I had my share of panic attacks as a kid.
Especially over schoolwork.
I was dead sure, absolutely positive, that I would never ever be able to complete the assignment, pass the test, and get forwarded to the next grade. Because I was so stupid, I thought, I would have to repeat fifth grade until I was 20 years old, at which time everyone would mistake me for my classmates’ mom and I would have to make all my friends’ lunches.
I believe everyone is born with an “I can” voice and an “I can’t” voice. Some folks emerge from their mother’s wombs with a fervent confidence that follows them to their grave. They never ever question their ability to make friends, find a spouse, or get a job. Others will second-guess themselves on everything from learning when to poo in the potty to picking out a nursing home for their final chapter.
Me and my kids? We got tons of the “I suck,” “I can’t,” “HELP!” alarms going off inside. Fortunately I happen to have a friend who writes instruction guides for parents like me who get to watch the Homework Horror Show that should really come with buttered popcorn and a medium drink. Tamar Chansky, PhD, is the founder of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety, and is the author of several bestselling books. The brilliant one I’m reading now is the revised and updated edition of “Freeing Your Child From Anxiety.”
She is a translator, Dr. Chansky, between the child or adolescent brain and you, the person responsible for getting that brain back on track.
Her pages are full of exercises on teaching your kid the difference between “worry” and reality, and how to guide your child away from using the ancient part of their brain that is wired to run from any kind of threat, to thinking with the evolved, more sophisticated part of their brain that can handle a challenge.
Here is Chansky’s master plan for anxiety, seven steps to get your kid back in charge.
Step One: Empathize with what your child is feeling.
It’s in our nature to say, “Stop worrying, there is nothing to worry about.” While we know there’s a high likelihood that they will do just fine on the math test, they don’t. They take their fear at face value. What their worry brain says must be true because their body is responding to the threat as an actual threat: racing heart, sweating, nausea. So as parents, we have to slide into their brain for a minute and try to see it their way in order to effectively communicate.
Step Two: Relabel the problem as the worry brain.
Chansky writes, “The power of relabeling is that it separates the worry from your child. Instead of just following worry’s orders, the child pauses and considers: ‘Who is asking me that question? Do I need to listen?’”
She includes some great exercises and scripts for helping your child to relabel the worry. For example, separating the thoughts like two phone lines: one message rings on the “Voice of Reason” line, another call comes in on 1-800-BAD-NEWS. Or kids can sort their thoughts like email — some should go to spam, while others are legitimate and require a response.
Step Three: Rethink and shrink worry down to size.
Ask your child to tell you, SPECIFICALLY, what he or she is worried about, or what the worry brain is telling him. Then use strategies (Chansky lists at least 16 of them that you can choose from) to have your child “fact-check” the worry, such as doing a side-by-side comparison on what worry says and what he or she REALLY thinks will happen; or inviting favorite superheroes (imaginary or real) to comment on what the worry brain is saying; or getting more information about the worry (How many airplanes actually crash a year?) and making up a true/false test (Is flying safer or more risky than other forms of transportation?).
Step Four: Get the body on board — turn off the alarms.
This is key, because, as I said in step one, when your body responds to a worry — courtesy of a massive adrenaline rush — it can make the worry feel that much realer, and then the symptoms of anxiety (racing heart, sweat, dizziness, nausea) get confused with the worry itself (“I can’t do this!”).
I learned in my mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course that most adrenaline rushes last only 20 minutes, so it’s best not to make important decisions in that time: “I hate school! I’m dropping out!” What you should do is move: run, swim, stretch! Or take five deep breaths and practice progressive muscle relaxation: tense your muscles, then relax. Your job is to help your child SLOW THINGS DOWN.
Step Five: Approach the worry on purpose and practice getting used to it (GUTI). These are among my favorite lines in Chansky’s book:
Scientists know that the best way to prevent pet allergies is not to keep babies away from pets, but to gradually expose them to allergens to make sure the immune system is prepared to do its job when it’s time. The same principle applies to dealing with fears, worries, and frustration. If you want to protect your child from being overwhelmed, you can help her to build up her “worry management muscles” a little at a time.
I am not very good at this. I want to shield my babies from the terror they feel. Let them stay home when they are afraid of confronting something at school, to feed their friends’ parents excuses on why they had to miss the party. I don’t want them to have to feel the anxiety that plagued me so much of my childhood. But doing that merely increases their anxiety because I am giving power to the worry, not to them.
Step Six: Refocus on what you want to do.
Moving on… Yeah, well that doesn’t happen so easily in this house. Worry tends to wear Velcro and sticks to our underwear, reminding us that anxiety can be found in every activity. If your child is having a hard time moving on, Chansky suggests switching gears to a transitional activity — ideally something physical — to get unstuck: Walking the dog, jumping on the trampoline, dancing to anything but “Wrecking Ball.” Physical activities are better distractors than sedentary activities like puzzles or reading.
Step Seven: Reinforce your child’s efforts at being courageous!
The last step is by far the easiest. These aren’t bribes but acknowledgements of a job well done. A bribe is: “If you stay in bed and don’t call out for me the next five nights, I’ll buy you a new doll.” An acknowledgement is: “You are going to work hard on staying in bed and using your ‘boss back’ talk and your nighttime journal if you are scared. Is there a special treat you would like after you’ve had five nights where you met your goal?”
Kids learn better from positive reinforcement than from punishments, even though, if you’re like me, you’re so frenzied that you resort to punishments because by the time you notice what is going on, you need to practice step four yourself and calm down. At any rate, this final step can be fun and provide some bonding time if you take your time with it and are creative.