Every one of us has experienced some form of anxiety. It is a normal physiological reaction which stems from the days our ancestors were faced with the likes of prehistoric lions and bears while they hunted among them and had to choose to fight or flee. It is when we visual our prehistoric predators or anything that produces fear within us, which creates the real problem and annoyance.
Some people are predisposed to anxiety concerns by their genetic makeup while many develop it through experiences which create fear and uncertainty. Often times, those who regularly experience anxiety also typically had caregivers who role modeled their worrisome thoughts to create an automatic reaction of continuous concern. In children, anxiety presents itself in the form of frequent nightmares, not being able to fall asleep alone, racing thoughts they can’t identify, but view as scary, not wanting to try new things, obsessive, compulsive behaviors and worrisome, what if questions, thoughts and comments. The anxious child may ask a lot of questions looking for reassurance. They want to ensure their environment is safe. They may feel sick often, avoid trying new things without assistance, or use behaviors that distance them from people.
Anxiety, plain and simple, is a negative habitual thought pattern. Instead of saying positive, uplifting thoughts to ourselves, we are continuously expressing negative, fearful thoughts to ourselves and our bodies and minds react accordingly. If someone gives us a compliment and we buy into it, we may have a feeling of joy and excitement and increased energy. If someone tells us we’ve done something poorly and we own it, we feel sad, angry, embarrassed and have decreased energy. Our anxiety or joy comes from the same thoughts we tell ourselves. So if our negative thinking is a bad habit, how do we fix it? By creating a new habit that replaces the old. And how can we help our children? By teaching them new habits that work for them.
I have a “what if” child. Every time she “what if’s” the next catastrophe, I “what if” the opposite.
“What if my tooth falls out and I swallow it?’ She’ll say. “What if your tooth comes out while your in school and you get one of those little treasure chests and you get to give it to the tooth fairy that night?” I’ll respond. Feels much better.
“What if I never get to play with Jenny again because she’ll be mad that I didn’t call her back?” She’ll ask. “What if you see Jenny in school and let her know that you were unable to call her back, but you’d like to play soon and will ask your mom to set up a play date?” I’ll answer.
Those are the little ones. A few weeks ago it was the racing thoughts before bed. She has never been a good self soother going to sleep. “What if someone comes in the house while we’re sleeping and kills all of us? What if I die a painful death? What if I knock over a candle and burn the house down and you don’t want me in the family anymore?” So sad that she has these thoughts. This time, I asked her to write them down and then rewrite new, more positive thoughts so she could do it on her own.
She wrote, “If someone comes in our house and tries to kill us, my mom and dad will protect us and call the police. I will die a peaceful death. And if I knock over the candle and burn down the house, I will still be loved and allowed to be part of the family.” Progress.
Just like every other skill we want to improve on, the best way to alter our thoughts and help our children to do the same is to practice. It took practice to create the negative habit and will take practice to create the positive ones.
If your child is afraid of the dark, try sitting with them in the dark, hold their hand and talk about their fears. Help them combat their own thoughts and redirect them to ones that make them feel better. Ask what is the worst thing that can happen and play it out. I like to use humor as often as possible to make light of what is generally untrue.
If your child is afraid to talk to other adults or children they don’t know, create situations where they will be exposed to new people and role model the conversations for them to show and feel what its like to engage in new relationships. Self advocacy and communication are life long skills that if practiced early will take your child anywhere they want to go.
If your child is a perfectionist or has unreasonably high expectations for themselves, help them understand that perfection does not exist and if they were perfect, no one would to hang out with them anyway. Have them set goals for themselves that are high enough to keep them motivated, but low enough to be achievable. Perfectionism is stressful! Especially when it’s impossible to keep up with.
I could probably give 10,000 examples of the different anxieties I have seen in my child, worked with in adolescents and experienced myself. The common denominator remains the same, its all what we say to ourselves. Our thoughts create a physiological reaction that either lifts us up, makes us nervous or jittery, or drains the energy right out of us. Over time, the thought process feels completely natural if that’s how you’ve learned to think. When we identify it in our children, it is so important to acknowledge how they are thinking and help them retrain what they are saying to themselves. If they start to avoid things, it may be even better to get them help with a professional to teach them skills you may be unaware of. Anxiety is normal, we all experience it. But when it starts to control your life, its time to work a little harder to find ways to manage.
I always tell my children and the adolescents I work with that you can tell the difference between a negative thought about yourself and a positive one by the way they make you feel. A negative thought feels awful because it’s a lie and a positive one feels great, because it’s true. The more you lie to yourself, the worse you feel. The more you are honest with yourself, the better you feel.
And just for the record, changing the way we think is not an easy task, but neither is staying stagnant and uncomfortable. At the end of the day, you and your child, have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
What works for you?
If you have any situations that you could use another perspective on, please feel free to email me. There are always options and different ways to view a situation and I’m happy to share my experience with you.