Help for a kid with anxiety and distorted thinking
February 15, 2011 12:27 PM   Subscribe

Resources to help a perfectionist/anxious kid with distorted thinking.

My son will be 7 in a few weeks, and he has a tendency to distorted thinking (I have life-long issues with anxiety, so it's pretty obvious where he gets it from). Some examples:

If he doesn't understand a school assignment instantly, he cries and says he's stupid;

He often thinks his older brother or other kids are laughing at him or talking about him when they're nor (his brother might be laughing at something on the TV, for instance);

If he gets in trouble he comes to me and apologizes for being "such a bad kid";

He catastrophizes, for instance if he doesn't like what I fix for dinner, even though he should know from experience that we'll help him figure out an alternative, he'll say, "So I don't get *any* dinner?"

I don't think we want to pursue therapy with him at this point. But I would love some suggestions--either from your own experience or recommendations of books or other things I could look at--about how to talk about these kinds of things with him. I'd like to help him recognize the distortions in his thinking, and maybe help him improve his behavior, since fights often ensue after he gets mad at his brother for an imagined slight, or tantrums when he decides that some small setback is the end of the world.

Some things I already do: when he loses it over not instantly understanding math, I tell him, "If you already knew it all, there's be no point in learning it.". I tell thim that everyone makes mistakes while they're learning and no one is expected to get everything right the first time. Today when he tearfully apologized for being "such a bad kid," I told him that he was not a bad kid and that it was OK to apologize for a specific behavior, like not listening to me or picking a fight with his brother, but that doing those things didn't make him a bad kid. And so on.

So far, none of this seems to have helped much. In fact, my explanations often just seem to make him think he's a bad kid for having not understood he wasn't a bad kid and for apologizing for the wrong thing. *sigh*

If you've been through this with a kid, what has helped? As I said above, right now I don't think things are bad enough to pursue therapy; I'm looking more for resources, books (either for me or for him), and strategies to use at home within the family.
posted by not that girl to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I've never worked with kids that young, but I have worked with teenagers. Also had anxiety problems myself and eventually got help at 15. What he (I) was doing was preempting. I was insecure about myself, so instead of waiting for someone to tell me that I was bad, I simply said it myself first. The best cure is not to correct, but to hear that it's OK to be bad / make mistakes / be a brat sometimes. We love you. You cannot push us away. We love you.

Yes, you made a mistake. *hug* I love you. Let's try that again.

When he gets mad at you / himself when you explain things to him, he's mad because you gave him advice when he wanted someone to listen. Kids are really complicated that way. They expect you to KNOW exactly how they feel, and if you don't, they get mad.

What's weird is that he's labeling himself (as BAD), and you obviously don't do this. So he got it from somewhere. It could be a teacher, a "friend", a show he watches - something. Someone has been calling him names, just not you. It could always be a flip side of praise - if a kid hears "good boy" when he does things right, he will automatically label himself "bad boy" when he thinks he has done wrong.

Books I always recommend to everybody: raising our children, raising ourselves, and Unconditional Parenting.
posted by Sallysings at 1:01 PM on February 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

This hits close to home. I just asked my 7-year-old what helps him and here's what he said:

* Calming down long enough to understand that "understanding things takes more than an instant"

* Remembering the things that he knows he's good at

* "Take a deep breath and think about the people that *don't* laugh at you"

That's what he says when the question is about someone else, anyhow. When this happens to him, it reminds me of his croup-like inconsolable crying when he was small. I *think* what's happening is that he's feeling physically overwhelmed by his emotions and they are quickly and thoroughly outstripping his (considerable, for 7) ability to process them. He can't articulate this, but I suspect that he is deeply shamed--temperamentally--by this situation.

In that moment, when his brain is jammed and all of his adrenaline is flowing into tears and shaking, the best thing I have found to do is to hold him and soothe him *not addressing the substance of his perceived error,* but trying to comfort that part of him that's afraid and ashamed. The rest of the discussion can come later. But that moment is important. (And yeah, I have missed it more than once when what happened pissed me off.) Those times when I catch it--catch him--end the shame/anger/fear/anxiety much more quickly than anything else I've tried.

YMMV, and your child certainly varies, but I'll put it out there as something to consider. Good luck.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:24 PM on February 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

When I was a child, I thought I was the worst kid. Social anxiety, avoidance, guilt. I understand if you don't want to pursue therapy at this point, but don't necessarily put it aside forever if things don't get better.

I didn't get help, period, until I was much older than your child, so I don't know if the same things would help. You definitely want to find out where he's get the feelings of being BAD as Sallysings said. Always stress that you think he's a good kid, a good person. If you can get him to think about how often he laughs at other people, or thinks other people are 'stupid' for not getting things immediately, that can help him see that he's not being judged either.

I think Jamaro's idea about thinking about other possibilities and seeing things positively could help. His mind immediately goes to the worse possibility, if you can condition it to go to a better one, that will help.

Talk to him. Ask him why he thinks these things, understanding his emotions will help a lot. Good luck.
posted by trogdole at 2:52 PM on February 15, 2011

Response by poster: TROGDOLE, I'm definitely not ruling out therapy overall--I just don't think that at this point these things are interfering with his life to the extent that we need it. I could be wrong about that. I didn't get effective treatment for my own anxiety until I was almost 30 and I don't want that for my kids.

Thanks for answers so far. I'm appreciating it.
posted by not that girl at 3:06 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Although the rest of my childhood was kind of the opposite, I can relate an anecdote:

I was the kind of kid who picked up everything really quickly on my own. Playing the cello for the first time (4th grade) was a tough lesson in patience, especially because I could play the piano and sing just fine. One day I came home and started bawling because I didn't think I would ever be able to play "Perpetual Motion" in Suzuki Book 1. (For the record, it was maybe eight measures long.)

My dad wasn't a musician at all; he couldn't read music, and he could have just let my mom (the piano teacher) handle it. But he sat down with me, and we worked through the notes and the patterns one measure at a time. I had it down half an hour later.

Breaking it down into manageable parts was huge. I still do that, and it allows me to get a lot more enjoyment out of otherwise-tough or boring tasks. It also lets you eat away at harder and harder things until you do better at things you never thought you'd reach.

But the best thing was knowing that my dad would sit down with me, even though he had no experience, and work it out. I think it meant more because he could relate to not knowing how it was supposed to work, and he was willing to make a mistake and look uninformed. There was an element of me teaching him how something was supposed to go.

Showing always means more than telling. Maybe if you show him that there are some things that you wish you [or other adults] could do better but make mistakes at (carefully!), he could learn the "everybody makes mistakes and needs help" thing more easily.
posted by Madamina at 3:07 PM on February 15, 2011

What your kid needs is the following,

a) a strong anti-depressant, e.g., Cymbalta

b) a strong anti-psychotic, e.g., Seroquel

c) a strong anti-hypnotic, e.g., Ambien

Add to all these, weekly therapy sessions (I know, you specifically don't want that).

OP, you know this is the worst advice ever, right? Good. Just making sure. Developing kids, with developing minds, are not ready for this stuff at age 7 in about 99% of cases.


I had an anxious kid. He's 17 now, and doing great in school and in life, but he still gets overwhelmed sometimes. And that's okay. When he gets really stressed, he tells me he feels overwhelmed. And I listen. Which is the big thing. And I let him know that I am always here to talk to, and if he wants someone else to talk to, I know a great guy (I have an excellent therapist), and he can even vent about ME and HIS DAD and it's okay, it's all confidential. And of course I tell him that whatever happens, his Dad and I love him. And that calms him down, and once the specific stressors pass him by, he's fine again. He's never taken me up on the therapist yet, but he knows he has an out if he needs one. Just that knowledge helps.

Your son may grow out of this (according to that same 17 yo). In the meantime, I think you are doing just right with your positive statements, your assurance that your love is unconditional and all the rest. I also used to tell my son,"We're your parents. You're a kid! Let us worry for you. You know we have your best interests at heart, and we love you, and we WANT to take responsibility and help you through problems. That's what we're here for. So when you're worried about something, come talk with us. We can figure out how to deal with it."

And I think that did help a bit.
posted by misha at 3:14 PM on February 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

Oh, and I just wanted to make this clear: I'm on anti-depressants. I am not an anti-med at all costs type of person or anything. I just think saying ANY 7 year-old needs medication without having specific diagnoses of his problems is insane. If it's necessary down the line, you'll face that decision and decide what's best for you and your son, but that time isn't here yet. And it may never come.
posted by misha at 3:17 PM on February 15, 2011

You're talking with him about his distorted thinking, but "so far, none of this seems to have helped much."

With that in mind, I second MonkeyToes:
    In that moment, when his brain is jammed and all of his adrenaline is flowing into tears and shaking, the best thing I have found to do is to hold him and soothe him *not addressing the substance of his perceived error,* but trying to comfort that part of him that's afraid and ashamed. The rest of the discussion can come later. But that moment is important.
A parent's unconditional love, communicated nonverbally, can be powerful medicine for a distraught child.
posted by exphysicist345 at 3:55 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why do things have to get bad before therapy is considered? I mean, really, would you let a wound bleed for a while as long as it wasn't a severed artery? That's an extreme example, of course.

But why not get some therapy going for the kid now while things are more manageable? Why wait until he's got a lot of added issues? Why not get him help to deal with things the way they are now so he won't have to untangle a bigger mess later?

Mental health is like anything else, it does not get better by ignoring it. And if your health care doesn't cover it then spend money of your own. The child's future depends a lot on how things are handled all along the way. Don't let money be an excuse that leads to a lifetime of misery.
posted by wkearney99 at 4:35 PM on February 15, 2011

Why not give therapy a try? It sounds like you are taking all the right steps, but if your methods aren't working, and kiddo is still distressed on a regular basis, it may be time for some third party input.
posted by freshwater at 5:36 PM on February 15, 2011

I was going to suggest the book The Now Habit, but I may have to shelf that recommendation 5-6 years if he's currently 7. Great stuff about getting past being paralyzed by perfectionism, though.
posted by squasher at 7:18 PM on February 15, 2011

I think jamaro's exercise is an excellent idea. It might help to make a game of the cognitive distortions. Make funny, over-the-top examples of each of them that even he agrees are silly, and then when he gets anxious, try playing at identifying the error.

You might also want to take a look at the book The Highly Sensitive Person to get an idea of some of what might be going on in his head. I think some of us are just wired to feel things and sensations more intensely than others, and maybe there's some way to discuss in an age-appropriate way that different people are wired differently and help him find coping strategies.
posted by MsMolly at 7:30 PM on February 15, 2011

aw, I want to give you a hug for being a great parent. I think it's great that he's communicating his anxiety so much with you. I think that's a great sign. Also the point above about breaking tasks into manageable chunks -- I have JUST learned that in the last few years (with therapy, also a great guitar teacher) and it's kind of amazing that i never learned it before. I think therapy could help with this -- I know child therapists and it's about learning and play, not like adult therapy at all.
posted by sweetkid at 9:17 PM on February 15, 2011

Response by poster: I want to thank folks for helping me move my thinking along with this. I found the answers and questions productive.
posted by not that girl at 4:52 PM on February 16, 2011

I still do exactly what your child does from time to time as a grown woman. It's definitely confidence factor that he will eventually get to understand better. Nobody sat me down as a kid and soothed my insecurities of being a certain way. I was left to feel dumb and like I'm always doing something wrong. Judgmental environment doesn't help. Now, I feel so much better and my anxiety went away when a good friend told me to put myself first and to stop second guessing myself, which I always did as a child. She reminded me how I'm worth it. I may be generations apart from your son but we're still on the same wave length in emotions and I wish him the best. If I had any advice for him, is the people that matters will love you even when you make a mistake or even a series of them. The world doesn't run on absolutes and as part of the universe, we don't either.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 3:49 PM on March 1, 2011

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