Category Archives: Anxiety

Want to Know the Secret to Supporting Your Perfectionist Child?
Anxious little girl

Q. My daughter freezes when she is asked a question on the spot or during exams because she is fearful of being wrong, not knowing the answers or not being able to complete the entire tests. What advice should I give her to help her overcome this fear?

A. Of course you want to help her deal with her fears. Most parents, I find, live by the myth that you can help your child by telling them what you have learned as more experienced human. Makes sense. You want to tell her something that will make her see the light and stop being fearful of getting it wrong. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Advice rarely helps unsolicited.

Your daughter was likely born with sensitivities for self-awareness, a desire for approval, as well as strong capabilities. This can underscore any ideas she has of how important those capabilities are to gain the approval she wants.

As parents, most of us are unaware of how our expectations of our children effect their behavior. Of course, we want our children to do their best, but often inadvertently we send messages that we expect their best all the time. “How many times have I told you?” can send a message that “You should know better,” “Something is wrong with you,” and “Why don’t you understand?” to a sensitive child who comes to fear she isn’t getting it right.

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Feb ’22 Q&A Hitting a Wall? (Revising a conversation from May ’20)
Emotional Exhaustion

Q. I’m utterly overwhelmed. I’m resentful of those who have support from a partner and grandparents and guilty for feeling resentful. Frustrated that there’s no end in sight. Exhausted, emotionally and physically. Sad. I miss my family and friends. Lonely. 3 kids 1, 4 and 8 entirely on my own. Working 60 hours a week. Trying to be grateful I’m employed but there is no balance possible when you have 3 kids in tow. I don’t bathe or sleep without them and if I try, they scream or immediately ‘need’ me for something which is their anxiety showing up. It’s endless. How do I stay sane?

A. We’re on year three of a global pandemic and all of us, especially parents with young unvaccinated children or families with unpredictable child education schedules due to positive COVID cases, are still very much in the throes of it. If we thought we were exhausted in May, 2020, it’s certainly not gotten better for a lot of people. Maybe we’ve become more accustomed to our reality, but emotional stress among our hardworking families is very real and present.   

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Willful Defiance: A Lesson for Parents and Teachers

Defiant Child

We live in a school culture within a parenting culture that expects its children to fit in and embrace that culture.

For many children acculturation happens seamlessly. But for at least 1 in 5 children*, it requires giving up oneself, shifting off base, and surrendering to a non-nurturing authority. In other words, understanding that you are wrong and the other is right. Parents are expected to take on the role of enforcer using consequences, threats, punishment, withdrawal of what is most cherished—coercive tactics to manipulate children into being who they are expected to be. 

These are the children we see as defiant and oppositional. The square pegs society tries to fit into its round holes. And if they don’t adjust enough, they become the troublemakers, the problems, the ones we fear our children will grow up to be. These are the children who are tough to raise and who cause problems in classrooms. 

At home, they fight the rules and argue every direction given. Parents complain they never listen, won’t do as they’re told and refuse to comply. At school they are considered disruptive, attention-seekers. The problem worsens with reprimands, isolation, and punishment. Counselors are brought in but counseling that typically focuses on training the child to self-control, keep emotions in the “green zone”—messages that unintentionally say You’re not right the way you are. This “help” further identifies the child as the troublemaker, the one who can’t get along, the one who isn’t like the others who don’t need a counselor’s help. 

The message is loud and clear to all the “normal” children—this is the child with a problem, the one not to trust, to stay away from, to tattle on, to make fun of. All children are harmed in this process of coercion by isolation.

Why do we think making children feel alone and wrong is going to motivate them to do what we want? If they acquiesce, it is out of fear which leads to stress and anxiety. 

What we miss seeing in these children is their intense awareness of justice, of knowing what is not right for them, that they can’t, not won’t fit. These children have a sensitive litmus monitor to anything that does not feel fair to them (to them being the operative words). They tend to be smart, easily bored, charismatic (class clown), extremely loving, highly sensitive both emotionally and physically (too light, sound, smell, clothing, stimulation) and fiercely loyal. They want desperately to do the right thing, but they can’t do what someone else thinks is right if it doesn’t fit who they are. They have a strong sense of personal integrity. We miss these aspects because they can be so hard to get along with since their idea of what is right doesn’t fit with what is needed to maintain acclimation both at home and in the classroom. They resist, they fight, they cannot acquiesce.

I believe these are the potential leaders of the world when given the chance. But we do our best to censor them at every turn, so they are rarely able to meet their potential.

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  • First, we must acknowledge and support their “squareness” seeing it as different, not wrong. These children are often trouble-seekers, not trouble-makers*. They shine a light on hypocrisies, wrong doings, unreasonableness, and inequities in our culture. They are the canaries in our coal mines. Unfortunately, when we don’t listen to them, they can no longer listen to us. When we try to force them to change, they wither and become the real trouble-makers of society.
  • Instead of sending them off to therapists (although this can be helpful), we need to better support parents in doing the work that therapists do. Parents, therapists, teachers, principals all need a new mindset through which to view these children.

  • We need new and different schools in every community that are project and exploration based made just for square pegs. They need an environment that serves their way of thinking, that fosters their unique creativity. That square peg when supported, seen and heard for that unique perspective, could change the world.

  • This is hard for parents schooled in the I’m the parent and I know best philosophy when their behavior is not what is expected. Parents and teachers must step across the gap to stand shoulder to shoulder with these trouble-seekers so they learn to trust themselves and the authorities in their lives. Parents and teachers need to see the disruptive, attention-seeking behaviors as signals of their pain, frustration, confusion, powerlessness. They must learn how to connect with that emotional level, leaving the behavior aside. Punishing, reprimanding, threatening undesirable behavior denies everything that provokes it.

  • We must learn to address the child’s experience rather than insist the child understand and be considerate of ours. Once children feel accepted, consideration becomes easy. Acceptance doesn’t mean allowing all behavior. It means, I accept that you are feeling in a way that causes you to behave in this manner. Their emotions must be allowed as uncomfortable and inconvenient as they are, so we can learn from them, not shove them back inside to fester.

  • Instead of denying their emotions with There’s nothing to be upset or scared about or You’re fine or Calm down, we must help them feel okay by naming emotions, sharing our own, letting them know they are gotten. And not make them feel that the “green zone” is the only good place to be.

  • Their unacceptable behavior must be interpreted as cries for help, not as evidence for admonishment. Disruptive, provocative, rude, angry behaviors are the child’s attempts to be heard. Instead of ignoring, punishing or silencing that behavior, connecting with the need to be heard and understood will eventually calm the child. But when they are given the chance to be heard only under certain circumstances determined by the authority—using the right words and tone, at the right time, on the right topic, they are not usually cooperative because they still cannot trust themselves. They need to be heard even when what they are saying is inconvenient, angry, troublesome and provocative.

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    ‘Tis the Season for Compassion

    Holiday Hug

    Expectations are always high at this time of year. It’s the season for joy, friendly people wishing each other cheer, generosity of spirit, and family gatherings. But just as often, it’s not for so many.

    The stress and tension of buying gifts, satisfying expectant children, and anticipating family gatherings fraught with anxiety and judgement are also heightened at this time of year. Loneliness, grief, and loss feel heavier now than at any other time. Suicide statistics peak. And on top of all the usual stress, we are in our second holiday season marred by a world-wide pandemic with a new and possibly scarier variant at our doorstep. The unhappy and the sick feel more isolated, rejected, and angry at this time of year.

    Now that I have fully depressed all of you, I do not mean to be a downer. What I want is to prod your compassion and empathy to understand that this season is just as hard for many as it can be joyful for others.

    Can you allow a family member’s, even your child’s, sadness, depression, anger, without allowing it to spoiling your own happiness? Can you be the support that a loved one needs without worrying you must do something about it, feeling guilty and then backing away because you don’t know what to do? Are you free to feel how you want without fearing the judgment of others?

    Many hate and resent this time of year—the commercialism, the lies and myths, the money spent, the decorating, the fake cheeriness. We come in all shapes and sizes of how we celebrate, what we believe, what brings us happiness, and what brings us down. The question is not can we simply tolerate the differences. Can we accept them? That does not mean agreeing, joining, or endorsing. Can I accept that people are different, that someone believes something that I don’t, that my child thinks it’s wrong that he doesn’t have a smartphone and I disagree? That I feel happy, and you feel despair? Or vice versa. And it’s okay. I don’t have to change anything.

    True empathy means I get how you see the world from your vantage point, in your experience of the world with the feelings that come up for you—and I don’t judge that. It does not mean I agree with or share your point of view. It does not mean it is my job to fix things for you so that you see it differently. It really and truly means I understand. It’s not sympathy. Sympathy puts me in your experience with you. Empathy means I can stand in my experience and understand and support you in your experience.

    Can you empathize—understand another’s point of view—without being brought down by it or thinking you must fix it? If you think you should but know you can’t fix it, that’s when you will walk away, avoid, or ignore the one who is hurting—because you feel incompetent. But all any of us really want is just to be heard, recognized, and validated—not fixed or changed.

    Parents tend to take responsibility for their children’s feelings. Christmas is for children after all—isn’t it? We expect their excitement and smiling faces. But what about disappointed, sad, bereft children? Isn’t Christmas for them too? We all want our children to be happy but taking responsibility for that happiness puts you in a no-win situation. You are not responsible for their happiness—an impossible task. You are responsible for all your feelings, words, and behavior. But that is what you often want to blame on others.

    I often get questions from parents complaining their child is “ruining it for everyone else” or “dragging everyone down by her mood. It’s not fair to the rest of us.” Have you ever felt depressed, lonely, angry? Of course you have. Do you feel that way to make others feel the same? I doubt it. Don’t put that power on your children—or anyone for that matter. You will only increase their unhappiness and add to their guilt when they learn that they are “making” everyone else feel bad.

    Empathy, acceptance, support, consideration, and respect go a long way toward providing the unhappy person with what they need. A person at any age needs to feel normal and accepted no matter what they are experiencing. When we meet anger with anger, we send the message that your anger causes mine, and it’s not okay. Staying above it, yet empathic with the angry person means you are not being dragged down into the negative experience. And you are providing space for the anger of the other to dissipate on its own.

    No one, but children especially, should ever feel forced to alter their feelings. Yes, they are often inconvenient and can take up a lot of space. But isolating, belittling, criticizing, and blaming adds fuel to the emotional fire. If it does put out the flames, it’s only temporary. Burning embers burst into flame at the next opportunity.

    This holiday season see if you can feel free to feel however you do. If someone tries to talk you out of your mood or cheer you up or bring you down, simply ask to be accepted and understood. Try, “I’m not asking you to do anything about it. I just need to be here for as long as I need. I’m only asking you to understand.” Just let it be. This too will pass. read more

    3 Ways to Solve Being Late to School

    Sleeping girl

    Q. How should I respond to a child (12yo) who is always late (takes too long to get dressed, takes long showers, keeps skipping breakfast because she takes too long to get ready for school) and she responds: “I am lazy”. What can I do to assist her in being more motivated to be on time?

    A. The cause of being late likely has one of three motivating factors. Motivating her to be on time will require a dig into why she is always late rather than focusing on simply the fact that she is. The phrase “she takes too long” leads me to think that you are setting an expectation that she cannot meet right now—and making a judgement that she is wrong. We typically look at behavior and define it as good or bad and react to the behavior accordingly. In doing so we miss the most important factor: what provoked the behavior.

    To determine what the motivating factor is in this case, you want to know:

    1) Is it school she is resisting?

    2) Is the transition from home to school difficult?

    3) Is it her innate slow temperament?

    1) If this is new behavior, and she hasn’t had trouble with transitions in the past, then I would suspect a school-related problem. Is she being bullied, feeling stupid in comparing herself to her classmates, experiencing school or social anxiety? Is social media playing apart and causing friend problems and depression?

    Especially with a tween or teen, getting her to share what’s happening is very tricky, especially if she suspects you would tell her what she should do about her problem or worse, somehow make it her fault (Well, if you would just do such and such that wouldn’t happen…) Start by making connecting statements, not questions, like: It seems to me that your morning lateness may be a resistance to getting to school for some reason. It makes me wonder if something has changed, something has gotten harder for you at school. Period. No requirement for an answer. She can take it in and remain quiet.

    Something like this may need to happen a few times. Eventually, I’m feeling disturbed by this pattern of lateness and am very concerned that something is going on that you don’t want to tell me about. I get it that you don’t want me telling you what to do. And I also promise you that I am here to listen when you’re ready. Still not questions.

    If you feel you have a good connection, you can move into questions. She won’t feel threatened if she trusts you. If she answers your questions and you get to the bottom of it move into problem solving. What do you wish would happen? How do you think you can get there? Is there something you wish you could say that you don’t think you can? Would you like my help or do you want to handle it on your own? Etc.

    2) If she has a hard time with transitions, it’s a gear-change issue. For many kids it’s almost torture to leave where they are and what they’re doing and get their heads in gear for a different environment—even if they want to be where they’re going. In this case you want to give the actual leaving process more time. Start out by discussing how the morning routine doesn’t seem to be working for either of you. Ask her how much time she would ideally like to have between waking up and getting out the door. Give her full control of how she handles that time, but ask her to tell you her routine. Ask her if she wants your help with any of it. With a younger child you would come up with the routine together and find a way for her to check off things as they get done.

    If she says she doesn’t want to go, let her know she doesn’t have a choice about going but she does have a lot of other choices within the parameters of getting to school. See if you can list those choices with her. Let her know that you understand that sometimes what goes on in her head feels out of her control and needs a virtual wrench to get those stiff gears in motion.

    3) If she has always been a slow mover, the most important thing for you is to adjust your expectations. It’s not that she won’t move faster, it’s that she can’t. Her internal system just moves at a slower pace. If she feels pressured to hurry, she may dig in her heels and slow down even more. If her temperament is not understood, she will take criticism of her slowness personally and decide she must be lazy.

    She reminds me of my daughter who always took her time to do anything. I’m a fast mover and was always trying to get her to speed it up until I learned about slow vs active temperaments from Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s book, “Raising Your Spirited Child”. She does things slowly and with observation. Things in her path can be distracting. What you can do is make sure she has more time (you too) so she doesn’t feel rushed and wrong. If she says she’s lazy, she’s getting that message even if the words aren’t said. You need to adjust to her before she will adjust to you. read more

    Thinking Outside the Box for School-Resistant Kids

    Frustrated Teen

    My proposed solution is simple: don’t waste a lot of time and money pushing kids in directions they don’t want to go. Instead find out what weirdness they excel at and encourage them to do that. Then get out of the way. ~ Seth Godin

    Q. What is the best way to respond to my 12 yo son who refuses to go to school? It started after he had 2 teachers who focused on the things he couldn’t do. We eventually pulled him and put him in private school but that only worked for about a year. We pulled him altogether last year on the advice of his therapist. Virtual school was a nightmare, and we were taking care of my dying father in the house too. It was too much. He really hates school. He is super smart but has dysgraphia, ADHD and anxiety so he really struggles.

    A. I imagine there are a lot of kids this pandemic has pushed to the surface who were falling through the cracks pre-Covid. The silver lining of this struggle may be that you have come up against a dead end with traditional school before serious problems arise for your son in high school. This is a tough problem but one that needs solving sooner rather than later.

    School doesn’t work for every kid—for an awful lot of kids actually. Never lose sight of the fact that the #1 preventive measure for teens avoiding the tragic pitfalls parents fear most is connection with a caring adult. Those fears that rise up—my child is never going to graduate, he’ll be a bum the rest of his life, he’ll be living on welfare, he’ll never fit in—often keep you in control mode and away from that much needed connection. I applaud you for pulling him from school and having the courage to buck the system. And I understand your fears.

    Now the question is what to do. This takes creative thinking, which may be close to impossible alone. A parent has myopic vision when it comes to figuring out what her child needs. Getting other opinions can be frustrating but also can help you look outside that box.

    It may take some time for your son to be able to reconnect with you and trust that you have his back no matter what. You have highlighted one of the biggest problems for kids—teachers and parents who focus more on what kids can’t do well rather than what they can. Your job is to put your focus on what he is good at and what he loves to do.

    Unfortunately for a lot of kids who are unsuccessful in school, what they love the most is escaping into cyberspace where they have control over their world, and no one is telling them what they’re doing wrong. We must help and support them in finding what does work and give them authority over what they can have control over in the real world. Unfortunately, it’s all too common that that authority is taken away from them when they don’t do what a parent or teacher thinks they should.

    To begin just work on letting him know you are there for him. That means forgetting about what kids are supposed to do. Success comes in all shapes and sizes. You have no idea what he is capable of, given his full potential. Think of all the world’s great geniuses who never finished high school. What does he love? Music, building things, sports, physical activity, philosophizing, fixating on insects, or yes, computer games?

    If he is distraught and feeling unsuccessful at this point, it may take time for him to find out what he loves. He needs to trust his world first and that always starts with you. If you support what he loves, he will feel gotten—and that includes video games. Then he will trust his world more and branch out to find what is meant for him. Many of us enter adulthood scared and unsupported so we grab onto any old job out of fear.

    Dysgraphia may mean that speaking and recording are his best modes of communicating. Those with ADHD can multitask easily. (Check out Ned Hallowell’s work on ADHD. He believes it’s a blessing rather than a curse.) I predict that if your son begins to feel understood and 100% unconditionally accepted for who he is by you, his anxiety will diminish. That is not an easy task nor is it to say his behavior is acceptable.

    Unconditional acceptance is for who he is and who you trust him to be underneath his defensive behaviors. You accept that given his current circumstance in life and how he feels about himself, his behaviors are understandable and self-protective, and his frustration, feelings of failure, and possible self-loathing are at the root.

    Once he feels okay about himself, his blinders will open to see possibilities so he can find his way. It is so sad that society does not provide this acceptance for all our children. Some pockets are working on it and have exciting new educational modes. See if you have alternative schools available to you. read more

    No Malicious Intent

    Five years old child cooking in the kitchen

    Q. I am at a loss for how to parent my 5 yo daughter. She does whatever she wants, including things that are dangerous or destructive, even when she knows and has agreed to the rules. This morning we were all in the living room and she left to go to the bathroom. After a little while I went to see what she was doing and smelled a very strong odor. I asked her what it was, and she said bug spray. She had found a can of bug spray and sprayed the entire thing over every surface of the bathroom. She has also taken pens, etc. and written on anything and everything including walls and furniture. She’s taken scissors and cut things. She’s dumped out entire packages of food to make her own creations. She’s squeezed out entire tubes of toothpaste. She says she knows she shouldn’t do these things but does them because she just wants to. Nothing has ended in a lasting solution. I’m not handling things well. I yelled a lot this morning. Right now she is being supervised 100% of the time. I don’t like exerting that level of control and I don’t think it’s really healthy for her or me, but I don’t know what else to do.

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    Being a Better Pandemic Parent: Lighten Up

    High angle view of father and son wearing sunglasses

    This year has brought us all to our personal edges. I’m guessing you are exhausted and done with it. You want your kids back in school with a schedule you can count on, and you want your life back to normal. You’re also probably juggling guilt about not being a good enough parent during these times and fear that your children are glued to screens and falling behind in school. read more

    Stress Management Needed? Look for the Triggers

    With Covid stretching all of us thin, families are experiencing more emotional upheavals than ever—kids and parents, alike. The #1 step to managing anger and stress is to give yourself and your kids a break and keep it present—stop catastrophizing fears into the future—easier said than done. Covid adds enormous stress to an already stressful life. Don’t try to make life the same as before. You will only come out feeling like a failure—more stress.

    When you see anger and physical aggression in your kids, it’s easy to panic and think there’s something wrong. You can also look at it differently and think, it’s wonderful that my kids feel safe to express their anger in our home. Did you? If not, then your child’s anger triggers a danger signal in your brain, which likely leads you into fight, flight or freeze mode. Helpful responses rarely follow.

    Author, Rachel Simmons says we tend toward either a positive or negative “stress mindset”. With a positive mindset, you experience the fullness of your emotions and feel the stress, but you know you will get through it, you are not alone—there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and you can get there. A negative mindset takes you down. It tells you that once again you can’t do this, why bother, wouldn’t it just be easier to give up and give in. You feel overwhelmed, alone, and hopeless.

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    Change Your Beliefs; Change Your Experience

    The beliefs we each hold can sustain us, move us forward, and hold us. They can also sabotage our desires and drive our lives in a direction we either don’t want to go or, more likely, are too afraid to change. But the good news is we can tackle those beliefs and change them—or at least change the way we experience them.

    For instance, I have always (or since high school anyway) believed that I was not very smart. That belief limited my thinking about what was possible for me in my life. Then I realized my belief got planted after a high school history teacher told me I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I didn’t even know what that meant at the time, but I did know it was a derogatory remark about my intelligence. I have never forgotten that moment. Who knows where she was coming from? Maybe she was having a bad day, maybe she really didn’t think I had a good perspective on history. Who cares!! What matters is that I let that moment in time influence how I saw myself—until I realized the silliness of it.

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