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LIONS AND TIGERS AND BEARS, OH MY – When did our children become so anxious?

Dorothy and her compatriots in the “The Wizard of Oz” were on to something all those decades ago when they chanted, “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” on their odyssey to hobnob with the wizard.    Today, children are a lot more anxious than they were when I first opened the door to private practice nearly 30 years ago.

What’s going on?

Some fears are built into the cycle of life.  Normal development includes the stranger anxiety phase which usually sets in at about 7 months of life when your baby recognizes familiar faces like Mom and Dad, and then avoids the unfamiliar.  As healthy attachment to parents grows, separation anxiety, as manifested through crying and sadness emerges, and then improves over the next several years.  Generally, most children are past this stage by the end of kindergarten.

This is a period of rapid growth as the children’s world expands, bringing with it new and unfamiliar situations and real and imagined dangers from dogs and spiders to monsters and “boogey men.”  Between ages 3-6, children are trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not; until this is resolved, they may have difficulties with costumed characters (remember Purim), shadows, the dark, the basement, closets and under the bed.  As a child learns how to manage these fears, they can put them aside so they are able to sleep alone.

As long as these fears are real fears and not overly exaggerated, they form a natural, even healthful part of a child’s emotional growth.

School aged children experience different challenges.  First, our children are heavy into the dual curriculum; forget what the Common Core is doing to kids.  Further, there are real-life situations including fire drills and lockdowns, serious illnesses and sometimes, G-d forbid, death. The tsunami of information emerging moment by moment can be overpowering and even immobilizing. With experience, children learn these risks are more remote than imminent but we don’t know what seeps into their consciousness and sub consciousness, forming their views of the world.

Children of all ages, but especially at this stage, look to their parents to interpret the world for them.  Spend time with your children, enjoying them speaking with them and helping them to process information.

As children move from elementary school to middle school, social status, social comparisons and social acceptance takes front-and-center stage in their lives.  Concerns about academic and athletic performance and social group identification are normal.  Teens are concerned with finding a group that reflects their chosen identity.  Together with their peers, they discuss the larger world, moral issues and future plans.  And the information blitz in their lives happens ceaselessly.  In fact, according to National Institute of Mental Health, 25.1% of 13-18 year-olds suffered from an anxiety disorder at some point in their life.

Parenting expert John Rosemond says parents are often successful simply by telling children that the doctor recommends getting more sleep.  Enough said here.

Speaking of home, we parents lead stressful and stress-filled lives. In fact, 40 million American adults, as well as 1 in 8 children, suffer from anxiety.  It’s exacerbated when many parents suffer from frustration and a feeling of helplessness when they witness their child in this state day in, day out.  Yet it’s important to keep the stress low.

And remember – Each person is born hardwired.  It’s our job as parents to help our children learn to navigate life.

The best way to help kids overcome anxiety isn’t to try to remove stressors that trigger it.  Help them learn to tolerate their anxiety and function as well as they can, even when they’re anxious. And as a byproduct of that, the anxiety will decrease or fall away over time.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for anxiety, there are research-based techniques that can help manage it.  And they’re simple to learn.

Stop Reassuring Your Child

Your child worries and you respond, “There’s nothing to worry about.”   Yet your reassurance fall on deaf ears and the worrying escalates.  Your child is not seeking to defy you.  He just cannot help himself.  Why?  During periods of anxiety, the chemicals coursing through the brain and body for survival reasons is unbridled.  The prefrontal cortex — the “logical” part of the brain — gets put on hold while the automated emotional brain takes over. Simply put, it’s hard for your child to think clearly, use logic or even remember how to complete basic tasks.

Teaching your children that worry has a purpose. 

Worry rings an alarm in our system and helps us survive danger.  Teach your children that worry is normal and can help protect us; everyone experiences it at some point

Don’t avoid things just because they make a child anxious. 

Helping children avoid the things they are afraid of is a short-term fix at best; it reinforces the anxiety in the long run because the child that as a coping mechanism.  Most likely, the cycle will repeat itself.  “Mental health issues can become a way of life,” says local therapist Rachel Rosenholtz LCSW.  “Once anxiety has been triggered in a person, he will struggle with it until it has been addressed and straightened out.”

Express positive but realistic expectations

You can’t promise a child that her fears are unrealistic—that she won’t fail a test, that she’ll have fun ice skating, or that another child won’t laugh at her.

What you can do is express confidence that she’s going to be okay, she will be able to manage it, and that, as she faces her fears, the anxiety level will drop over time. This gives her confidence that your expectations are realistic, and that you’re not going to ask her to do something she can’t handle.

Respect feelings but don’t empower them

Validation and agreement not necessarily the same. If a child is terrified about going to the doctor because he’s due for a shot, you neither want to belittle his fears nor amplify them.  Listen and be empathetichelp him understand what he’s anxious about, and encourage him to feel that he can face his fears. The message you want to send:  “I know you’re scared, and that’s okay, and I’m here, and I’m going to help you get through this.”

Don’t ask leading questions

Yes, encourage your child to talk about her feelings, but don’t ask leading questions— “Are you anxious about the Chumash test?”  “Are you worried about the English essay?”   It’s better to ask open-ended questions such as “How are you feeling about next week’s social studies fair?”

Never reinforce the child’s fears

Try not to say in words, tone of voice or body language: “You know – This might be something that you should be afraid of.”  A child might have had a negative experience with a peer.  Next time the child is with the peer, you might be anxious about her and, unintentionally, you might be telling her, “Be worried.”

Encourage your child to tolerate anxiety

Tell your child that you appreciate the work it takes to tolerate anxiety in order to do what he wants or needs to do.  Boost him to engage in life and to let the anxiety take its natural curve. Called the “habituation curve,” it will drop over time as he continues to have contact with the stressor. Don’t expect it to drop to zero or as quickly as you’d like.  This is how we get over our fears.

Try to shorten the anticipatory period

When we’re afraid of something, the hardest time is before we do it.  Therefore, parents should try to eliminate or reduce the anticipatory period.  If a child is nervous about going to a doctor’s appointment, you don’t want to launch into a discussion about it two hours before you go or else watch your child go into orbit.  Shorten that period to a minimum.

Think things through with the child

Try talking through with your child, “What would happen if your fear came true?  How would you handle it?”  For example, If I’m late picking you up at after karate, what would you (the child) do?”   The child might answer, “I’ll tell the teacher my Mom is not here.” The parent:  “How would you ask the instructor for help?”  The child:   “He’ll offer to call her or he’ll wait with me.”

Model healthy ways of handling anxiety

There are multiple ways you can help kids handle anxiety by letting them see how you cope with anxiety yourself. Kids are perceptive, and they’re watching and absorbing how you handle anxiety.  Don’t have stress and anxiety, but let kids hear and see you managing it calmly, tolerating it, feeling good about getting through it.

What do airplane pilots do in an emergency?  They don’t wing it (no pun intended).  They have a checklist to review and set things on a straight(er) course.  Instead of rationalizing away worry, help your child master the “FEEL” method:

Freeze— Pause and take some deep breaths with your child. This can help reverse the nervous system response.
Empathize— Anxiety is scary. Your child wants to know that you get it.
Evaluate — Only after your child is calm, figure out possible solutions.
Let Go – Let go of your guilt.  Giving your child the tools to manage their worry is one of the best things a parent can do for a child.

As always, one’s home should be the safe cocoon where children can come, talk, emote, and grow.  As Dorothy said, “There’s no place like home.”

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