Thunderstorms and Bumblebees

In my last newsletter, I talked about the sometimes surprising bump in anxiety as the end of the school year approaches. And, as much as we look forward to the sunny days of summer (especially here in New Hampshire!), anxiety misses no opportunity to chatter on about the potential hazards of this season, too.

That’s the important thing to remember about anxiety: it doesn’t really care WHAT season or event or change your child faces. Even the things that are considered “positive” on the surface can be distorted into a stressful event by anxiety, because virtually every situation and event and season involves some potential uncertainty and discomfort. Anxiety hates uncertainty and discomfort, and it works very hard to avoid both.

Summer? Uncertain and uncomfortable? Let’s see. Thunderstorms. Swimming lessons and deep ends. Camp. Tics. Lyme disease. Sunburn. Fireworks. Let’s not forget the undertow! Here’s a summer tip for handling the challenges of summer without increasing anyone’s worry: teach problem solving and preparation, minus the danger discussion. This means helping your children think about safety and make good decisions, without planting–in their vivid imaginations–visions of the terrible things that might happen if they’re NOT CAREFUL.

I’ll give you some examples of the difference: “I want you to learn to swim. It’s very important. The water can be very dangerous, and it scares me to think you might fall in and not be able to save yourself.” Or, “Stay away from that beehive. Stings hurt, and your grandfather’s deathly allergic. That kind of thing runs in families.” Or, “We’ll go to the fireworks display, but if it’s too loud or scary, we can leave right away.” Children hear our words, then see the story we’ve offered in their imaginations. As you read the sentences above, pay attention to what images come to mind. Would you feel excited or confident to move into these experiences? Probably not.

Let’s try again, minus the danger discussion. “It’s time for your swimming lesson. Swimming is such a great skill to have, and it’s important you learn. It feels great to be strong in the water, so step by step, you’re going to get there.” “Bees are better left alone. If you bother them, they will sting you. You’ll get through it, but lets come up with a better plan.” “Let’s try the fireworks and see what we think. I’m not sure how it will go, but we’ll figure it. At least we have fingers to stick in our ears if we need them!”

Anxious parents and anxious kids tend to be catastrophic in their thinking, meaning that they reflexively think about the worst case scenario, then try to avoid it. Talk to your child about thinking ahead, but with the “I can figure stuff out” attitude that promotes experimenting and learning, rather than resistance and avoidance. Kids that aren’t anxious (and tend to take lots of scary risks) can handle more direct talk about dangers, and sometimes need it!

Find me on Facebook at Lynn Lyons, Psychotherapist, Anxiety and Children

Posted in Anxiety, danger, Parenting, summer, thunderstorms, uncertainty | 3 Comments

Let’s Make Problem Solvers

Let’s Make Some Problem Solvers

I was recently re-reading Martin Seligman’s great book The Optimistic Child (read it!) and was struck (again) by the conversation he had in 1984 with Dr. Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine. Dr. Sallk said to Dr. Seligman, ‘If I were a young scientist today, I would still do immunization. But instead of immunizing kids physically, I’d do it your way. I’d immunize them psychologically. I’d see if these psychologically immunized kids could then fight off mental illness better. Physical illness, too.’  Wow. Right on, Dr. Salk.

So how do we do that? Where do we start? The research–and my clinical experience–point clearly in one direction: teach your kids how to problem solve. When we look at kids that are thriving, we find problem solvers. When we look at kids that are anxious and/or depressed, we often see patterns of emotional reactivity, difficulty making decisions, and lack of independence.

I’ve noticed something recently, in my practice and in my own family: when we’re rushed, it’s just easier for us to do the problem solving for our kids. When the clock is ticking, we want to just tell them what to do. No messin’ around. No trial and error. You’re good at time management, for example, so take over, bark instructions, keep things going. Here’s the problem: when you constantly direct your kids, and give them instructions from the outside, they don’t learn to talk to themselves on the inside.

Problem solvers talk to themselves. They assess the situation, and literally talk to themselves about possible solutions. Then they take action. They might consult others, of course, but it’s the INSIDE work that creates an independent kid who can handle what life throws his way.

So think about practicing this one change. When something needs to be done, instruct your child to think about HOW he’s going to get there, rather than laying out the steps for him.

Here’s an example of the difference. Your daughter has to go straight from her haircut after school to swim practice at the pool. You could direct her, “You need to pack your swim bag and put it in the car before school. Make sure you remember your towel. Where are your googles? And you’ll need a snack.” Thank you, External Experienced Problem Solver! Or…you could go over the schedule with her, and give her a shot at planning on her own. “I’m picking you up after school, taking you to your haircut, and then straight to swim practice. How about figuring out what you’ll need to do tonight so things work for you tomorrow?”

Will she get it right the first time? Hard to say. But asking her to think ahead and plan trains the part of the brain that Dr. Salk and Dr. Seligman recognized as vital for psychologically “immunized” people.


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The Power of Mights and Maybes

I first wrote this newsletter as the new school year approached…the ability to handle and tolerate uncertainty is so very helpful!

The Power of Mights and Maybes

Well, my son is back from camp, along with a trunk full of smelly snocks and unused toothpaste…the signs of a happy two weeks spent with boys on a New Hampshire lake. Next week, we’re off to pick up packets of information as both my sons prepare for middle school. There’s a lot we don’t know as of now: schedules, teachers, bus routes. My younger son will undoubtedly feel a bit lost as he walks around this much bigger building for the first time. Just as I would expect.
You see, worry shows up when we start new things. It’s full of “what if” questions, and it demands certainty. Don’t give in and be held hostage by worry! As a parent, you have an opportunity to teach your child a vital skill during this new and often worry-laden time of year: the skill of handling uncertainty. Children who cannot handle uncertainty avoid new experiences. And if you refuse to move forward until you can know for sure what will happen next, you’re options become very limited, and your world rather small.

Talk openly about what you don’t know. Will all the kids in his class be nice? We don’t know! Will he have more homework than last year? Maybe!

My favorite phrase to teach children as they move into new or tricky situations: “I don’t know exactly what this will be like, but I can handle it.”

External reassurance from you (making promises, answering the same questions over and over) is a temporary fix. Change your response to something like, “I’m not sure. Is that worry talking to you again? What should YOU say back this time?”

Remind your child that it’s impossible to know everything. That’s what worry wants, but being uncertain and flexible and even a little uncomfortable those first days of school shows worry it’s NOT in charge. Will the bus show up on time? It might! Will we have gym on Tuesdays? Maybe! Let life unfold, and let your child feel what it’s like to go from not knowing to knowing…step by step!

Posted in Anxiety, behavior, Parenting, school, shy, uncertainty | 284 Comments

When It Comes to Anxiety, Don’t Allow Bad Behavior

When someone is anxious, a lot happens on the inside: thoughts, emotions, internal conversations and debates. But as any parent with a worried child knows, there’s a whole lotta action on the outside, too: yelling, begging, crying, and debates that are far from internal. How about loud, heated, and repetitive? Many parents ask me about dealing with the behavior of their anxious child. What should they accept? How much should they tolerate? How does a parent differentiate between “bad” behavior and anxious behavior?

Remember, when dealing with anxiety, it helps to imagine the worry as a “part” of your child that demands two things: certainty and comfort. Worry will go to great lengths to avoid situations that make it (and thus your child) feel uncomfortable and uncertain. When children feel unable to handle something, they move quickly into avoidance. If pushed, they will then go into fight, flight or freeze. And that’s when you will likely have a battle on your hands.

Of course, simply forcing your child to step into situations without tools to manage her anxious thoughts and physical sensations won’t work in the long term. The goal is to help your child learn how to tolerate uncertainty, be flexible, and manage uncomfortable sensations … and, manage their behavior. Effective strategies do this for children and families. As a family is learning to handle the behavior in different ways, I almost always offer this important directive: Do not tolerate unacceptable behavior in your anxious child that you wouldn’t tolerate in others.

Is it okay for your child to hit? Scream at you and others? Demand you do things for him? Refuse to follow family rules? When I begin working with a family,  we talk about how the worry behaves in order to avoid and stay comfortable. Often, though, I’ll discover pretty quickly that this same “tantruming” behavior occurs in other situations that have nothing to do with anxiety. Mom may report, “He screams at me when I tell him to get off the computer, too. Or when I remind him to brush his teeth. If I make something for dinner he doesn’t like, he throws himself on the floor, or even swears at me.” You see, when a behavior works in one area, it can spread like a cold in a kindergarten classroom. Even though the inital source of the behvior may have been anxious refusal, if it works here, why not give it a try over there, too? Parents can get worn out by the maintenance of a worried child. They stop setting limits in lots of areas; and  the child gains more and more control. Sometimes, siblings catch on, too.

Here are some steps to take to address behavior in your anxious child:

Begin learning the strategies for dealing with anxious behavior. (You can find my previous newsletters on my Facebook page, Lynn Lyons Psychotherapist Children and Anxiety.) When you accommodate anxious tantruming, the anxiety and its controlling behaviors will get stronger…and it will happen quickly.

You must stay calm. Ask yourself (or your spouse!) what kind of behavior you’re modeling. When your child refuses or tantrums, do you escalate, too? If there is a lot of yelling going on in your home, then all family members need to learn emotional management. Yelling is not a skill…it’s an emotional reaction.

Intermittent reinforcement, or giving in SOMETIMES, makes a behavior much STRONGER. Think of slot machines in a casino. If a child learns that a behavior works, especially just sometimes, that behavior will be CEMENTED into their little brains. Calm consistency is the name of the game.

Have a phrase that you repeat when confronted with the tantruming behavior. Something like, “I know your worry is bossing you around right now, but I’m not going to let it boss me around. You can use your strategies to calm down, and then we can problem solve.”

Do not punish for the behavior, but do not allow it to continue (remove the child from the area, for example) and be clear that such behavior does not work in your family. One family I worked with tried to get their four year old to sleep in her own bed. She threw a tantrum, the parents gave in, and 9 years later, they were still giving in. It was getting crowded in that bed! Your job as a parent is to set firm, loving boundaries. This is extremely important for anxious children as well, because they will adopt avoidance and refusal as their life strategy.

Remember, allowing your child’s anxiety to run the house is not helpful to your child. Setting limits and learning strategies is not mean. Remaining firm and consistent will not damage your child; allowing a very treatable problem to continue will.

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Should You “Push” Your Shy Child?

We know that some children are more temperamentally shy than others. They tend to hang back, hang on, and observe from a distance. Parents often ask me if they should push their shy child to try new things, or engage in activities that make them uncomfortable. The answer is yes, but with a some important considerations.

While at a big theme park last year, I watched in horror while two parents forced their child to get into a very scary ride. The child even made a break for it. They chased him, and as he screamed and tried to climb out again (and I held my breath and my tongue!) they forced him down as the ride began. Does a child need to “learn” how to ride really scary rides? An important life skill? I don’t think so.

So “push”  gently when you are teaching an important life skill. Asking for help at the library, looking someone in the eye when introducing yourself, speaking up when someone grabs your pencil, accepting an invitation to play at a good friend’s home…these are things that shy children need to be urged–and taught–how to manage. Using your voice, even when it makes you uncomfortable, can be practiced. Going to play with a friend, even when it would be easier to all stay home, helps build social skills and the ability to step in, rather than avoid. For shyer children, these skills don’t come naturally, so you need to repeat, model, and encourage. Look for opportunities to help your child step out of the shy box. Even little steps count, and they add up. You must consistently practice this, because experience (doing!) is necessary to change patterns.


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Worry and The Content Trap

The Content Trap
Hello from down under! I’m here in Australia presenting on anxiety, children and hypnosis, among other things. It’s been a great experience thus far, with a rare koala siting and friendly people who greet me with, “How are you going?” And I can’t help but talk about flexibility when so much is new and different, from kangaroo for dinner to driving on the other side of the road, to looking for Red Sox scores today for a game that hasn’t happened yet, because it’s still yesterday back home. Worries? I’ve had ’em. Confusion? All over the place. How can I possibly find certainty when I don’t really know what’s going to happen next? This, of course, leads me right into a discussion about what I call the CONTENT TRAP.

When kids worry, they often ask a lot of questions, looking for us to provide the answers. And as parents, we do our best to answer them with the information we have. Information seems like the antidote to worry, doesn’t it? Well, sometimes. But kids who worry want certainty, and will ask questions over and over again. The problem is, the answers move from topic to topic. Answer the question about the new teacher, and there’ll be another question about the weather soon to follow. Or the carpool, the new dance class, earthquakes, or flu shots. They just keep coming. When you constantly work to answer specific questions (even when you yourself don’t have the answer), you offer a short term fix (that’s addressing CONTENT), but when you teach a child how to tolerate and manage new situations, you teach them a PROCESS that works in a much more general way. Rather than giving children answers, think bigger: How can I teach this child to manage as she steps into unfamiliar territory?

A child that can say, “I don’t know what will happen when I get there, but I’ll figure it out” is far better equipped than a child who relies on adults to give a blow-by-blow schedule before he or she can proceed. If it’s a simple question, like “What time does my dance class end?” then go ahead and answer.  But if you hear worry talking (“Will I like my new dance teacher?” or “What if I can’t learn the new steps?”) then help the child learn to tolerate not knowing, and prime him for the problem-solving that’s on its way. (“I can hear you’re worried about that. I wonder how you’ll handle it?”) Coach him when needed. Work together to help him problem solve.

Remember: Give your child a skill, not just an answer!

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