It can be difficult to know as a parent when your child’s anxiety is reaching a point where they need help. What is considered normal nervousness and stress, and what are some red flags that could clue parents in that it’s time to get help? In this two-part article, I will be discussing what’s normal, reasonable anxiety, and what are some signs that it’s time to see a therapist.
All children will experience some fear and anxiety throughout their life. In fact, it is developmentally appropriate that children experience nervousness when faced with something new or stressful. This fear is natural, because it signals the brain to proceed with caution when facing a new stressor. Sometimes even exciting things can first be seen as fearful to children.
Children experience these normal anxiety-provoking situations by backing off, seeking assurance from parents, or having shaky confidence for a while. When the child has mastered the situation, this confidence will grow again, and you will see your child overcome their initial fear. Parents can help their children to overcome these fears by accepting and listening to their child’s concerns, soothingly correcting any misinformation the child might believe, and gently encouraging the child to take one step at a time until this fear is conquered. Being gentle and loving during this time is the key to helping your child overcome lingering anxiety.
Typical Childhood Fears
Early Childhood – At age one, children are healthily attached to their caregivers, and might be fearful of separation. This gradually improves until around kindergarten age, where this separation anxiety gets better. Children ages 3-6 might have trouble distinguishing between what is real and imaginary, which is why children of this age can be scared of people in costumes, the dark, under the bed, etc. During this early childhood period, children might fear sleeping alone, but this again usually resolves by kindergarten age.
Later Childhood – In elementary school, children are exposed to new and more realistic fears. These can include storms, burglars, fires, and getting sick, to just name a few. As they grow, and gain real world experience, children begin to understand better that these are not likely scenarios. In middle school, children begin to get really anxious about fitting in with peers, and how to act in social situations. They also begin to have performance anxiety, as they begin to excel in their chosen academic or extracurricular activities. High school age children still worry about social status, but also about their identity, and acceptance in the group that they want to be in. At this age, teenagers also begin to worry about the outside world, morals, and their future.
Today the average family is busier than ever before. There are conference calls, soccer practice, gymnastics, work, school and tons of others. Many families eat dinner on the fly. Breakfast is something popped into the microwave and then run out the door. Electronics tend to be in use most of the day in some way or another. With such busy schedules I am not suggesting you must sit at the table every night and have a home cooked meal and sit together to talk. Parents and children rarely have time for that. What I am suggesting is that one evening, afternoon or breakfast a week is set aside for family members to sit and talk. So much can be achieved for the family by doing this. Family time also adds other benefits to family members.
First, family time helps to build strong bonds between family members.
Family members need contact with each other. It helps to form more secure children who grow up to be more mature adults. Having that contact between individuals also allows for sharing. Do you remember 20 to 30 years ago having family meal or family night was a normal part of being in a family? There would possibly be a special meal, play a game or watch a movie. Family night might not have always worked for all kids (teens tend to balk at family night at some point). But family night also added to the security that the parents cared and siblings wanted to play and hang out with you.
Second, family time creates stability and safety in the family.
Spending time together helps children to feel safer and more stable. Children get to connect on a more personal level when all members of the family are together in one place. So many skills can be strengthened during family time. Children can work on coping skills, communication skills, and regulation (learning to manage their emotions). Through listening to others talk, children can learn patience, manners and learn to empathize with the other family members. Children can become aware of the issues that might be happening to the family. Regular family night helps with the schedule; children know it is coming usually on the same night each week.
Third, family time can help parents know what is going on with their children.
Sitting with your children, when you get a chance, and taking the time to listen to what your child can say can be revealing. We often move so fast today that we miss those opportunities to really engage with our children on a different level. When was the last time you could just sit and talk to your child and be easy with it. You don’t have the concerns of making dinner, picking up a kid, chores, telecommuting. It takes time to sit with your child. If it is scheduled weekly, then your child knows she/he has a special time each week. I encourage parents to make time for each child one on one. Have this time be regular in the family, barring injury or illness, and do not schedule other things at the same time. Keep this time sacred to the family. This can be very hard to do in the beginning. The average family has such a huge schedule and obligations picking a time each week that when the family can come together can be challenging.
I often describe electronics and kids as an addiction.The more children stay on electronics (phones, iPod, kindles, iPad, etc.) the more that they want. Electronics has affected the way children learn, interact and create social networks. Kids can be friends with someone they don’t even know from across the country (don’t get me started on the dangers of electronics as that is a topic for a different blog). It is hard for many parents to get their kids “unplugged” during the day. It can be even harder to keep the children off the electronics. One thing to think about when your child spends a lot of time on electronics is, is your child getting rewarded in their rewards center in the brain? With all the pictures, games and videos children don’t need to work for anything. It is continually downloaded to their brains.
Have you ever had the problem of trying to get your kid off his electronics and find that he/she behaves poorly, making inappropriate statements, having trouble controlling the feelings, and in general not interested in what you need from them? This is all due to the reward center issue. On the electronics kids don’t have to work. In the real-world kids have to engage many skills to interact with others. Speaking takes time, trying to find their place in a conversation can be hard, keeping patient can be hard. All these skills are circumvented when playing on electronics. I always encourage time during the day without electronics.
Finally, family time is a great time to catch up, update schedules, figure out what is needed for the week.
Family can schedule events for the week and work out who will go where to meet these obligations. For example, Mom is working late on Tuesday so Dad will take kids to soccer. Family time is a time to sit with your kids, talk about their week, see what successes or challenges they have had. Each child can put into the conversation so everyone learns more about each other. Children can bring concerns into the meeting as well. I encourage parents that have regular family time to put a sheet of paper on the fridge titled “Topics for Family Meeting”. Then, throughout the week issues can be listed. It gives kids a sense of additional regulation because most situations don’t need to be addressed that moment. If it is scheduled for the family time/meeting, then a child knows it will be addressed and coming back to it later gives each party a chance to calm.
Finding time to be together in a family can make a huge difference to your family. Members can feel connected to each other in a way that has not happened before. Everyone will have a chance to use their voice to express what they need. Children learn so many skills being with the whole family. Self-regulation is a huge one. Every skill children are using will relate to experiences outside the family. Knowing that there is a scheduled time to spend one on one with a parent can build a child’s self esteem. The rewards of family time will echo throughout the week. It isn’t easy to start, but once it becomes a regular thing in the family, everyone can get on board with it.
One of the biggest no-no’s that parents are regularly committing is making the car a place where they connect with their teen. Your kiddos rely on you for regular transportation, and in the car, there is nowhere to hide! The car is the perfect place to talk, right?
Imagine your teen’s perspective: she’s been “on” all day at school, learning, working, and socializing. She had to remember her homework in Algebra, her project from Spanish, and her orchestra instrument. She took a test in Language Arts and a quiz in World Geography. Her best friend cried at lunch because her boyfriend was being distant, her friend group had some drama about a SnapChat post gone wrong, and her favorite teacher is out for the rest of the year because her mom is sick. Her head and heart are full from an exhausting day. She gets in the car at the end of the day and shuts the door, ready to relax. Finally, no one is needing her or asking her to do anything.
Instead, there you are, eager to talk – “How was your day?” “Did you do well on your quiz?” “Is Sarah still mad at Craig?” “Did you remember your project?” You may have been thinking about her all day and wondering how she is doing, so when you see her, it feels natural to want to check in about all of these things, to show her you care, and to connect.
However, it is critical that you give her the time and space she needs to decompress first, and that is different for every teen. Most of them need at least a few minutes to stare out the window or listen to their music, and many of them need much more than that. Notice their body language and cues – do they seem eager to talk right now? If not, respect their boundary and wait. Nothing is worse than feeling cornered, even if you have the best intentions.
And if you do have something import you need to confront your teen about, say their lack of studying in the evenings or refusal to follow your rule of no food in bedrooms, ask them when a good time would be to talk. Find them at a neutral time at home, such as after dinner or during breakfast, and say “Hey- I want to check in with you about studying. Would tonight or tomorrow night be better for you? What time?” Give them choices and some power to say what works for them. Just because the issue feels urgent to you doesn’t mean it actually IS urgent. Take a few deep breaths and seek cooperation and connection with your teen, not conflict and control.
For more insight, consider signing up for our Positive Discipline Workshop for parents of teens and tweens! Click HERE for more info. To read part 1: Why Won’t My Teen Talk to Me?, click HERE.