Supporting anxious children – Parenting on the home front.
Many thanks once more for all your engagement and responses to last week’s edition on understanding and managing anxiety in ourselves as leaders in our homes and families. In the leading, we do as colleagues, and as educators. We looked at how anxiety affects health, attentional focus, productivity, as well as our core relationships – our relationship with ourselves and the world. Being able to understand this and manage some healthy self-interest is vital in steering ourselves and our families through this. Starting to actually practice daily mental hygiene exercises is essential in order to get greater traction at times of extreme uncertainty and challenge.
For us, I am glad that we have decided to hold our course and take the first week of the Easter break off and go on a ‘Fakation’… Yes – tonight, we are going to pack our bags. We are going to wheel them round the block, and come back to our home. Through virtual resources (online museums and galleries), films, music, and food, we are going to have the holiday that we lost. We will tour Berlin, Vienna, Zurich, and Paris. And all the pressures of virtual schooling, whilst remote working will fall away we hope! Despite the additional self-employed pressure that I’m feeling – along with so many – I am going to recognise how very much I too need down-time NOW and the chance to really BE with my fam. And I know its sounds ridiculous – but the packing and suitcase rolling is a vital part. We may even sleep on sofas to replicate the night in a cabin on the ferry. We will make strudel, we will make Sachertorte. We might even do a little tribute to the Berlin Wall.
Now more than ever we need to find expressions to reframe and rework our losses and access much more optimistic, playful and creative takes on our changed lives. This very much links to the work of Dr Lawrence D Cohen, – a highly regarded clinical psychologist specialising in play and play therapy, author of Playful Parenting and The Opposite of Worry.
What is anxiety looking like in your home?
Children and teens have got their own worries and pressures around COVID and self-isolation / social distancing too. They have lost many of the elements present in their lives at school and nursery that act as pressure valves and outlets for their expression of stress. School aged children have lost their friends, the capacity for physical play, rough-and-tumble, chatter, imaginary play with peers. Older teens have lost many similar elements too – the physical, gestural comedy in their gossips, jokes, reflections on life, hugs and physical contact with peers. Nursery aged children have lost areas to play boisterously in – the special environment set up for them and their friends – rich in stimulus, safe and robust for running, dragging, hiding, climbing.
Additionally, in the larger group life of nursery and school, there is the variety, and there is more anonymity. They are able to zone in, zone out and it’s not going to matter so much, it’s not going to be so noticeable. If parents are tag-teaming supervising work schedules, then what’s that like? A small group tutorial where there’s less room for manoeuvre. Lessons have lots of different ‘movements’ to them – lots of dialogue, group work, active experiments with equipment making the learning more concrete and experiential. At home – there’s more quiet, individual focus. And greater practice of that is a good thing (Susan Cain on the power of introversion in her book, Quiet, and Erik Erickson on being able to go to individual practice)- but it’s a BIG change. And a new pressure.
So during this time of loss and new pressure for our kids, anxieties may express themselves in a variety of ways: sleeplessness, nightmares, anxious and intrusive thoughts – especially at night, worries about dying, parents, grandparents, family members, tuning in to news stories and developing an expertise on Corona-data.
You might see a real desire to stay on-screen playing games and much less willing to come off screens i.e. binge-screen-time as an avoidance of anxiety. You may see certain behavioural changes – being very unfocused, forgetful, regressive behaviour, a lack of energy and motivation – or argumentative, fractious with siblings or very much more sensitive in and around normal interactions and infractions. More melt-downs.
Some may speak overtly about what’s worrying them and give you that clearer insight. There may be tearfulness at times – especially when tired towards the end of the day and feeling that they are missing friends. Some kids may punctuate the evening especially with reports of several different symptoms – a hurty tummy, headaches. One of the most memorable parenting quotations over the last week: ‘I’ll kill you if you’ve managed to get Coronavirus!’
Last night I watched Martin Freedman in the new series Breeders. It was hilarious, if you are not offended by some fairly extreme swearing and unfiltered rage at the frustrations of parenting children who won’t sleep and in particular one child whose anxiety about fires following a fire safety talk at school is causing mayhem.
The programme showed so elegantly how kindness, empathy, explanation and rationalising look very much like text-book parenting, but ultimately, anxiety is agile and has a resistance to explanations and perspectives – and very easily piggybacks onto something new. So the perspective that death by drowning is probably worse than death by fire – and possibly more likely – just provides a NEW fear to jump onto.
Freedman’s father also showed how – especially when tired and pressured- there is a feeling of entitlement, which very rapidly segues into explosive rage when the exchange of kindness, empathy, patient rationalisation and perspective giving does not work. (Yes, I have given you my time, my presence, my patience, my wisdom. I’ve done everything it says in the manual I am telling you the truth here. NOW JUST XXXXX BELIEVE ME AND GET OVER IT!). It’s shockingly cathartic to watch.
OK – so what CAN you do then?
1. Be your child’s second chicken…“When a chicken is immobilized—frozen with fear—it will look around for cues about safety or danger. If it sees another chicken that is also scared stiff, then it will stay scared for a very long time. If it sees a second chicken walking around, the immobilized one will hop right up. If the second chicken is scared, there must be danger. If the second chicken isn’t scared, it must be safe. The essence of your role as a parent is to be that calm second chicken for your anxious child.” The Opposite of Worry by Lawrence J Cohen.
Of course, this is easier said than done, especially during these uncertain times, which is why my starting point was managing our own anxiety.
When I am coaching, I prepare myself by slowing my breath and doing relaxation exercises to calm and centre myself so that I can be open and receptive to whatever comes.
2. Understand that the internal circuitry of anxiety works like a ‘security system’. (Cohen writes). Beginning with an alert (1), that sets off a very sensitive alarm (2), which will stand down after assessment (3) and give the all-clear signal(4). But when a child is anxious, rumination leads to non-stop worry, makes the alarm system overloaded with information about threat and therefore prone to false alarms – and the fearful avoidance it provokes, increases anxiety and blocks the reality-checking ‘assessment’ process – so there is no all clear possible. This is why the calm of the parent as second chicken whose security system is in balance -is so crucial – as a point of reference and trusted role model.
3. We need to self-manage our responses to anxiety and make sure our dialogue with them is reinforcing their ‘assessment’ skills – instead of layering on our own fears. And I know that when I was doing time by the climbing frame with my daughter I was not doing this my dialogue with her was ‘Be careful!’, ‘Are you sure you’re OK?’, ‘Tell me when you need me!’ All these loaded questions and commands did nothing to help either her confidence in her own strength and balance, or her ability to accurately assess her safety. ’Do you feel safe?’ Is perhaps more to the point. This self-management is crucial so that we don’t end up belittling, dismissing or invalidating their fears. ’Don’t be silly.’, ‘You’re fine’, ‘There’s nothing to be scared of’, ‘Stop crying’, ‘No-one else is scared’. We need to be real here – we have all done it, felt frustrated, helpless, angry and even anxious ourselves by our children’s fears. And we are very much more likely to be in this mode when tired or anxious ourselves. But no-one has ever been shouted or shamed out of fear it’s not a useful strategy. It just pushes the fears underground, lurking and waiting for another chance to reappear, unprocessed.
4. Show empathy – listen, what is it like to be them – in the moment, with their fear? Be curious – try to see what they see. Ask them about the effect on their bodies – where do they feel the anxiety- in the stomach, chest, throat, tummy, in their arms or legs? What’s going on?
5. Acknowledge their emotions. Their fears may well be disproportionate – but their feelings are real. ‘Wow – that sounds scary.’ When I am in coaching mode, I am not seeking to skip to solutions. I want to activate their inner resourcefulness and resiliency to open up and listen fully so that my coachees can voice their fears as expansively as possible – ‘let it be, let it go, let it in.’ You can’t let the fear go and decide what to replace it with if you haven’t given it a proper airing. So sometimes it can be hard – but I encourage my coachees to be present – and I have to be present with them – to let the full force of their anxiety resonate. That’s hard to do when we are in parent mode – we’d all rather poke our eyes out than have our children live in pain and fear – but short cuts (as opposed to teaching our kids to grow mastery over fear and anxiety- rather than let it master them) don’t work.
6. Be curious – what might lie beneath these fears? Often fears that are too big to voice – like death or divorce – are unable to find direct expression. Like the iceberg, the irrational fear is the tip, it may be a monster in the bedroom, spiders or snakes. The tip of the iceberg may be avoidant behaviour that is self-sabotaging and puts them behind in social skills – shyness, clinginess, indecisiveness, perfectionism, compulsions, control, an escalating need for reassurance.
Again, your non-judgmental presence and openness is your super power. You can then be that second chicken around what feels too dark, un-nameable. But once it’s out there we can see it and assess its reality. It’s what makes the coaching work so powerful, sometimes the parent is the centre of the fear and a more neutral 3rd party can be that facilitating presence. To help mediate, reality-check, in order that the young person can then help themselves further by voicing it to the person at the epi-centre of the fear.
7. Suspend your judgment – all fears are real and have their own subjective validity. Comfort and connection are what is needed. We had the 4 As of the security system from Cohen, here are the 4 complementary Ss from an attachment theory basis. As Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson write in The Power of Showing Up, children need to be safe (1), seen (2), soothed (3) consistently in order for a secure (4) inner working model to be operating. Once that is in place our children have that capacity to open their minds and be curious, creative and fully engaged.
Cohen reckons it’s good to increase your reserves of empathy by designating your own ‘hall of fame’ of role models who helped you through your fears, Parents? Grandparents? Characters in books, movies, comics, who were kind, nurturing, compassionate. When you are going into battle with your children’s fears, fantasies, and anxieties, you need to be able to metaphorically ‘call a friend’ or ‘call Malala’.
9. Go on the journey with them – co-create a way of working with the anxiety. With an older child / teen- you know you need to gradually encroach on the panic zone and expand their comfort zone around the problem. So grow the vision of what they want to achieve. What would it mean to them to be free of these fears? What would their lives look like, feel like? How would their freedoms change? How can they design an activity or action that would start chipping away at that fear? What can they do? When? What would their first steps look like? And the next? How will it feel when they have made progress? How can they dial up their action against anxiety? Focus on the feeling and the progress in feelings around the fear ask them what they are learning along the way. DO NOT tell them what they are feeling or learning, it’s THEIR journey, and then they feel ownership of its path, they will be increasingly sure-footed.
10. Meet them where they are at… (E.g. Normal life -pre / post lockdown. If it’s around social anxiety, go on the journey with them- invite a potential friend over for a play-date AND the parents, show that you practice what you preach. You can both talk through going through the pain barriers of initial awkwardness.) Other fears – eg fear of heights – both do things together that push at your boundaries, share the journey – enrich the empathy around the fear and the overcoming. Once soothed and feeling seen / understood e.g., about fears of grandparents / parents dying, you can look at the data together (if the child is old enough) – you can do the maths about the proportions, you can recognise that neither of you have any control and come to a point of choice about whether or not it is helpful to be constantly worried – having factored in the impact that holding the fear has. If there’s a monster in the bedroom, go in there and lie down with them – look around the room with them – see how the shadows fall on the walls, is there something that fuels the fear there? Show that – for a time (ie not all night) – you can BE with them in the place of their fears and re-frame them, so that the dinosaur shape on the wall is actually a goofy Diplodocus rather than a terrifying T-Rex. BUT – the key to all this is that they need to feel that their fears are SEEN and understood by YOU, that you can bear their fears (AKA be their second chicken)- you can take them on together with them, this will SOOTHE them, this will build a stronger platform of SAFETY to help them get towards the point where their creative and thoughtful brains can start to ASSESS their situation. This will not be one conversation, one epiphany and the fear evaporates. This is a strong relationship -we need to respect their attachment to their fear and avoidant strategies that keep them safe – so it’s likely to take many goes, hence you need your inner Malala to call on!
11. With younger children, you can create games and role-plays around the fears…
laughter loosens tension and closeness helps recovery. We want to increase security, confidence and flexibility in their thinking – and play is an excellent way to do this. Using soft toys for instance and animating them to act out the dialogue around the fear. Somehow it makes the message that you might try to give them adult-to-child stick that bit deeper, with a funny voice, predictability and some giggles. Their dearest cuddle-bear can have a big, tough voice, but actually be quite frightened how can they help? (Our daughter’s old grey bear has a gruff voice like a New York Taxi driver or Boston docker but here my better half would tell you I am seriously bigging up my accent repertoire. It always sounds better in my head but in any case – if it makes ‘em laugh, it’s doing the job!) Their smallest little teddy could be the clever, resourceful one who brings the fears down to size. We can role-play being the Coronavirus. What’s it like to be a germ – when no-one likes you and everyone’s out to get you? We can show all the clever ways we can out-wit the Coronavirus toy and up the sense of a narrative of a threat that is real – but manageable. You can play Patty Wipfler’s ‘I can’t watch’ game – where you pretend to be the object of the fear e.g., COVID, cowering at the bathroom door, whilst they wash their hands – pretending that what they are doing is SOOO Terrifying!! And as you do so, encourage them to play bigger and bigger around their fears.. Play leads to a greater emotional understanding – it naturally brings perspectives and empathy. It unblocks strong emotions. It’s brilliant – and something we should use in our armoury more. But remember, the play mustn’t be a mockery where the fear is being belittled and they are being belittled, the play is designed to help them feel increasing agency, perspective and proportionate security – so that they can be more discerning about the threats they fear.
I hope this gives you some helpful food for thought if you are trying to help an anxious child or teen. I hope that this edition, the reading matter surrounding it can be of help getting a little more traction. If you are stuck and want a conversation around how to help your particular situation, get in touch. I am thinking of doing a free Zoom meet for parents around this after Easter- let me know if you’d like an invitation. If you liked this piece and think it’d be useful for fellow co-workers or parents at your child’s school. Get in touch, for a group online session. Please share this resource and signpost others to sign up. That really helps the reach of this work which is aimed at helping the world Be a less anxious and more beautiful place -one family at a time.
With love, gratitude, and strong second chickens!!