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