My mother told me childhood anxiety should be my next topic. My parents own Marlene and Phil’s Vitamin and Herb Center on Transit Road in Depew, NY. Their knowledge together is off the charts and they get customers coming in every single day for help. They take so much time and care with each person that steps into their store. They truly want to help. It’s where my brother and I learned about helping people. If you are local go see them! Trust me, it will be worth it. If you aren’t local, you can call and talk to them and they can ship you products.
My mom told me that she keeps getting parents coming into her store looking for help with their children’s anxiety. I am probably going to write and talk about anxiety and depression a lot because unfortunately it is so prevalent in our society.
If anyone knows about childhood anxiety it is me. I would say that specifically I suffered from school anxiety. I would get terrible anxiety before bed thinking about school and then I would get it again the morning before school. Once I was at school, I was fine and went on with my day. It is was all anticipatory anxiety for me. I was worrying about school before I got there. I would get through my day fine and usually had a great time learning and spending time with my friends until high school. This is where it took a turn for the worse.
My parents wanted me to go to Williamsville East High School for a few reasons. East was supposed to be a phenomenal school, and the bus that picked me up would take me to East High School. My neighborhood was a strange one where a lot of the kids went to South High School and a few also went to East depending on which street you were and where the bus stops were. I had come from Mill Middle and all my friends were moving on to South High School. I was starting at East having no clue if I was going to know anyone or have any friends. I was very nervous, and it only grew worse.
I cried a lot the first few months of high school. I don’t know why I didn’t ask my parents to send me to South. Maybe I did? I don’t remember. I wasn’t looking at this as a great opportunity to meet people and go to a fabulous school. I wasn’t having a good attitude at all.
Attitude is so important. My husband also started at East High School not knowing anyone. He was so excited. He couldn’t wait to start high school and meet new people. He came to high school a year after me (yes, the same high school) and we didn’t know each other. Two people starting high school without friends and having a totally different attitude about it. It is all about how we perceive things. I try to teach this to my children every day. I try to remind myself of this every day. Seth was looking at this as a positive experience and I was looking at it as a negative experience. It’s the is the glass half full or half empty philosophy. Let’s look at things with a glass half full perspective!
I joined the swim team as a diver. I love to dive! I couldn’t even believe my mom let me do this, but I think she was willing to let me do anything so that I would stop crying. Dangerous dives in and out of the pool every day. A very solitary sport. It was fun for me to learn new diving skills, but it wasn’t giving me the team that I needed at school.
It is so fabulous for our children to join things at school. I tell my kids that they have to do one thing at school. Max joined the school soccer team and Ella joined the school drama club. I want them to feel a part of something at school. It is the perfect way to meet friends who have similar interests as you and to find your tribe.
I was crying every morning before school. My mom is just like me and was having so much trouble with seeing me so upset. My dad is like Seth and he was strong for me and would get me in the car and drive me to school every morning crying. He would encourage me to focus on what I was learning every day and to stop worrying about my lack of knowing people. He said that would come in time and that I would adjust to high school eventually. He encouraged me every morning as did my mom. My mom was so upset seeing the grief I was going through with all my friends going to a different high school. My parents were there for me every day. Every day I knew that whatever I went through that they would be there for me. There is nothing like having supportive parents. Whatever your kids are dealing with, just being there for them is so important. Our kids are going to go through so much including friend drama, break ups, bad grades, you name it they will go through it. It only takes one person being there for them to get them through it all. I had my parents through everything, and I am very lucky.
I didn’t know that my mom was considering home schooling me. She told me that recently. Then my friend asked me to try out for cheerleading with her and my life changed for the better. I feel terrible telling you that she didn’t make the team. I felt so badly that I made it and she didn’t, but she was so sweet, and encouraging, and she encouraged me to follow through and go for it.
Cheerleading practice was every day after school for a couple hours. For anyone that thinks cheerleading isn’t a sport, you have never actually watched cheerleaders. Cheerleaders are strong and in fabulous shape. I danced, did gymnastics, stunts and cheers for hours and hours a week. I was in fabulous shape and even better than that is that I found my people. I found my friends and I made some of the best friends that I still have to do this day. My life changed because of cheerleading. I felt a part of something. I had important relationships with good friends. This is why I think it is so important for our children to join something at school and find people that have similar interests. It made high school an unforgettable experience for me. I remember the cheerleading competitions and the friendships more than I remember my hard calculus class.
As I look back on all my childhood anxiety it all stemmed from a lack of confidence in myself. To give our children a sense of worth is one of the most meaningful things we can do as parents. Not finding their worth from a friend or a boyfriend but finding it from within. We are all created to be worthy people. I try to remember to talk to my children about how fantastic they are as people. Raising them to be kind people who love themselves and who notice the child sitting alone at lunch.
I was just telling my friend yesterday that the perfect recipe for parenthood is to give our kids a lot of love and attention while also being firm with them as needed. This is an authoritative style of parenting. Children need rules and boundaries and consistency. They also need loving, caring, emotional giving parents who give them positive attention.
An authoritative parent is perfect for an anxious child because there will be a consistency of what to expect. A permissive parent would tend to give in and make the child more anxious because they don’t know what to expect. An authoritarian parent is too harsh for the anxious child. Emotional needs aren’t met, and the child never knows if their parent is going to be extremely angry with them. This is not a good recipe for an anxious child. Your goal is to be authoritative – consistent, caring, firm, loving, giving of positive attention. Together you and your child will get through everything including anxiety.
I want to give you some tools to use with your child if they tend to have anxiety. As someone who had anxiety as a child, I know what it feels like. I also know what I needed.
First and foremost, go over your child’s inner dialogue with them. This is called self talk. I was not telling myself good things. I was not giving myself pep talks. I was being negative and was not having confidence in myself. If you child has a test coming up: “I can do it. I can get a good grade. I can do my best. I studied for this. I am prepared. As long as I try my best it will be ok.” Help them learn positive dialogue to tell themselves. Help them learn to rewind and replace their negative words in their head. If they are aware of their thoughts, they can back up and learn to replace what they are telling themselves with more positive language. The more they practice this the easier and more automatic it becomes.
Make sure that your child knows that you have confidence in them. I tend to underestimate my girls and what they can do. Your children need to know that you believe that they have the skills to be successful. Whether they are at school, a sleepover, a band trip, or gymnastics, make sure that they know that you feel they have the tools to be okay. They sense our anxiety and they feed off of it. They also know when we aren’t being authentic so make sure that you believe what you tell them.
Modeling positive coping skills is a huge way for our children to learn how to deal with stress and anxiety. I see that Lillie likes to dance, write, draw and read. These are all good things for her to turn to. My children see me writing all the time and they know it helps me. Our children will learn from us. If they see us having anxiety attacks, they will learn this from us too. One of my school social worker friends told me that anxious parents have anxious children. Our children are sponges soaking in everything that we are doing. My seven year old notices everything that I do. I have a friend who has to work out almost every day to deal with her highly stressful job. Her children are seeing her deal with her emotions in a positive way.
I notice that my daughter tends to get stressed before bed. I think her mind spins and she doesn’t know how to relax. I am teaching her how to settle herself. She has found that reading a book will calm her mind before bed. She loves when I tell her a story before bed. It relaxes her and she falls asleep so much quicker when I do this for her. She tells me to “take the bad dreams out.” I take my hand and pretend I am taking the bad dreams out and throwing them away. Then I pick up good dreams and pretend I am putting them in her head. She loves it. My friend does a meditation app with her daughter before bed. There are so many bedtime rituals that people do to calm their anxious brain and learn that it’s time to relax and go to sleep. All of this applies for during the day too. I love to escape into a good book. I read every night before I go to bed. My body has learned this ritual and knows that it’s time to wind down and stop thinking about the lists. I also have friends who sleep with pads next to their bed. I need to do this. This could help your children too. We have to learn to turn our brains down. Come up with a night time ritual with your child that works for them.
It is so important that we all have someone to talk to. If your child has anxiety, whether it’s a teacher, guidance counselor, therapist, friend, parent or grandparent, make sure they have someone they are comfortable talking to about their feelings. If they don’t have someone, help them to find it. If it happens during school, make sure they are connected to someone at the school that they can touch base with. I had a fabulous guidance counselor that I could talk to.
Play the, “What is the worst case scenario?” game with your child. Talk to them about what their worst fear is and how they would handle that situation. If they are prepared for their worst case scenario, their anxiety will decrease. Make up scenarios with them and have your children come up with a few situations that they don’t feel prepared to handle. “If he pushes you tomorrow, what are you going to do?”
This brings me to the importance of role play. I do this a lot with my girls. They tell me things that their friends will say that hurts their feelings and we talk about how to respond. Practice with them and help them to feel prepared and ready! Feeling prepared and having confidence in yourself decreases anxiety.
Feel the fear and do it anyway is my favorite line for myself. I will get scared of things and I will make myself do it. If I avoid it the fear will only get worse. My daughter is very afraid of needles. She cries and makes it a big dramatic experience. Needles are something that we have to deal with. I tell Ella that when I was pregnant my needle fear decreased. It didn’t go away, it just got better. They poke you so many times with a needle when you are pregnant that you have no choice but to get over it. Unless you want to completely freak out on the nurses. Increased exposure to things we are afraid of tends to make it easier. Ella is afraid of rides too. My oldest child Max tells Ella all the time that she needs to conquer her fears and he is absolutely correct. He is too rough with her when he says it to get through to her, but his message is spot on. He told me that Seth (husband/dad) babies Ella and exacerbates the fears. I hadn’t completely noticed it until he pointed it out. Seth adores his little daddy’s girl and tries to protect her. I relate to Ella because I know how it feels to be anxious. I think the reason I am firmer with her than Seth is because I want her to feel confident and conquer her fears. The more we avoid things the worse it gets. Don’t avoid situations for your children when they are afraid of things. Help them face their fears and see that they can do things they are afraid of. This is how our children build confidence in themselves.
Help yourself and your children to stay present focused. If you listen to an anxious person talk it tends to be futuristic. “What if” situations are huge with anxious children. Help them learn to think about what actually is going on in the present moment. Meditation and writing are two huge ways to bring yourself back into the moment. Go over “what ifs” with them and help them learn how to handle all the possibilities that they are creating in their mind.
Have realistic expectations for your children. We can’t expect them to never get nervous. Max told me today that he gets nervous before a soccer game. He focuses his mind and gets into a zone to help himself. He has learned on his own how to deal with this. We can’t expect our children to never get anxious or to make their anxiety disappear. We can however help them to decrease it and help them learn the tools to deal with it. Having positive coping skills, effective problem solving skills and a support system to turn to are a few keys to success. I hope that this can be helpful to you in your parenting journey.
Please feel free to share any of your parenting successes and/or struggles with me, to ask me any questions or to request any topics.
Laughing, Learning, Loving,
Rebecca Greene, LCSW-R