I have been thinking about family legacies of trauma (I’m working on a longer blog post about that) and one of the things I’ve been thinking about is that when a family knows that the worst things can happen, hope can become a dangerous thing. Not every family that experiences trauma is like this, obviously, but it’s common because people want to be safe. If you’re too hopeful, you might take risks and you might fail.
I think about this when I hear parents dialing down their kids’ big plans.
“Don’t expect to hit a home run right away, kiddo.”
“Don’t be disappointed if you don’t get the lead.”
“Not everyone is going to get an award for this, you know.”
We don’t want our kids to be disappointed when they fail so we prepare them for failure.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” we say. But isn’t that what hope is for?
It’s true that we need our kids to be realistic but reality will do that for them. Telling them not to be excited doesn’t protect them from failure; it just adds an ugly sheen to the excited times before.
I get it, I do. There is nothing more heartbreaking than watching your child’s dreams get dashed. Ugh. Like a dagger to your own heart, I know. Our urge to mitigate that possible disappointment comes from a loving place but it’s spoils the fun and dampens the spirit.
Imagine if we did this with other things like, “Sooner or later you’re going to take a swig of milk and realize it’s gone bad so I think you should just prepare yourself for sour milk every time you drink it. I think you should mistrust the anticipation you have that the milk will be good.”
(Substitute some other example if you are dairy-free. Like apples with bruises or when your salad has the lettuce core in it. Or when your pancakes have those bitter lumps of baking soda.)
Nobody wants to live their life expecting disappointment.
So why not be hopeful? Why not get excited? And then if things don’t work out, we can hug the heck out of each other. It’ll be OK.
If you don’t do this with your kids, you might do this with yourself. You might find yourself gearing up by tearing yourself down. Whose voice is in your ear telling you to be careful? Not to aim too high? Who’s telling you to dial down your dreaming?
And here is Mel Brooks singing Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst, because Mel Brooks can make everything funny including the Judaic legacy of trauma (oh boy does this ring familiar and not just because my dad does a killer Yiddish accent):
Anxiety loves to tell lies. Anxiety likes to stand behind you and reinterpret the world in a negative way. Someone tells you that they like your shirt? Anxiety whispers in your ear, “They just feel bad for you leaving the house looking like that.”
Anxiety blows it all up and makes everything worse. Anxiety is a dirty rotten liar.
But the biggest lie anxiety tells you is that it’s telling you all of these dirty, rotten lies for your own good; anxiety lies by telling you that it’s just trying to keep you safe.
“I just don’t want you to get hurt again!” Anxiety says. “I just don’t want you to get in a wreck so I make you too nervous to drive! I just don’t want you to lose your job so I need you to check that submitted file for the umpteenth time for typos instead of getting some sleep!”
What we need to do is the same thing we’d do with anyone we thought was lying to us — we need to confront them about their lying.
The first thing to do is to get good at spotting it when anxiety is doing the talking. This sounds easy but when we get anxious we don’t always know that it’s anxiety; we think it’s real. We think, “Oh lord, am I nervous” or “Oh gosh, am I scared” or “Oh man, I’m overwhelmed” and we run with it. When we acknowledge that anxiety is this voice living alongside us, we can say, “Oh lord, am I nervous but I think that’s my anxiety talking.” That alerts us to look for the lies.
We are having an experience — eating an ice cream cone, seeing a dog run across the field next to the park where we’re pushing our kid on a swing, ironing our clothes for work tomorrow — and then anxiety comes in and colors what’s happening. Suddenly that ice cream is a stand in for every body image issue we’ve ever had. Suddenly that dog is Cujo waiting to spring. Suddenly work is a pit of despair and fear. But when we see that anxiety is the overlay, we can go back and say, “Before I go there, down the anxiety path, I can stop and recognize that I’m just having this very specific moment right now.”
That’s the first step.
Speaking Truth to Anxiety
The next step is recognizing that anxiety is not the expert on the situation. Remember, anxiety is a liar and wants you to see things through it’s lying lens. Anxiety will turn an ice cream cone into a major moral dilemma. What we have to do is talk back to it, speak truth to it. We do this by recognizing the way that anxiety distorts our thinking; these are called cognitive distortions or thinking errors.
Here’s the hand out that I use the most in my office: Unhelpful Thinking Styles You can download it and put it on your ‘fridge or the mirror in your bathroom or just keep the PDF handy on your computer.
This is how it works. You need to call and order a pizza only you don’t like to talk on the phone. Talking on the phone makes you nervous. Your hands start to sweat and your throat starts to close up. You start worrying about making that call. What if they don’t understand you? What if you forget how to order a pizza? What if there are all of these choices and you freeze and can’t remember and the person taking your order thinks you’re stupid?
The first thing you do is take a deep breath (because you have to calm your body down to get to that thinking part of your brain instead of the scared REACT part of your brain). Then you speak truth to those lies.
This is you, blowing anxiety’s mind
You look at your handy hand-out posted on the ‘fridge and you say to yourself, “I’m really jumping to conclusions. Why would the order guy think I’m stupid if I get confused by the crust choices? People find those dumb crust choices confusing all of the time. Boy howdy am I practicing some emotional reasoning. Just because I feel scared to order a pizza doesn’t mean it’s actually a dangerous thing to do. It’s not like ordering a pizza on the phone is putting me at any kind of actual risk. And oh my gosh, am I doing some catastrophizing or what? It’s just a pizza order for crying out loud!”
You may still feel the way you feel but this is the first step to dismantling the elaborate false front that anxiety is building around you. You can talk yourself down from this. You can remember that anxiety is a dirty rotten liar but you know the truth or at least you know how to get there.
There isn’t one way to be anxious so when we look for child anxiety symptoms, we need to be aware that they will manifest differently in different kids.
This is a very (very) broad overview of the kinds of anxiety disorders seen in kids. And remember, it goes from regular worry to a concerning disorder when the anxiety gets in the way of functioning.
Most Common Anxiety Diagnoses
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
- Kids with generalized anxiety have excessive worry across a variety of situations. They worry about missing the bus, about whether the kids at camp will like him, or about the laundry getting done in time to wear her new shirt tomorrow.
- They may worry about things that didn’t happen, too. (“But what if last night’s thunderstorm DID turn into a tornado?”)
- You may feel like your child is always humming, always looking for something to worry about. You may start to feel like any television show, book or movie is a potential worry generator and you may even find yourself editing things ahead of time because you don’t want to trigger a new round of anxious “What ifs?” before bedtime.
- For these kids, the worry is pervasive and ongoing. If you find yourself constantly trying to reassure your child (often without success) then she may be struggling with generalized anxiety.
- Separation Anxiety Disorder
- Almost all kids go through a developmentally appropriate phase of separation anxiety when they’re toddlers and sometimes when they’re preschoolers. Kids who still have trouble separating by age seven should be evaluated.
- Kids who have separation anxiety are usually worried about something bad happening — often to the people and pets they love — while they’re away. Sometimes separation anxiety appears after a difficult event — a parent who was ill, a threat in the neighborhood, etc.
- For some kids, this will result in them refusing to go to school.
- NOTE: I work with a lot of attachment parenting proponents who co-sleep and homeschool and make other parenting choices that keep kids close and I think that these decisions need to be respected and understood when therapists are evaluating kids for separation anxiety. A child who is happily ensconced in the family bed at an age where our culture expects them to be out is not necessarily struggling with separation. I start looking for anxiety when their reluctance to leave mom or dad goes beyond preference. If a child is truly crippled by his anxiety — if he wants to go to a sleepover but can’t, if he wants to join his friends at the movies but can’t unless you to come, too, and sit in the back row where he can know you’re close, then separation anxiety may be an issue. I mention this because some of the assessments that therapists use are not culturally sensitive to parenting choices outside the mainstream.
- Social Anxiety Disorder
- It can be tricky to differentiate social anxiety from natural introversion. In both cases kids may have a hard time around new people and may be reluctant to join groups (at birthday parties, soccer teams). The difference is that the socially anxious child may worry more after the fact (“I probably said something stupid and won’t get invited again”) and will usually want to want to do the things that scare her while the introvert may be perfectly happy avoiding social events.
- Social anxiety is common as kids head into adolescence. Part of this is that the middle school years are HARD. Social groups start to split apart and come together in new confusing ways. Hormonal changes have everyone turned topsy-turvy. And kids start trying on new personas. An introvert may wish she was more extroverted and so she may push herself past her comfort zone. Kids become more self-critical and more worried about what other people think. Again, it’s normal but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve attention and support.
- Selective Mutism (a child who won’t speak to people outside his or her family or who will only speak to friends but not adults) is a form of Social Anxiety Disorder and is usually diagnosed once a child heads to school and people notice she isn’t speaking up.
Less Commonly Diagnosed
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- People tend to be confused about OCD as evidenced by the casual, “Oh your collar is crooked. I know I’m so OCD but let me straighten it.” True OCD is magical thinking run amok. It’s believing that if you don’t straighten the collar then your friend will die. We all do a little magical thinking and children in the tween years may flirt with it an awful lot (that’s the age of “don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your mother’s back”). The difference is that kids with OCD get stuck. They have Obsessions (“What if mom’s car crashes?”) and Compulsions (“If I skip every other step coming down the stairs her car won’t crash.”).
- Kids who have OCD are slaves to their rituals, which become more and more complex as a simple compulsion no longer quiets the obsession. Compulsions are like drugs — they become less effective the longer one uses them. So the staircase needs to be traversed twice. Then four times. Then eight. If they aren’t allowed to complete a compulsion, these children may fall apart.
- Children with developmentally typical magical thinking can more or less roll with it if you tell them to quit walking on just the white tiles because you need to get home before lunch; kids with OCD can’t. They don’t want to be stuck in the bank stepping on white tiles while you’re fuming but they truly can’t help it.
- Children with OCD may be constantly checking, cleaning and ordering things a certain way. They may hang their obsessions on superstitions (“I saw a black cat and now I need to walk backwards the rest of the way to school so I don’t die.”)
- OCD can be very complex. Some kids will struggle with intrusive thoughts (“What if I killed my dog”) and then have rituals to “counteract” the thoughts. Other children will hoard things because they become obsessed with the idea that they might need the candy wrappers later.
- Parents may become part of ritualized behavior without realizing it, having to repeat things in a certain way or reassure their child with particular words or phrases or to do the bedtime routine in a very specific order.
- OCD is usually diagnosed around age 10 and interestingly is more commonly seen in boys before puberty, and more commonly seen in girls after puberty.
- Panic Disorder/Somatic Symptoms
- Panic Disorder is generally diagnosed in older children but younger children may display somatic symptoms like stomach aches and headaches. Older children may have full blown panic attacks — heart racing, fear of passing out or dying. Kids are unlikely to connect their pain with worry and parents may believe they’re faking to get out of something — a test, a visit outside the home — but the children genuinely feel sick.
As you’re looking at this list you may think, “Wait, my kid does that! Should I be concerned?” My answer is that you should be aware but note whether or not the worry is getting in the way of your child’s happiness. Remember, a diagnosis depends on interference with a child’s everyday functioning.
That said, learning skills to manage anxiety is useful no matter who you are. We all have times in our life where we’re dealing with more stress than usual and learning anti-anxiety tools certainly never hurt anyone.
First in the series: Anxiety in Kids
Last in the series: Helping Kids with Anxiety
I know that one of our greatest hopes as parents is that we can somehow protect our children from the inevitable hurts of life. We cry with them when they fall as toddlers. We chew on our nails fretting about them when they don’t get invited to the birthday. And sometimes if our worry for them is too great to bear, we pretend everything is all right even as it’s all falling down around us.
When we do too much protecting we raise kids who won’t know what to do when they’re grown and gone and something bad happens. Those slings and arrows? Those are opportunities for your growth as a parent and your child’s growth as a human being.
I know, I know, some kids get more than their fair share and it’s all right to rant and rave and shake your fist at fate about it but then you need to get down to the task of dealing with it all.
So what then? What can we do when we can’t protect them from suffering?
We can give them resiliency.
- You can listen to your daughter through her tears when her friend isn’t speaking to her;
- You can answer his hard questions about divorce;
- You can find her a grief group when a grandparent dies;
- You can find him a book about moving when you sign the new lease;
- You can give her time and space to run when her feelings get away from her;
- You can give him tools like meditation or prayer to find his center when he feels lost;
- You can give her a journal to write down her feelings;
- You can find him a mentor when you feel overwhelmed;
- You can invite friends or teachers or coaches or counselors to help;
- You can break out popcorn and boardgames when everyone needs a break from grief or anger;
- And you can model resiliency by taking care of yourself and your sorrows, too.
You don’t have to go it alone. There are community resources and counselors, there are web sites and self-help books. You may not be able to protect them but you can shore them up. You can help them build their strength. You can be there.
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.