help by offering reassurance over and over again (checking the closet with a flashlight) and believing kids when they say they’re scared. Sure, we might not get what the big deal is about the bridge you drive over everyday to get to preschool but ot your child it is a big deal. Accepting this and helping them cope (perhaps by going to the library and getting a book that talks about bridge construction and how much thought goes into creating safe roads) will help more than dismissing their concerns.
As children get older, their fears about imaginary things decrease but their concerns about real life things (fires, robbers, car accidents) increase. You can help them out by listening, showing them the precautions your family takes to keep everyone safe, and giving them coping mechanisms like relaxation breathing or visualization. These are lifelong tools that will benefit children into the teen years and beyond and they will help your child feel more confident about his or her ability to conquer worry and manage it appropriately. (Preschoolers can benefit from relaxation and visualization, too.)
You can also help by modeling productive ways to handle our fears. It’s ok to let your children in on some of your concerns provided you are working towards a solution. For example, you can say, “I feel worried about grandma’s surgery but I know she has really good doctors and I remember to tell myself that when I’m feeling scared.” Or “I’m getting a new boss on Tuesday and I’m a little nervous about it so I’m going for a walk to help me relax. Want to come with me?”
How do you know if your child is worrying too much and could use some help from a professional?
- Are you overwhelmed by their worrying? Do you find yourself getting frustrated or angry?
- Is your child having problems getting enough sleep for his or her daily activities? Or having frequent nightmares?
- Is the worrying getting in the way of your child or your day-to-day activities?
- Does your child worry weeks or months ahead of an event?
- Do your child’s worries spiral from small and manageable to huge and unmanageable?
- Do your child’s worries lead to compulsive or perfectionist behavior? Does your child need to check that the stove is off over and over before he can get to sleep? Or is she afraid to leave your side for fear that something terrible will happen to one of you?
- Does your child have physical symptoms like headaches or stomaches related to worrying?
- Is she unable to attend everyday events like school or scouts due to worry? Or to take care of everyday activities like getting homework done or cleaning a room because of his perfectionism?
If you’re not sure, you can schedule a time (with me or with a therapist in your area) to talk about what’s going on and see what counseling might have to offer you or your child.
I know that sometimes people don’t want to come to counseling because what they’re experiencing won’t be fixed by seeing a therapist. I hear this most often when someone is grieving a loss and it’s certainly true that counseling won’t bring back what’s gone. But that’s not what counseling is meant to do.
Counseling is meant:
- To give you a loving, listening ear who will not judge you or get tired of your sadness;
- To help you understand what you’re experiencing and it’s impact on your life (sometimes just knowing that what you’re going through is normal helps make things easier);
- To guide you in discovering coping mechanisms that work for you.
So no, counseling will not make you fertile or give you back the child you lost to closed adoption or show you how to build a time machine to go back and get the do-over that you deserve. But it can help you live with the fact that there is no going back. It can help you figure out how to have a truly wonderful life — the life you deserve — despite the lousy things that have happened and that you certainly didn’t deserve. It can help you make sense of the not-fairness of it It can help you be happy anyway.
I know that for a lot of people Mother’s Day is a super hard and generally awful day. I’d love to give you a list of ways to make it less awful but honestly, sometimes things are just bad. And I think it’s OK to just give in. It’s all right to give yourself permission to check out. That means not steeling yourself, not putting your chin up and suffering anyway, and maybe telling people some white lies so you don’t have to show up for things you want to avoid.
You’re not being selfish; you’re taking care of yourself.
I know sometimes we really want to be the bigger person and swallow our sadness and sometimes that’s the right thing to do but maybe this weekend it’s not. That’s all right.
If this year is not the year you’re going to be able to stuff your feelings then I hereby give you permission to do whatever it takes to get through Sunday in whatever self-nurturing, loving way you can. Please don’t punish yourself for needing a break.
So here is a list of ways not meant to make it less awful but to give you ideas you could be good to yourself — you deserve that:
- You can skip church if you want, to avoid those flowers they give out to mothers.
- And brunch? You don’t have to go to brunch.
- If there are mothers in your life who are expecting you to be part of their celebrations, you can call in sick and promise to take them out on another less fraught day.
- Or you can go but make plans to get out early. If you have a partner, have them help get you out. If you have a friend who can text you with an “emergency,” do that. Even better if you can meet them somewhere after for hugs and sympathy.
- Or you can go and bring along someone who will squeeze your hand when someone says something hurtful so you know you’re not alone. And who will listen to you vent after.
- You can spend the day crying if crying helps you feel better. <– (that links to the Free to Be You and Me song) Crying releases endorphins and relieves stress and it might help you sleep better. So don’t fight it if you don’t want to. Let that day be a sad day.
- Avoidance is OK, too. Denial as a regular coping mechanism might not be a long-term workable solution but if you need to spend Mother’s Day watching your favorite comedies or going for a long run or otherwise ignoring the celebration, by all means do it.