Parenting an Anxious Kid
January 21, 2015 11:29 AM   Subscribe

My 4 year old seems to be considerably more anxious, perfectionistic, and emotional than his peers. Do you have a kid like this? WERE you a kid like this? Give me your secrets to helping him develop coping skills.

TChemBoy is an awesome, healthy, active, imaginative kid. Every daycare teacher he's had has noted that he's particularly sensitive. Even so, I get the sense that he tries extra-hard to hold himself together at school, so the teachers saying this are seeing Maximum Cope.

He hates going to school even though he is always happy and engaged when we pick him up at the end of the day. He hates that he's not the best, he thinks his friends don't like to play with him, he worries that his teachers don't like him because he can't follow the rules, he gets really sad and low talking about how he's very small and not very good at anything. The teachers' impressions are... pretty much the opposite of this. They find him to be a bright engaged sweet helpful kid, pretty well-liked. I'm also pretty convinced that the teachers are not actually using these harsh words; from my experience and from feedback from other family members, this looks a lot like anxiety talking. (Anxiety runs in my family, and if there's anything I can do that helps him stay farther to the "avoids elevators" level of the family anxiety spectrum where I live, and less the "never leaves the house" end, I'd be thrilled.)

He has a close-to-the-cusp birthday so has been one of the youngest children in his preschool class. Relative to his classmates, he's on the high end with gross motor skills and vocabulary, on the low end with pronunciation, and somewhere in the middle on pre-reading, social, and fine motor skills, and tall, sturdy, and strong for his age. Because his build and carriage is that of The Littlest Linebacker, I suspect that one issue is that people's expectation is that he's a Manly Boy, and may sometimes treat him as tougher than he is. His style of play is super active, but not at all rough-and-tumble.

School seems to be the primary stressor, but he does tend to fall apart easily at other times as well. If he has a water next to his plate and would like milk, he finds it really hard to just ask without wailing with disappointment. This is (mostly) not an act, and he knows he doesn't get the thing until he can calm his body down enough to ask. He just ramps up very quickly and ramps down very slowly, usually preferring to go hang out on his own for a while to calm down. The fact that he's aware of the fact that he's not doing the right thing seems to make it worse, but we're not about to start rewarding the behavior either.

I'm in no way trying to toughen him up, but he clearly doesn't like melting down any more than we like it. I'm wondering if anyone has any parenting tools, or readings, or experiences that speak to how to help an anxious young kid have as many coping tools as possible.

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To answer some things up front, here are things that we already do or try, that work to some extent:
-Give him space when he needs it
-More sleep and more small snacks (sleep is not great right now as he's dropping the afternoon nap and not *quite* ready)
-Help him name his feelings
-Giving him sympathy without rewarding the behavior
-Quiet distracting conversation once he's ramping down a bit.
-My husband and I talking about mistakes that we make, modeling coping mechanisms.
-During calm times, talking about ways we can deal with strong feelings. About 15% of the time I can see him consciously choose one of these things (hugs, using his words) and it does my heart good to see it work even a little.

Things we're thinking about:
-Open to some kind of therapy, but his pediatrician has not been concerned enough to give a referral, and I have zero clue about the efficacy or process since neither I nor my husband has had therapy.
-We've discussed keeping him back a year for kindergarten, but he's hit every milestone he needs to be there already, and I don't think that his anxiety has that literal a basis. Willing to hear about other experiences though.
posted by tchemgrrl to Human Relations (24 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
Is there someone in his life who also exhibits these behaviors? He might be learning/modeling it from them.. especially the perfectionism.
posted by royalsong at 11:50 AM on January 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid's Guide to Overcoming Anxiety might be a couple of years too early for your child, but it may give you some language/framing to use now. Good luck to all of you.
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:59 AM on January 21, 2015


I was an incredibly anxious kid for a whole lot of reasons that couldn't really have been helped or improved upon, but one thing I think would have made a big difference is some kind of mindfulness instruction, so I could have had a coping mechanism that was easy, silent, fast, and free.

Bringing yourself back to something totally natural, effortless, and easily observable -- your breathing, how the tip of your nose or the bottom of your foot is feeling, whatever -- is like an instant reality-check, and being able to remind yourself to take a step back from the world and just breathe for a few seconds is a priceless coping mechanism. It ramps down anxiety and stressors like nothing else.

So in case you think this might be something that could be helpful for TChemBoy, here are some resources for preschool-era mindfulness: Meditation and yoga for toddlers, Teaching Children Meditation and Mindfulness, 4 Ways for Kids to Start Meditating, The Mindful Child.

Also, the sangha I belong to uses these books in their kids' "bodhi school," so you might find some use in them, too: Moody Cow Meditates, Sitting Still Like a Frog, Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda, Peaceful Piggy Meditation.
posted by divined by radio at 12:04 PM on January 21, 2015 [21 favorites]


I have a 7-year-old son who sounds a lot like yours, temperamentally. I wonder if a core issue here might be the fact that while your son actually IS successful in preschool (per the very positive feedback his teachers have given you) he still does not FEEL that way.

Recommended reading:

Transforming the Difficult Child: The Nurtured Heart Approach by Howard Glasser. Recommended on AskMe; it has worked for us even though I would definitely not describe either of our sons here as "difficult." Exploring this approach will be well worth your time.
posted by hush at 12:06 PM on January 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


It sounds like you're doing a really great job, and because my son is just 1, I don't have ALL that much helpful to add, but in case you haven't seen it, I wanted to recommend this book: Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids. It's a fabulous book overall, and it's *mostly* about helping children learn how to handle emotions. There are two suggestions that come to mind as possibly relevant to your situation:

1. The book suggests having "Special Time" every day - 15 minutes when the parent and child spend high-quality time together, just reconnecting after the school/work day. I think she suggests that you alternate choosing the activity so both parties come to truly enjoy the time, but the "activity" could be snuggling on the couch - the point isn't to DO something so much as to have absolutely dedicated time to re-estsablish emotional support when everybody reconvenes in the afternoon. We've been doing this with our 1-year-old, sometimes not quite as soon as we should after coming home, and I can really see what a difference it makes. Sometimes we are just too BUSY after arriving home, cooking and cleaning, talking about work, and generally being distracted, and sometimes my son starts to get clingy, whiny or frustrated when this is going on. Little things start to really upset him, and this is the kid who NEVER cries at daycare and cooperates with every little thing that is asked of him there. We have started sitting together on the floor, holding him if he cries, and then just hanging out all together with no agenda for a little while afterward. It helps a lot! My apologies if this is maddeningly obvious to you. I know I theoretically value "just hanging out" and having time and space to relax as a family, but I hadn't quite realized how much chores/adult conversation/planning/whatever had encroached on time spent ACTUALLY just hanging out, so I thought I'd mention this.

2. The book has some terrific suggestions for role-playing games with the specific goal of getting children to laugh, or at least unwind, about things that are difficult for them. There is a pretty wide variety of games , and I don't think I could do them all justice in summary here, but as an example, you might pretend to be DESPERATE for a hug from your son, and comically refuse to let him go until he demands that you do. Or you might pretend to be unable to remember how to do a certain task (something super simple, like using a fork), and pretend to feel anxious that you shouldn't try for fear of getting it wrong. Obviously you don't want to make fun of your son, so the games need to be OBVIOUSLY silly. The book has much better suggestions than this one...
posted by Cygnet at 12:10 PM on January 21, 2015 [9 favorites]


We have a 4 year old, Micropanda, who is sort of like your 4 year old. Your first two lines describe him to a T. He doesn't seem to have the low self-esteem issues that your son has, but he's anxious about going to school, tries extra-hard to keep it together there, is emotionally sensitive, wails about water vs milk (or the wrong after-school snack), falls apart easily. A lot of it does seem to be meltdown vs being-a-shit tantrum (which he does do occasionally and we have much less sympathy for).

His perfectionism seems to manifest itself mostly in refusing to try things he perceives as difficult, because he's not sure he'll succeed. It's so very much worse when he's anxious.

Micropanda has a late birthday, so has almost a year's advantage over the youngest around, but is little and weak, and I think the two basically cancel each other out. He's in a Montessori school so the kids are used to having a mix of sizes. He's not worried that people don't like him, but he is agonizingly worried about following the rules and obsessed with other kids who don't. (If he's supposed to be cleaning up his work but also supposed to be at line time at the same time, his head explodes).

We have recently started him in occupational therapy because he has some physical sensitivities that have long been perceived as sensitive-end-of-normal but now may be holding him back. (He can be sent off the deep end by loud noises, water temperature - we have meltdowns about every bath, sticky hands, and some other stuff.) He also has some gross motor deficits - again, not horrible, but we're at the early end of a bad feedback loop. He can't do the thing well, so he's scared to do the thing, so he won't try the thing, so he doesn't develop the muscles to do the thing, lather-rinse-repeat. "The thing" includes stuff like climbing down a ladder, up most non-stair playground climbers, and using any wobbly playground equipment like a balance beam on cables.

The occupational therapists say that basically he exists in a narrow band of calm, but he gets stressed easily and once he's outside of that band, it's very hard for him to re-regulate. I don't know exactly how they plan to go about fixing it, because they are still in the assessment stage, but I'll be happy to let you know. The reason we pursued occupational therapy in the first place was because we were having So. Many. Meltdowns.

I'm sorry I don't have much help, mostly just commiseration, but would love to correspond via MeMail about things you or we find that help.
posted by telepanda at 12:23 PM on January 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


I was this kid. Particularly in the ramps-up-quickly-knows-it's-wrong-and-that-just-makes-it-worse kind of way. My parents were not sympathetic, and their yelling at me to calm down and get myself under control just made the out-of-control spiral worse. I think if you can continue to be super calm and sympathetic, while maintaining high standards for behavior, that will help. Because I struggled with feeling guilty because of my anxiety-induced meltdowns on top of the anxiety itself.

Also, therapy couldn't hurt (I don't think?) and I wish I had gotten some as a kid. I'm now an anxious adult trying to figure myself out. Be sure to present therapy as a good, positive, helpful thing and NOT a punishment, because my parents did actually try it once but it was presented as something I had to do because I was "messed up" and therefore I hated it and refused to participate.
posted by raspberrE at 12:25 PM on January 21, 2015 [11 favorites]


Addendum: One thing the OT suggested about our morning meltdowns (they typically start with refusing to get dressed because he "can't" do it) was to build time into the morning to aggressively nurture him a little bit. The idea being to counterbalance some of the anxiety that he's feeling about going off to a stressful day at school. It does seem to help. We give him some extra over-the-top cuddles and loving attention, and it gets his day off to a better start.
posted by telepanda at 12:26 PM on January 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


My daughter seriously loved and was helped by What To Do When You Worry To Much. We worked through it at age seven with good results.

I also read Freeing Your Child From Anxiety by Tamar Chansky, and the two books worked well together. Here is the single insight that helped us the most:
Lots of people worry. As adults, when we worry needlessly, most of us have good strategies for telling ourselves that we are overreacting. We can summon up our courage and force ourselves to move into a situation that causes us anxiety. We know that just because we feel anxious doesn't always mean that there is a real threat. But children have no way to know that. When their brain starts sending them danger signals, they feel compelled to respond by avoiding that danger. So what you have to do is let kids know that sometimes their brain gives them a false alarm. Once they have permission to discount the truth of their anxiety they can begin to manage it better. It helps to give it a name. In our case, we called it the worry bug. We told our daughter that there was a worry bug that like to visit her and try to make her worry about things that were really okay. That really made sense to her, even at age 7. So we would practice banishing the worry bug. Every morning before school she would choose where to send the worry bug if it visited her. The usual choice was Nebraska. So she would say out loud "worry bug, I am sending you to Nebraska." We saw a huge improvement quickly with this strategy. Now we don't go through that routine every morning, but on certain days we make sure to review it,like a test day or the first day back at school from vacation. When she started school, she would break down crying and weeping in the corner almost every day. Now, in third grade, you would never know that she used to be a particularly anxious child. That book turned her life around.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:36 PM on January 21, 2015 [24 favorites]


I've been an anxious child, teenager, and adult, and I will say that I outgrew some of my childhood anxiety--a couple of phobias and other tics--by age ten or so. It seems like preschool is kind of a quirky time for everyone? I distinctly remember a lot of my peers, around kindergarten-ish, doing things that even I thought were weird and wacky. Obsessions, erratic behavior, long crying jags...things that might point to pathology in an adult but were kind of par for the course with little kids.

But that's not to discount your son's anxiety. I know from experience that it is very real and difficult. In my late teens, I obtained a copy of The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook and it's helped a lot over the years with self-talk and building confidence. You may be able to work through it with him? And 2nding mindfulness--I wish so much that I'd discovered it at an earlier age, and I do think it's possible for a young kid to develop those habits. Hang in there!
posted by witchen at 12:38 PM on January 21, 2015


So, I was this kid. Perfectionistic, socially and generally anxious, sensitive to criticism, etc. I had all these things going on in my head that I never communicated to anybody because I knew, instinctively, that most of my fears were absolutely irrational. Even when I was 5. I was afraid to tell people what I was afraid of because I didn't want anyone to laugh at me. But talking would have made everything so much better. Then all of my stupid fears could have been punched in the face. Some examples:

1. I lived in abject terror over the idea of missing my bus stop. I imagined sleeping on the bus or never making it home again. Every single bus ride up through sixth grade involved being at perfect attention, with tight shoulders and a pounding heart. I *must not miss my stop.* If I had just opened my stupid kid mouth and told my parents what I was afraid of, they could have informed me of the proper procedure to deal with a missed bus stop. Tell the driver and he will either drop you last or have the school call the parents to pick you up at the bus garage. Missing your bus stop doesn't transform you into an orphan.

2. I'd get these stupid ideas in my head that I would obsess over. In kindergarten I was convinced that I was in the "dummies" reading group because our books had words and hardly any pictures. The other kids spent like 30 minutes talking about what the pictures meant and how they related to the words, but my books didn't have any of that. So I hated myself for being a dummy when I was in the advanced reading group. If I had just asked my parents or my teacher, I would have been informed that no, I was not mentally deficient because my textbooks did not have pictures in them.

3. As a precocious weirdo, I loved me some nature and history documentaries. I watched one about mummies where they demonstrated the removal of the brain through the nose using the hook. For the next 10 years I never blew my nose. I'd run around with tissues stuffed in my nose when I had a cold. My mother would beg and plead, but that nose would not be blown. Because I was as certain as the sun would rise tomorrow, blowing my nose would mean extensive brain damage. My mother took to calling me Howard (as in Hughes) because I was such a weirdo about illness. She never asked me *why* I wouldn't blow my nose, though. If I had just told her that I was afraid I would lose my brain, she might have been able to contain her laughter and calmly explain that blowing my nose would not damage my brain.

So, moral of the story is this. Talk to your kid. Try to get him to tell you what's actually going on in his brain. Don't laugh at him. Coping mechanisms are great, but one of the first things you do in CBT for anxiety is make lists of your fears, rational or not, related to the problem at hand. It's extremely difficult and painful to tell another person that you're afraid of something you know is ridiculous, and a child is probably no different. So be gentle.

One of the most amazing things that ever happened to me was a therapist I saw as a teenager. At one point, after I'd dropped out of high school and was in the process of applying to community college, he told me that all these pressures kid are put under are ridiculous, and it turned out to be true. Short of a felony conviction, nothing you do will ruin your life forever. Quitting high school at 15 did not mean that I never went to college. I went to community college and attended regular universities at various points. I got my GED and life went on. When I thought back to all the torture I put myself through in order to be perfect in school, I realized that it was all unnecessary. Getting a shit grade on a test in 6th grade did not mean that I could never be a brain surgeon or an environmental scientist. But that's what I'd had in my head. When I was 10. I'm sure you can imagine how unbelievably intense that pressure feels, especially when you're a kid.
posted by xyzzy at 12:44 PM on January 21, 2015 [28 favorites]


Sometimes anxious kids do really well when they get the chance to help around the house by having an official list of small chores that make sense given their age and size. Low pressure but useful task completion helps build a sense of confidence and self-efficacy. Perhaps this would be a good time to start some routines if your son shows interest in being helpful?
posted by Hermione Granger at 1:02 PM on January 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


I was also this kid. I'm still anxious and sensitive and I'm still working on it. I'm also like 50x better at it from practice. I second xyzzy's suggestions. You might try adhering to this list of rules about caring for introverts: http://kottke.org/14/12/how-to-care-for-introverts. (I felt such a flood of recognition when I read this list I almost cried.) I also have some book recommendations: Quiet and Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child. "Quiet" describes the neurochemical pathways that probably explain exactly why your kid ramps up fast and takes a while to calm down. I read the parenting book as an adult and have to say I think the methods suggested would have been helpful to me as a kid. I didn't even know what I was feeling was called "anxiety" until I was in my 20's.

I've also had people tell me I might be a "Highly Sensitive Person" and that seems to fit. There are books on that topic as well, though I haven't read any of them.

Thank you for being the sort of parent who notices and cares and is trying!
posted by purple_bird at 1:37 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's a difference between being academically and intellectually ready for kindergarten and socially/emotionally ready. If he has a cusp birthday (like my brother), I'd hold him back.

To me, this: We've discussed keeping him back a year for kindergarten, but he's hit every milestone he needs to be there already, and I don't think that his anxiety has that literal a basis.

Seems at odds with He hates going to school... and School seems to be the primary stressor...

Kindergarten, really, is for learning how to be in school, and it sounds like he may need the extra time. He's telling you he's not ready. From what I can tell the general recommendation for cusp birthdays is to wait the extra year. I have a lot of friends whose parents waited with them, and no regrets. Is there any reason not to wait? It sounds like at this point his anxiety would trump anything else.

Additionally, might his preschool just not be a good fit? I seen a number of cases where there was nothing wrong with the daycare or teacher, it was just not right for that kid and a change of scenery made a huuuge difference. My husband and I were both this kid to some extent and super sensitive to the teacher's personalities. 4th grade was miserable because the teacher was a sort of no-nonsense gung-ho extrovert. Looking back she was actually very nice and incredibly kind but she was just too full on for me, and didn't "get me" at all - and like your son, it was really important to me that the teacher liked me (or rather, that I could self-identify with the teacher).

Can you try out a different daycare for a few days, or even a kindergarten classroom, and see how it goes?
posted by jrobin276 at 2:08 PM on January 21, 2015


Our daughter, now 16, was and is like this. When we had a developmental evaluation in first grade the psychologist told us that, apart from anything else, she was a very anxious child. She predicted that school would be very difficult because most people learn by making mistakes and fixing them, and mistakes would be extremely upsetting to BresciaBouvierDaughter (that's a mouthful; BBdaughter hereon in). This has proven to be the case, and school is the source of most of her anxiety and difficulties. What we interpreted as perfectionism was actually obsessive compulsive disorder. No matter how much work she did her OCD did not allow her to be satisfied with it (she once spent nine hours on a drawing that the teacher expected to take about 30 minutes). So definitely be aware that might be a possibility with your anxious, perfectionistic son, also.

I guess I wish we had started intervention much earlier than we did. I would suggest staying in close touch with your child's teachers, because we learned of many issues well after the fact that would have been very helpful knowledge to have. (For example, leaving the classroom to cry in the bathroom for long periods of time; taking hours longer on standardized tests than the rest of the class.) This lack of communication by her teachers and her tendency to be extremely private resulted in us being in the dark about a lot of her problems, and blindsided when they became overwhelming to her.

I think if you can find a therapist that your son is comfortable with even at this young age it could be very beneficial to him. I have no idea of medication options for a child so young, but I will say that medication has been a very important part of BBdaughter's improvement. She started off on Zoloft and was eventually switched to Prozac. She says that Prozac is one of the best things that has ever happened to her and she feels like it allows her to be her real self. This is both wonderful to hear and heartbreaking to think of her real self imprisoned behind her anxiety.

It is really difficult and frustrating to parent a child like this. We have made a lot of mistakes, both in not getting help soon enough, and in our expectations of what she was capable of. Her brain quite literally doesn't work in ways we are familiar with, which makes it really hard to anticipate issues. We have been harsh and angry with her about things that she had no control over, that we didn't understand. But we learn every day and hopefully get better.

You are the best judge of whether your child needs help. Regardless of what your pediatrician thinks, if your gut says he needs some kind of intervention now then push for it. I do have to say that I'm not sure if holding him back a year for kindergarten will make a difference, because this is likely not a maturity issue but a brain issue.
posted by Bresciabouvier at 2:20 PM on January 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


"Professional" (I've worked adjacent to special education policy/practice but I'm not an expert or credentialed in anything) advice: I would try something like play therapy or a therapy play group designed for anxious kids. Adults can make sense of "The therapist is going to teach you coping skills" whereas games and stories are better for "sneaking" things in for kids. Plus it's fun. I also like the idea of occupational therapy and looking at a different school environment. Some kids need a quieter school, different kind of teacher, or there can even be a group of kids who are perfectly nice but make the class he's in at this school too "something" (loud, quiet, academic, focused on a skill he has rather than the ones he needs, etc). I think being flexible about trying different school settings is good for kids.

Personal anecdote: I was also an anxious worried child with a cusp birthday and did not red shirt. My mom still says 25 years on that she thinks that was the wrong decision. I turned out fine (if I do say so myself) but I think she may be right that my school experience as a whole might have been easier if I had waited a year. I was successful academically but not socially and in retrospect I was less mature and independent than my peers- even freshman year in college. I did better in smaller classrooms (more attention from adults like I wanted and fewer social relationships to manage). Waiting a year might have helped but so might also professional intervention to help with the anxiety, social integration and emotional regulation so I definitely recommend looking at that in tandem with deciding when your son will do kinder.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 2:31 PM on January 21, 2015


Just one note on the keeping back a grade - your child my interpret this as 'failing' kindergarten. My brother was kept back a year, and it certainly seemed to affect him that way, even though it was probably for the best.
posted by kjs4 at 6:33 PM on January 21, 2015


I was an anxious kid, but not this anxious kid - and my kid is too young for this, so I'm not speaking from direct experience.

But I've known several sensitive and precociously verbal little linebackers and tiny amazons. (Tall family,and some tall friends too).

I think it can be really tough for kids like that when they are very young. Even adults and other kids who should know better expect them to act their size/vocabulary and not their age. A sensitive kid knows she is somehow not meeting expectations, but even if he could figure out why, 3 a half is not 5. 5 is not 7. They are whole developmental stages away from the social/emotional skills they look to have.

Especially if your son is just on the cusp, maybe this is happening to him, and redshirting would help.
posted by sputzie at 7:53 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I didn't even know what I was feeling was called "anxiety" until I was in my 20's

Ditto. My parents were aware of my perfectionism and told stories to their friends about it in an "aren't kids quirky?" way, and discouraged it, but what might've helped also would have been to talk to me patiently about it ("hey, we noticed this thing you sometimes do" ... "hey, remember that thing we discussed?") in a way that helped me gain self awareness, self acceptance, and coping mechanisms around it. I learned that my anxiety based behaviors were out of the ordinary. I altered my behavior and became kinda counterphobic (I worry about nothing! no, no worries! that? p'shaw! it'll be fine!) while not realizing what a force it was in my life until later.
posted by salvia at 12:41 AM on January 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


This was my child. Shoggoth Jr. is in high school now. All children are wonderfully different and special and develop differently. But if TChemBoy is like my child, here are some things you'll want to keep in mind:
  • If at any time anxiety is getting in the way of normal life experiences, get thee to a child psychologist.
  • Even if you successfully deal with anxiety at a young age, pay careful attention at the beginning of puberty. The brain will be flooded by hormones, and problems can come back fast -- and even morph into new ones.
  • Keep in touch with teachers. Know what's going on in the classroom.
  • Be aware of your own anxiety and behaviors and how they are affecting your child. Get help for yourself if you need to. (Sounds like you're probably on top of this one.)
  • Stay positive with your child. Positive interactions should outnumber negative ones by at least five to one.
  • Learn about the insidious interactions and relationships between anxiety, depression, and ADHD. For boys, ADHD-Inattentive is particularly sneaky, and may not be identified until high school.
Also, I find watching Mister Rogers episodes very helpful (and it probably wouldn't be bad for your kid, either).
posted by Shoggoth at 6:17 AM on January 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


I was one of these kids.

This may be genetic (if it runs in your family, this is likely). It's not a moral failing on the part of the child or the parent. It's not because he's sheltered, coddled, or overprotected. Unless the problem is actually PTSD, it's not because of something someone did to him. It's not because you are a bad parent. Anyone who says otherwise does not know what they are talking about, and you should not listen to them.

One thing NOT to do is sometimes called "futurizing". Do NOT say stuff to him like "if you're having trouble with X, how are you going to deal with being in first grade?", or "If you can't keep your room clean, how are you ever going to live on your own with no one to clean up after you?". That's a good way to get a kid really scared of any kind of change, and that doesn't always go away when they grow up (Ask me how I know this!). It's also a good idea to keep to yourself any inferences you draw about his overall character from stuff he does. Don't tell him he's lazy because he didn't do his homework, for example. Anxious kids internalize labels like this (or at least some do). If he does something you don't like, focus on the behavior, not what you think it might imply for his character or his future.

You may want to limit his TV and movie viewing, or even reading. Scary stuff isn't so good for young kids who are anxious. Thinking about scary stuff he read about or saw on TV can add to sleep problems (I know this from personal experience). Young kids don't always have the judgment to avoid entertainment that is likely to upset them. Let him know it's always OK to not want to read a book or watch a TV show because he finds it too scary. Never ridicule him for this kind of thing, and stand up to anyone who does that in your presence. A popular book, movie or TV show is not a required childhood experience. For any of those you can name, there are billions of people who never read or saw it, and they live fulfilling lives. If the fear is getting in the way of doing stuff he actually does need to do, or if it's a book assigned for school, it's a different story, but don't push him to do things he doesn't really need to do. Anxiety is like cockroaches- you can't get rid of it by stepping on individual fears, as new ones will tend to come up. You can get rid of the fears that really do interfere with his life, but he'll still probably be more sensitive than some other kids. And that's OK. He doesn't have to be fearless (you probably wouldn't like it at all if he really were afraid of nothing).

You can try to find books or TV that present things he's afraid of in a non-threatening way, but you'll have to offer it to him in small doses and on terms where he has some control. You don't learn to deal with fears by being thrown into the situation you're scared of with no control, any more than you learn to swim by being thrown in the deep end or learn to ride a bike by being put on the bike and pushed down a big hill.

If he has friends who habitually upset him, or who seem to enjoy setting him off, you might want to limit his contact with them. Again, kids don't always have the judgment to know when someone might not be a positive presence in their lives.

If he tells you something scares him, believe him, no matter how ridiculous it sounds to you. He's a kid. He doesn't have an adult's experience or perspective. Never ridicule him for his fears, especially do not ridicule him for fears he has told you about. For some reason, some people, when I tell them, for example, "I'm afraid of needles", like to tell me stories about awful experiences they've had with needles. Don't do that. Ridiculing him for his fears teaches him that it is not safe for him to let you know what he is afraid of. That's probably not the message you want to send.

Try not to get upset or angry about his being anxious or upset. That can start a vicious cycle- he gets more upset because you are upset at him. Anxiety thrives in vicious cycles like that. Don't ridicule him for crying. If the crying is an involuntary response to being upset, how could making him more upset possibly help?

He's probably going to be more likely to have meltdowns if he's tired, hungry, in a hurry, or stressed about something else. But you knew that. Those are not the times to try desensitizing him to fears, or to try to do things he's nervous about. Give him some time to wind down after school, if possible. When I was 16, my parents made me practice driving with them right after school, without asking if that time worked for me. I didn't get my license until I was 23, so you can see how well that worked out. Especially as he gets older, ask him if doing something works for him, or if doing something at a particular time works for him (if at all possible). Ask, don't tell.

With the water vs milk issue, have you tried asking him before giving him his drink whether he'd like water or milk? The solution to that one might just be that simple.
posted by Anne Neville at 7:58 AM on January 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


TV news can be triggering for anxiety. If you have the kind of house where CNN or Fox News is on all the time, you might want to re-think that. TV news and the commercials for it are designed to trigger anxiety, since the powers that be believe that that gets people to watch the shows. It might be better to get news online (bonus: you can read only the stuff you're interested in, any time you want). If you do watch TV news while he's present, make sure he knows he can talk to you about anything that has scared him.

There's a silver lining here: anxious kids can be less likely to do some of the risky stuff other kids do. Some studies show it may even make him less likely to commit crimes. It might mean he's more likely than other kids to consider possible consequences before he does something.

When I got older, I became a probability junkie. Knowing that something I was afraid of was incredibly unlikely really did help. And a lot of things that people are anxious about really are incredibly unlikely (such as terrorism or shark attacks, to name two TV news favorites). This really didn't help with my fear of driving, though.

If he has fears of things where there is something reasonable he can do to prevent the feared outcome, tell him about that. If he's afraid of car crashes, for example, he could make sure to always sit in his car seat or booster and always wear his seatbelt.

For some fears, there are ways to get done what needs to be done while still ameliorating the fear. I'm scared of needles. I never, ever, look when someone is getting a shot (even on TV). But I am able to get shots and get blood drawn by looking away when the needle is out. I'd never get a tattoo, but I manage to get the shots and blood work that I need, even though I'm afraid.
posted by Anne Neville at 9:20 AM on January 22, 2015


Hi all:

Turned out he had the undetectable leading edge of a mild cold yesterday, which made everything more intense for him and got me in a more-despairing-than-usual mood, but the Ask is still all applicable, and the feedback is solid gold, thank you. A lot of it really resonated, some of it stuff that I need to re-remember every few months, like having some undivided attention as soon as we get home. I've got hold requests on a bunch of the books too.

As far as redshirting goes, it's still definitely on the table. My husband and I both had on-the-cusp birthdays with very different kindergarten experiences, so we have a greater-than-average familiarity with the possibilities.

We talk a lot. We deal with emotions through play a lot (his beloved Puppy was sick and afraid of the hospital yesterday before the boy admitted to a sore throat.) We keep the TV watching pretty light, although Frozen is AMAZING for basically showing his worst nightmare of being shunned for lack of control, and how it can all work out well in the end (the supposedly scary parts with wolves and monsters did not scare him at all. Frost creeping from Elsa's hand terrified him.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:16 AM on January 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was just thinking how Frozen is a good analogy to an anxiety disorder. We try to conceal it, not feel it (especially men), and it doesn't help. Elsa snaps when a well-meaning person who doesn't know about her problem pushes her too far. Elsa learns that avoiding people isn't a solution to her problem. In the end, people know that Elsa is different (at least the ones skating at the castle do), and it's not a problem. (I still hope Elsa gets a good therapist, though- being basically in solitary confinement for much of her childhood can't have been good for her mental stability)

Of course, he's going to be more anxious when he's not feeling well, just like being tired or hungry will make it worse.

It might not be a bad idea to ask him if anything about being sick or being sick at school frightened him, and discuss anything he brings up (it might be best to save this discussion for when he's feeling better, though). Sickness can be an anxiety trigger. I remember being very anxious about "flesh eating bacteria" when that was the news media's disease-of-the-month back in 1994. He would hardly be the only person to have anxiety about getting sick (see the recent Ebola scare for examples). It might help him to know that, unless he has some underlying chronic problem, really serious illnesses, the kind that might mean he would have to go to the hospital, are really rare in kids.
posted by Anne Neville at 11:04 AM on January 22, 2015


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