Dear Carolyn: My second-grader has terrible anxiety. We had her screened by a doctor and she has started working with a therapist, but it is new and just not working yet. I don’t know how to help her when she is upset. Rational explanations of why something is low-risk don’t seem to help, neither does just trying to comfort her. I find myself getting very frustrated as we get into Hour 2 and I have used all the tools I have. I feel like I’m failing her, and I’m open to any suggestions.
Failing as a Parent
Failing as a Parent: Anxiety is tricky. You need to take it seriously and not overreact and be in charge and follow your child’s lead all at once.
It is, though, on the menu of Stuff That Happens With Kids, meaning, it’s not license to declare yourself a parental failure any more than it is for the people whose kids flunk reading, have ADHD, get cut from travel soccer or have nightmares about eating lunch alone. We’re people, we have Stuff, and we have children who have Stuff.
Your key advantages: You’re willing to admit she needs help. That’s a tall hurdle for some parents.
You’re trying to provide that help. Kids see that in their parents and respond to it, if not immediately.
You’re admitting you aren’t able to handle it on your own and you’re asking for backup from qualified sources. Another tall hurdle you’ve cleared.
So, yay, you’re doing good parental things.
You’re also frustrated? Human. Worried? Human. Plagued by self-doubt? Human.
From here I recommend figuring out a couple of things that work in the moment vs. solve everything. Ask the therapist, for starters, about short-term coping strategies as you wait for the longer-term ones to work.
And, figure out things that keep you calm. It wouldn’t be unusual if you had some anxiety yourself, or anxious traits, and even if you don’t, watching a child struggle can bring them on, so managing your own temperament can be something you try right now. Exercise, deep breathing, yoga, music, whatever is healthy and calms you is worth trying — maybe even passing along to your daughter.
A sense of mastery over a task can divert her from a sense of helplessness over the universe, so also figure out what she’s good at and put it on her schedule. Steering her toward competence at sports, programming, music or other area of interest is a sneaky way of steering away from stress.
Anxiety is about feeling powerless against outside forces, so even teaching her to do household chores can generate calm. It invests her in things she can control — say, making scrambled eggs vs. pancakes — instead of things she can’t (the universe) or shouldn’t (the whole family’s agenda). Coddling makes you essential; equipping her sets her free.
To: Failing: I was an anxious child who grew into an anxious adult. Explaining why something is low-risk wouldn’t have calmed me at all; teaching me how to deal with that risk would. So, instead of saying, “That dog won’t hurt you,” say, “Here is what you do if you’re ever attacked by a dog.”
Anonymous: Well said, thanks. Your example offers another potential competency, too: “Here’s how to behave safely around dogs.”