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Parenting a child with anxiety

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by Shaun

Shaun Groves writes about the ups and downs of fatherhood and how he manages to stay sane in spite of (or maybe because of?) being a dad. Shaun is a dad of four and travels the world singing and speaking on behalf of Compassion International. He is also his household’s reigning Candyland champion.

Mrs. Roosth was tall and gaunt, uncomfortably quiet, with small eyes and angry hands.

I leaned back too far in my chair and landed with a thump on the classroom floor. She wrapped her bony fingers around my arm, yanked me up to my feet and just about threw me into the nearest corner to stand for the rest of the day. A few hours. I was in the first grade.

My stomach hurt. My muscles spasmed in my back. My chest grew tight. I thought I might die. But I didn’t say a word.

That’s my earliest memory of serious anxiety. But not my last. Or worst.

I missed a Homecoming dance in high school because anxiety so debilitated me that I couldn’t stand and walk.

I was so heavily medicated on my wedding day that I slept through the first night of the honeymoon!

I turned down my first offer of a record deal because I fear traveling. And just the worrying about it doubled me over in pain and sent me to bed for the better part of a day.

But since eventually signing that record deal, I’ve traveled to around 100 cities every year for twelve years. As a musician and speaker I’ve stood on stage and done my thing in front of tens of thousands of people. Sometimes all at once. As a spokesperson for Compassion International, I’ve traveled to ten developing countries with questionable airplanes, eaten grub worms and guinea pig, and lunched with posh dignitaries and mobs of slum children.

No more debilitating anxiety. How’d that happen? And how can we as parents stave off the anxiety of our children?

My mother is as close to a perfect parent as there is. But even she made mistakes. Just two.

When I became anxious she made it worse by doing two things:

Telling Me To Stop It

I couldn’t stop being anxious any more than I could stop being a boy. It didn’t feel like a choice. Telling me to stop being anxious made me feel defective, abnormal, like I couldn’t do something everyone else could. Telling me to stop worrying gave me more things to worry about! Does my mom think I’m a weirdo? Will everyone else think I’m a weirdo? What’s wrong with me?

Telling Me What Would Happen If I Didn’t Stop

My mother is a worrier too. And when I worried to the point of dysfunction, she worried out loud. On my wedding day: What if you don’t get better…people are already at the church…we can’t move a wedding…you don’t want that do you? And of course I didn’t want that and I didn’t want my mother to worry either so I tried to reassure her, which is quite the opposite of relaxing.


Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography

Today I have four children and one of them is anxious. Here’s what I do when her anxiety prevents her from fully living:

Don’t Push

I don’t push her to play in the piano recital that has her in knots. Making her feel like a lot is riding on her getting over her anxiety will only make it worse.

Listen

I ask her what she’s feeling and listen. When she takes a breath I hand her a tissue and listen some more. The feelings are the effect. I want to listen until I hear the cause.

Interrupt

People with chronic debilitating anxiety are often ruminators. They are people whose thoughts get stuck in a groove like a needle on a record, going round and round playing the same anxious thoughts again and again until it’s all they can hear. So it’s important to interrupt my daughter once I think I understand her feelings and what’s causing them. I tell her what I think she’s said to me and ask her if I’m right. If she says I am but then tries to restate it all again – ruminating some more – I cut her off.

Imagine The Worst

This is counterintuitive but I ask her to imagine the worst thing that could happen at the piano recital. I’ll freak out and forget my music and everyone will stare at me and I’ll be embarrassed.

Prevention

I ask her if there’s anything she could do to prevent this from happening. In the case of the piano recital, does she have to play the music from memory or would the teacher let her have sheet music nearby just in case?

Plan

We figure out together what we’ll both do if the worst actually happens. I promise I won’t laugh or be embarrassed or love her any less or think she’s any less talented. Recitals are bad measures of talent. And talent isn’t why I or anyone else in that concert hall loves her.

But what will she do is the worst happens? She may decide that she’ll take the sheet music with her and use it if she forgets the notes. She may come up with a self-depreicating joke she can make to ease the tension and get the audience on her side (I still do this all the time). If she can’t come up with a plan, thenI help out but I really want this to be her idea, because I want her to be able to do this for herself when I’m not around.

Celebrate Success

When the piano recital ended without disaster we talked about how brave she was, how proud I was of her for facing her fears, and we had dessert. We celebrated the success. For me, successes, even the smallest ones, give me confidence that the worst rarely – if ever – happens.

Parenting myself this way over many years has destroyed anxiety. There are still things I’m afraid of, worried about – especially when bills are due. That’s normal. But I’m no longer disabled, half-living because of severe anxiety.

The next time your child is too afraid to live fully, please don’t push. Instead, help them understand their fears, make a plan and move forward. Who knows what kind of life is waiting on the other side of their anxiety? Help them get there.

Do you struggle with anxiety? What has helped you break free?

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Comments

  1. Shaun,

    Thank you so much for this article. I am the mother of a seven year old son with anxiety so severe he has OCD. We’ve recognized it the past two years and have finally started being able to be a proactive parent. Some of those steps were things like taking his issues seriously, and handling the way we know best regardless of what anyone around us may think, and not succumbing to the idea that we aren’t “parenting right” because we have to parent him different. Also I’ve learned to talk to him until he reveals the core issue, as you said. What is he REALLY anxious about, because I know it’s not usually what he’s saying it is. We have even started homeschooling him this year which has alleviated so much anxiety that we are seeing such an improvement in his behavior and interaction with others on a day to day basis. Shaun, I’d love any other tips you have for me! You can email me too.

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  4. My son had a thought about me dying today…and it wasn’t a good one. It wasn’t a dream but a thought that happened during the day while he was awake and it really shook him up. He’s 6. Then he had another one shortly after. He came to me and talked to me about it. I googled it (of course right?) and saw that maybe it might be the start of signs of anxiety. I then started to look at other signs such as how he’s very anxious about his 1st grade Math teacher and how he completely freaks about about trying new foods. He’ll ask me over and over again ‘what are we having for dinner…what are we having for dinner..’ Thanks for your post. It made me see things in a way that I hadn’t before..which could have been very dangerous for him.

  5. My 6 year old is anxious ALL THE TIME. She vomits when she hears thunder, sees lightening, sees a dressed up character, if it is crazy hat day at school, and the list goes on. I’ve taken her to the doctor but they seem completely disinterested in helping her, saying she will grow out of it. She also has epilepsy and her meds seem to have increased her anxiety level, she now is anxious about having a seizure or being late taking her medicine (even by 1 minute). Thank you so much for your perspective and suggestions to help, I will definetly try these out and hope they work to at least reduce the amount of ‘anxious vomiting’.

  6. Yes, there are many ways of how to handle anxiety and I am glad you found your way.
    I hope children get to live fully of their potential and having parents not pushing but supporting them.

  7. avatar
    elizabeth says:

    unbelievably timely and applicable post–thanking the Lord for showing me this and I am printing for my husband to read too. oh I pray this helps me better graciously love my 6 yr old through his anxiety. thank you for this

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  9. Having her in piano recitals performing for strangers is not helping her, only worsening her anxiety. Take it from me who’s extremely anxious and overprotective mother put me, her anxious daughter, through the same thing for years.

  10. Hello,

    Thank you for your website. I am a mother of 3. My eldest daughter 4.5 has anxiety. When she was small it was my tummy hurts, but we narrowed this down to anxiety as it always happened when I was going to work or away from her.
    She’s been okay since I’ve been home and just gotten a new swim teacher. She was in hysterics. Sore stomach, sore arm, and sore chest. Then later went pale for a lot of the day. Must have taken its toll. Thought it was a bug but realised it was anxiety.
    How do I re assure her, when she doesn’t know what it is. She doesn’t know it’s anxiety. How can I tell her it will all be okay when she is in hysterics and not listening.
    How can I each her how to deal with it?
    I need help.
    I would never medical, as you said this is a choice for when an adult, but should I take her to a professional to learn coping mechanisms?
    I too suffer from anxiety but I did t know that it was anxiety until about 4 years ago.
    I love my babies and want the best for them, please help if a one has any advice.
    Thanks.

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  12. I love this post. I was an anxious child and my oldest daughter is as well. One thing that helps us is baby steps. For example, when she started junior high she was anxious about literally everything. One of the things that worried her was riding the bus for the first time. So, instead of forcing her on the bus the first day, we set small goals. The first day I drove her and picked her up. The second day, she rode the bus there, but I still picked her up. The third day she rode the bus there and rode the bus back. Now, she loves riding the bus! Another thing she was worried about was making it to class on time. So the first few days she carried her backpack around, then she carried one big binder around for a few days. Now, she will make stops at her locker and switch out different folders without the worry of being late. Small goals is the key in our home. Even better, she set a goal of doing something outside of her comfort zone and ran for 7th grade student body officer. She has made it to the final 8. Final voting is this Thursday. :)

  13. It seems to have happened overnight. All was well but now my 5yr old is saying he feels weird and is sighing and taking deep breathes on a regular. He has severe food allergies which I *think* is causing him to be anxious and nervous- over evaluating his own body. This is a helpful post, if what I think is happening then I could tell you I’ve already done the two things not to do. :( Did you feel out of breathe or a need to sigh during these “episodes”? Thanks!
    I know this is an old post but hopefully you’ll respond. :)

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  16. What wonderful comments here … I too suffer from a dreadful anxiety which is fear that I smell bad ( friends and family tell me i dont but i swear they are just being nice!) this came to its ugly head after watching my dear mum die from ovarian cancer and has impacted severely on my life (and career) ever since I now have a beautiful 14 month boy who is an angel from above but he now is showing signs of severe anxiety ( mostly separation ) I wonder god forbid if my neurosis has a part to play in this …. Your comments above have helped immensely bless all of you out there that suffer each day and often in silence!

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  19. Thank you for sharing this. I had anxiety as a child, and I had a child with anxiety. Hers was much worse than what I ever experienced. When she was young, professionals had no advise for me. There was not as much information around at that time. Reading this article makes me feel that I did the best I could have for her, as a parent, despite my lack of resources. I hope it helps other parents know what to do for their anxious child.

  20. Thank you so much for this. I’m sitting here in tears because I so needed this right now. I’m parenting a very anxious 7 year old and just a half hour ago was feeling SO LOST as to what to do. Wondering how I can help her through this, and wondering if it’s going to affect her the rest of her life. You just gave me a game plan, and hope. So thank you, so much.

  21. I can’t tell you how timely this post is for us. Our sign has suffered from ticks that are brought out by anxiety since he was 5 (he’s 9.5 now). He gets so worked up about everything and we are always trying to reassure him that things will be ok. Just tonight my husband and I were noticing his ticks coming out more as we are leaving for vacation in 2 days, contemplating a move to a new house and school is starting in 2 weeks. The good thing about his ticks is that we can visibly see that something is bothering him and ask him about it.

  22. Thanks for the great post! I began experiencing anxiety after my oldest was born 7 years ago. He also worries a lot! One resource that has been helpful is the kids book,
    “What To Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kids Guide To Overcoming Anxiety”, available on Amazon. This workbook was so helpful for my 5 year old. It reassures kids that they are not alone, then has them draw pictures of their worries and teaches them how to talk back to worries. It really helped him. I believe it’s recommended for 5-12 year olds.

  23. My daughter is a constant worrier and in 1st grade she went through a particularly hard time. We ended up taking her to see a therapist to help her and us to help her. Something she learned that was particularly helpful was “self-talk”. When she started to think the worst or that she couldn’t control something irrationally, she would talk to herself and say something positive repeatedly to tell herself that she could do whatever it was. She also learned to slow down & focus on her breathing by practicing blowing out “birthday candles”. We continue to help her daily, but she has really been able to get a lot of it under control. I think she will continually need to learn new tools as she grows older.

  24. avatar
    Kelsey skelton says:

    Do you have any thoughts on how to help a child that is so anxious about school that they do ‘t want to go. I love what you said about not pushing them, but how can I help my child through anxiety when it is something she must do.

  25. Wow I’m going through this with my 15yr old daughter she is in therapy about to start medication as it has gotten so bad she has stopped going to school or out in public.
    I feel so bad that I have passed this on to her

  26. I have a 7-year-old son with anxiety (selective mutism). I realized it when he was going through open houses, etc for Kindergarten. My husband and I decided to homeschool him. Now he’s going into 2nd grade. We are starting cyber school this year, which will require him to talk to his teacher every other week.

    I’m to the point now that I really want him to attend a class…Sunday school, karate,etc. he refuses. I even tried bribing (I know) I’m going to try doing what you said to get him to go. I so want to push him, but I’m afraid of making it worse. Any thoughts?

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