The only reason your physician asks about your symptoms is because he cannot help you, if he doesn’t know where your pain and discomfort is coming from. But being able to identify all your symptoms does not mean that the treatment proposed will work the first time, or the second, or ever! Even when patients know how to accurately describe their symptoms, cases of misdiagnosis and worsening symptoms after treatment abound. The truth is that knowing the symptoms is not always synonymous with knowing the cause.
I like to think of children’s anxiety along the same lines. It may be easy to identify what drives your child’s anxiety— changing schools, starting swimming classes and being scared of water, changing teachers, going to an event where there will be lots of people; these are all normal anxiety-provoking situations for a child, and they are generally easier to “fight” when you know what monster you are up against. But despite your child showing all the symptoms of anxiety, there may be occasions on which you can’t quite place a finger on the source. Dealing with such a situation can place you on quite slippery terrain.
One of our daughter’s bouts of anxiety began as would any other child’s. She was shifting from preschool to elementary school and was scared of what, we thought, was the unexpected. She was going to have to change from the teacher she had had for three years. She was going to start reading. We would no longer be able to accompany her to her class. Things were about to get more “serious.”
We have taught our kids that even the biggest emotions are normal. We regularly hold conversations around emotions. We thought this knowledge would help her sail through the shift, but dealing with her anxiety took much, much longer. The thing is, although the shift sparked the anxiety, we only saw the surface, the tip of the iceberg. Although she talked about being scared, the things that sparked her fears changed at dizzying speed. We were up against an invisible monster, and fighting invisible monsters is an impossible undertaking.
Anxiety can ruin your child’s life if you let it. It can transform her into a scared, teary, and clingy mess. To deal with our daughter’s anxiety about changing schools, these are the three things that helped:
1. We found out what worked.
Your kid can react to the same emotions in very different ways. The last time our daughter had a bout of anxiety, worry dolls worked wonders. This time around, they wouldn’t do. The thing is, a young child will not necessarily connect “the same feeling” with the same “coping mechanism.”
There’s good news and bad news for parents who have to deal with natural worriers. The good news is that coping mechanisms to help your child manage anxiety are plentiful. The bad news is that you have to adopt a “test and see” approach to find the mechanisms that work best for your child in any given situation. The appropriate coping mechanism has to feel right and your child should be able to use it by himself to calm his anxiety.
2. We decided against focusing on fear and anxiety.
Knowing how to react to a child struggling with fear and anxiety can be hard. A common reaction is to try and protect her, but here’s the thing: focusing on your child’s anxiety-related temperament and behavior makes it worse, not better. The more we spoke to our child about anxiety, the bigger her fears grew. This is what we chose to do instead:
- We completely stopped talking about anxiety and fear. Instead, we turned our attention to the behavior that would help her deal with that anxiety. We spoke about appropriate behavior and set simple goals every day to help her move forward without talking about fear and anxiety.
- We stopped reinforcing her behavior by hanging around at drop off. We started leaving like we believed everything would be okay, and telling her that we knew she’d have a fantastic day. We stopped turning around after saying goodbye, and it worked; the clinginess reduced then stopped.
3. We taught her that she could feel fear and still be brave.
No one can get rid of “big” emotions. Difficult as they make be, they play an important role in our lives. Being emotionally intelligent is not about experiencing less difficult emotions; it is about reacting appropriately to the emotion-provoking situations we encounter every day.
Instead of telling our daughter to act as though she was not scared, we taught her to say, “I was scared today, but I still managed to…” or “I felt a bit anxious, but I managed to…” We wanted to show her that she could find balance even in the midst of big emotions. This strategy worked especially well because it made her aware of possible options for behavior change.
Every time she exhibited the expected behavior, she received a special card (“I felt anxious today, but I still went and played with my friends”). The messages allowed her to understand that it is possible to feel anxious or to be scared and still carry on with “normal activities.” Having something tangible helped her assess her progress and feel successful.
If your child, like our daughter, is a natural worrier, he will need more help than other kids to deal with major changes. The good news is that there are a wide range of strategies that can equip you with the tools you need to help him better manage his anxiety episodes. The Emotions Kit is specifically designed to give you age-appropriate tools to help your child deal with big emotions such as anxiety more appropriately.
Remember that if your child’s anxiety seems to increase, if he displays disproportionate behavior, or if you feel unable to help, a professional can provide you with strategies adopted to your situation.
An earlier version of this post was published on Psych Central