Friday, September 1, 2017

Anxiety in Kids - Part 2: Coaching Your Kid Through Life

Now that your child has learned to return to calm during an anxious episode, (Part 1:  Empathy and Calming) let’s look further into the future and explore ways to coach your child through an anxious situation.

First two things to remember:
  1. Your child's anxiety isn't your fault.
  2. This is their problem to fix, not yours.
Even though we can't fix their anxiety any more than we can go to bat for them at their ball game, there is a lot we can do to help.

Be a coach. First, we must don our hat, whistle, and gym shorts. Becoming a coach can ease your own feelings of frustration. Coaches teach skills, give encouragement and recognition, but never play for their players. Coaches look for progress, not perfection. To begin coaching work together to find a time of day when she is usually relaxed.

Explain what the amygdala does. If she's little, try encouraging her to name it something silly. Teach her to recognize those feelings when they start to rise by verbally noticing the changes in her body, e.g., “Your eyes are so big, and you’re breathing so fast. Looks like Alexa Amygdala spotted a snake.”

Talk back to the amygdala. Ask her if she can think of forceful things to say to her amygdala, e.g., “Alexa, stop bothering me! I don’t need you right now!” Feeling powerful can help ease anxiety by switching to the offensive, the words also discharge some of that frantic energy. She might feel silly practicing this, but as it is with sports, practicing it when relaxed will make it come more naturally when she really needs it.  Try it during your own anxious moments; it can help if she can watch and emulate you.

When confronting a situation like swimming lessons or school fears, be persistent, but reasonable. When you automatically pull a child from an activity that triggers their anxiety, the message they receive is that you think she’s not capable, leaving her feeling defeated and ashamed--albeit relieved. Instead, explain that swim lessons (or whatever it may be) will keep her safe when having fun around water this summer, but that you’ll wait to sign her up until she feels ready.

You’ve showed her that there’s something in it for her, lots of summer fun!, and that she’s in control of the situation. That said, anxious kids should not be shoved into something scary, it may cause panic to set in and damage trust. For children with anxiety, it is a short trip from fear to phobia. When you’re ready, is the first mantra to remember. I can help, is the second. However, if a situation has become toxic for her, trust your decision to allow her to quit the program.

Hand the Question Back
Take each concern your child has in turn. First, listen carefully, then put the problem back to him using his words.

Using the swimming lesson example, “What if I sink?”
“Do you think you will sink?” or “What do you think you could do if you were sinking?”

“Will I drown?”
“Do you think you will drown?” Try your best to sound concerned; not mocking.

Keep putting the question back to the child. The feedback loop shows him that you hear his concern, but that he’s still in charge of the concern and that you are confident he can handle it. When he hears his words coming from you, sometimes he will realize it isn’t likely or logical. If he’s getting stuck and the amygdala starts firing again, get out the list of calming techniques, then try a fresh approach. But first and foremost, let you child do 90% of the talking, it’s his problem, so he gets the floor to talk it out. Listening is difficult, you may want to talk and impart your wisdom and experience, but as soon as your lecture gets rolling, he’ll disengage.

Externalize the Questions

If he’s old enough to write, suggest writing down his fears on a piece of paper. If your child is a visual person, or not able to read yet, help him draw a picture of the scenario. This process helps him unload his fears from his head onto something external so he can engage his logic centers to process them one by one. Sometimes he’ll feel better just getting them externalized--snakes don’t look so scary in crayon--but resist the temptation to stop there, the crucial part is taming each fear one by one.

For the swim lesson example, let’s draw a picture. Two square swimming pools, children in the water, the instructor, and other people swimming. Let your child draw a picture of someone struggling to swim. He might realize that other people would be alert to help the child, but if not, ask, “Do you think the other people in the pool might notice the person struggling?” He may also need information, but phrase it as a question, “Did you know there are lifeguards at our pool? Where do you think the lifeguards would stand? Do you think they would be able to help?”

Next question: 
“What if other kids splash water in my eyes!? I don’t like that!”
“You’re worried about water splashing in your eyes.  I don't like that either. Can you think of anything you can use to protect your eyes?”
“Humm, do you think a pair of goggles might help?”
“Yeah - goggles would be cool! Can I get blue ones?”
“Yes. Do you want to draw them on your stick figure?”

Even have him draw in the purple monkey and huge drain. Then let him cross them out, thereby eliminating the irrational concerns. Ask if the drowning person can be crossed out too.

The questions are prompts for him to engage his logic centers and to separate the rational concerns from the irrational. You want him to feel as though he is coming up with the solutions for the rational concerns, even if your questions are leading. Engaging his logic centers has the wonderful side effect redirecting energy away from the amygdala--it is a mental distraction and a problem-solving exercise rolled into one.

OK, what’s next?

After working through the issues, ask if he’d like to see the pool where the swim lessons will take place. If he’s old enough, have him call the pool center to find out when lessons are and whether or not watching a lesson in session before joining would be OK. The more empowered he is, the more confident and in-control he will feel. You can take it further by asking to meet the instructor, so your child can meet the person and ask questions directly. If he gets nervous and forgets, remind him what his questions were, but try not to do the asking yourself. Feel free to break the ice with introductions and let the instructor know your child is anxious about lessons.

Ok, that’s it for segment two. Feel free to take off your cap and whistle, but keep them on hand, you need to be ready when your child approaches you with that look of an imminent anxiety attack.

In the final installment, you and I get to talk about the challenges of being parents of our anxious kids with more ideas and techniques.

I'd love for you to add your experiences and advice in the comments.  

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