Producing children with BIG EMOTIONS is my superpower…apparently. I suppose it’s not really shocking, since I was a MAJOR anxiety-riddled stress case as a child. My childhood anxiety manifested itself as fear and anger…rarely crying. I have vivid memories of sneaking into my parents bedroom after they had fallen asleep and sleeping on their floor so I would be safe. I did this for so many years of my childhood. My parents tried everything they could think of to cure this behavior. Absolutely nothing worked until I became old enough that the fear of my friends finding out superseded the fear of being murdered in my bed. Peer pressure isn’t always a bad thing…at least it wasn’t for my sainted parents.
On the other hand, my husband specialized in crying as a child. He comes from a long line of weepers. They blubber when things are good and when they are bad. They wail when they are bored, angry, or in grocery store lines. His tendency to perfectionism teamed up with his overactive tear-ducts to produce many anxious moments.
You can see how we made some emotional kids. We had a toddler who would get mad and smash his face into the floor until his face was bloody. Another would get mad, embarrassed and offended and turn into an ice queen at the rate that most of us blink . The nicest thing I can say about that (several year) span in her childhood is that occasionally she was nice enough to offer us a cold shoulder to apologize to…again. (See pic)
We had a child who wept from the age of birth to 7. Honestly. You may think I’m exaggerating, but the child did little else. It’s taxing to live with someone like that. All of these kids eventually learned how to deal with their feelings and have gone on to be incredible people who don’t bang their face, shun the world, or break down at the drop of a hat on a regular basis.
We also have a child who dealt with disabling anxiety at a young age and who didn’t have the ability to cope without some external help. That child needed someone to teach him what he was feeling and to teach him how to deal with those BIG EMOTIONS. With what he’s learned, he is navigating life pretty well.
Is the Future Bright?
It took me time to realize that all kids are different and all kids have struggles of one kind or another. Sometimes, we as parents don’t like to talk about our kids’ struggles because we feel like it’s a reflection on us. What we don’t realize is that kids who struggle and make it through those struggles come out of them stronger.
My child who had some major anger issues controls his temper better than most teen boys.
My “Ice Queen” is my most compassionate teenager. Because she felt misunderstood she tries harder than most to understand others.
My weeper who was constantly the victim of ALL circumstances has learned to see the bright side of situations.
My child who couldn’t identify his emotions very well can clearly see that ALL kids say and do dumb things just because they are middle schoolers. He doesn’t take things personally better than ANY kid I’ve ever dealt with.
Because I’ve been around the “BIG EMOTIONS” block a few times, I know how hard it is to be walking that road as a parent. You feel worried, torn about what to do and what not to do, and utterly exhausted. Deep down inside (and sometimes because of “helpful comments” from friends and family) you feel like you must be parenting wrong. Like you are the one that caused these emotions. I’m here to tell you that if your child is dealing with any kind of anxiety or BIG EMOTIONS, it isn’t your fault. It’s life and life is actually pretty hard. Trust in the fact that your child was given to you for a reason and that YOU can make a huge difference in how they deal with those big emotions.
Enter Tanya Lindquist
Tanya Lindquist is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, a wife, and a mom. She specializes in kids with anxiety and other big emotions like depression. In addition to running a website called “Family Ninjas” that’s dedicated to providing families happiness and mental health tips, she is also the author of a book called “Duke’s Journey of Courage: A Children’s Picture Book for Learning Skills to Cope With Anxiety”.
We talked with Tanya about what childhood anxiety looks like, how to help your kids to learn coping strategies, what those strategies are, and how to get more help if needed.
The first thing that parents need to do to determine whether or not your child is dealing with a phase that is normal or a bigger issue is to ask some questions:
- Is this behavior something my child has always dealt with (it is part of their personality) or did it start suddenly?
- If it started suddenly, it could be due to a trauma or something situational such as bullying.
- If the behavior is normal for them, they may need some long-term coping skills to learn how to deal with it. It may be a case where they learn to cope rather than “grow out” of it (such as my three examples).
A good way to measure if it’s developmental or not is to look at other children their age and talk with other parents you trust. MANY behaviors really are developmental, and it’s very hard for parents to know that if they haven’t been through that stage before.
What does anxiety look like?
Many of us, when picturing a child with anxiety, see someone on edge and constantly crying. The truth is that though those emotions can describe the face of anxiety, they are not the full picture. Below is a list of common symptoms of children with anxiety (but is by no means a comprehensive list):
- Fixated on “What if’s”. For example, What if nobody at school will like me, someone may break in, someone I love could die, I make a mistake etc..
- Frequent nightmares
- Panic attacks that sometimes include shortness of breath
- Stomachaches (Often this one is chalked up to kids “faking” because they don’t want to go to school).
- Irritability/ Acting out (Kids don’t know how to express the big emotions they are feeling so that often manifests as moodiness and bad behavior).
It is crucial for parents to recognize what the root of the problem is, rather than just disciplining. When anxiety is identified parents can move forward teaching their kids coping skills to help them deal with what they are feeling.
What can parents do to help?
Identifying emotions to children so that they learn to identify the emotions themselves is vital. “Are you feeling mad?” “It looks like you are feeling sad”. A phrase that Tanya uses often in relation to this is “Name it to tame it.” It’s hard to help an emotion if we don’t even know what we are trying to help.
The movie “Inside Out” is a wonderful resource for teaching kids that all emotions have a role to play in our life. Feeling emotions is not the problem. Parents need to validate what emotions their kids are feeling. That does not mean accepting bad behavior. When big emotions lead to bad behavior parents need to step in.
Support the child. When a child has anxiety, it is terrifying to be thrown into “the deep end of the pool” and have parents say “sink or swim!” It is important for parents to learn to support their children in new/scary situations without becoming a crutch. There is a fine line that parents must learn to walk to be their child’s cheerleader in helping them to overcome fears rather than the child’s crutch to remove them from all fear.
One way parents can help children learn to overcome fear is by using a “step by step” approach.
For example, if a child had a deep fear of dogs a parent could start by reading books to the child about dogs, followed by taking the child to talk to dogs through a fence, followed by visiting a small and friendly dog. By taking this approach, parents are cheering their child on and walking them through the fear rather than declaring that the child should never be around dogs.
Coping skills parents can teach
Relaxation is an important and common coping skill that helps tremendously with anxiety. There are many different approaches to relaxation. One that Tanya likes and that works well with children due to their vivid imaginations is imagining a fun or safe place. It’s important to have them use all 5 senses as they imagine this place. Ask them questions like “What do you see? What can you hear, feel, smell, taste?” Using this technique, allows children to become very immersed in this space and calm down.
Mindfulness is another coping skill that teaches kids to live in the present rather than living in their fears. In order to use this technique they must use all 5 senses again as they pull themselves out of their fears. They can look out a window, hold a stuffed animal etc and concentrate on how they feel, what they see, smell etc.
Talking back to fear is another technique that works well with children. Having a child identify a fear through talking or through drawing and then talking back to the fear by either explaining to the fear why it is irrational or by casting it away through telling it off or fighting it off allows children to move past that fear. Kids can be as rational or creative as they want as they confront fear.
Slogans are a quick way to repeat something positive and deal with the anxiety they are feeling. These slogans can be as long or short as they would like.
All of these coping skills can be found in Tanya’s book, along with jingles to help kids remember them.
When that’s just not enough
How do parents introduce the idea of going to a therapist to their child?
When parents feel like they have exhausted these resources and need some professional help they should make an appointment with a therapist who will help them to identify the problem and help the child through it.
Often, this is the single biggest reason why parents don’t seek professional help for their struggling child. They don’t know how to approach the situation and therefore they pretend there is no situation. Tanya said that it’s important to talk to your child at a time and in a place where they are most comfortable. It can be presented as no different than going to the doctor for a broken arm. It’s just a different kind of doctor. The thing to remember is that if the child needs to see a therapist they are suffering. They want it to go away as much as you do.
Identifying behavior doesn’t lead to increased behavior
It is important for parents to remember that identifying something does not increase behavior. Dr. Greg Hudnall talked about this principle at length in relation to talking to your child about suicide. There is a preconceived idea that if we discuss suicide then it will increase suicidal behavior. That’s just not true.
If you would like to listen to episode 44 with Dr. Greg Hudnall click here.
The same principle is true with anxiety, depression, or any other big emotion. If your child is suffering and you talk about it, it will not make your child suffer more. There is plenty of help if parents are willing to use it.
The most important thing to remember is that you are the parent. Be the parent. You know your child. You know what is normal for them and what is not. Listen to your heart, do your homework, be brave, and be the mom.
Your friend in the mess,
Mom Squad Challenge:
Set aside 15 minutes once or twice a week to have one on one time with your child where they get to choose what you do.
To Learn More About Tanya Lindquist:
Visit her website: https://familyninjas.com/
Purchase her book:
Daniel J. Siegels books. One is below:
“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen
“The Hiding Place” by Corrie Ten Boom
“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
“The Scarlet Pimpernell” by Baroness Orczy