A: I have nothing but empathy for your entire family and for every family facing these same challenges. I know you’re doing your very best during this awful time, so it’s important to understand what is behind his big emotions in a deeper way.
First, you are anxious. Did you know anxiety is highly hereditary? Environmental factors also play an important role, but it’s not surprising that your son is showing signs of anxiety. Second, “spirited” and “very bright” are parenting code words for many things, but I tend to look at giftedness and executive functioning issues. The difficult part of it is your son can be gifted and separately anxious, or he can be gifted, but it looks like anxiety.
Because the human brain is complicated and beautiful, it can develop coping mechanisms to try to side step, or “help,” the original problem, making it hard to diagnose what’s going on with your son. Is he anxious, angry and frustrated because he’s gifted and life is moving too slowly and he doesn’t have coping skills? Or is he simply anxious, which also manifests in anger and frustration? On top of all this, I don’t know how long he has had these big feelings. Is this a new development during the pandemic, or has he been an intense child since he was born? I also don’t know whether there have been any transitions in the family, such as losses, moves, additions, etc.
We have this intense, bright and frustrated child who is understandably suffering under the weight of a strange hybrid education. He is 7, which is a wonderful developmental age (each age has its ups and downs), but he clearly cannot express his feelings without boiling over. It makes sense to want to use a counselor, but there are two big issues: This requires more screen time (thumbs down) and a trusting relationship with the therapist (which takes time).
Although we all assume that counselors help people because they are so skilled, it’s actually the warm, compassionate relationship between child and counselor that allows for change to take place. Without trust and an inherent sense of safety, the child is no more likely to be helped by a counselor than by a person on the street. All of this to say: Don’t put all your eggs in the counselor basket. It flies in the face of all reason to “battle” to get your child to speak to the online counselor. If there is mild resistance and he’s happy when he’s there, great. But battle? It feels as if you’re adding frustration to frustration. Let’s get some new ideas going.
1. You see your child the most, so look into how you can parent your anxious child. There are so many ways to support your child in building coping skills, including online classes at the Neufeld Institute (neufeldinstitute.org) and the website Hey Sigmund (heysigmund.com).
2. If you think this is a long-term problem, call your pediatrician to rule out allergies and other biological reasons that could lead to anger and frustration.
3. I asked my friend Fallyn Smith for her advice, because she works as an elementary school counselor and coach. She told me: “Make sure to acknowledge him for being willing to do that first session.” Celebrate small movements forward. Parents want change, and we want it fast, but we need baby steps here. Smith also recommends that your son see the counselor in person during the hybrid hours, because that will help move the relationship along.
4. Smith made a recommendation that I found useful: Ask your son’s teacher to lessen the workload on the days he sees the counselor. He’s only 7; there’s no need to push the academics, especially if he’s feeling emotionally vulnerable.
5. If the counselor is using techniques to help your son relax (box or deep-belly breathing, visualization, etc.), please be sure to model these yourself. Your son is too young to remember these techniques in the midst of frustration — not to mention, they will help your own anxiety.
6. Finally, Smith says (and I agree) that it’s important to normalize this kind of suffering right now. Let your son know he’s doing the best he can in a pretty tough situation, and so many other children feel just like he does.
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