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Distinguishing defiance from anxiety: What to do with a child who worries

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I should’ve recognized the signs earlier. Looking back on my oldest son’s first year of life, I hear Star Wars’ “Imperial March” playing in my head. If I’d been a seasoned parent, I might’ve sensed the “Force” of the personality forming in his pint-sized body. Alas, I was a newbie with delusions of having a perfectly-behaved child and being a perfectly-behaved mom.

Those delusions were shattered when Colin was six weeks old. My husband and I foolishly went on a date, imparting our newborn into my parents’ very capable hands. When we left, Colin lay blissfully in my mother’s arms. I sighed with relief, reassured that all would be well.

We returned mere hours later to find my mom harried and Colin purple from wailing. My stepdad chuckled, “Two Type A’s make an A+.” (Cue Darth Vader’s theme song.) It was true, my husband and I were persistent to a fault—driven individuals with tendencies towards relentlessness. We were also worriers.

No, I thought, that wouldn’t be our son. Yet that earth-shattering crying jag marked the beginning of 10 weeks of excruciating colic. Colin cried inconsolably for hours, refusing to nurse, take a pacifier, sleep, or be soothed by anything but a running hair dryer. Fast forward two years, and he was raging on the floor if we gave him the wrong colored lid for his sippy cup. At age 4, Colin wouldn’t go to bed until we told him 20 (or more) times that our house was not going catch fire, nor would a giant kidnap him while he slept. When food fell from his plate during meals, he refused to eat it for fear of germs. When we went for a drive, he worried we’d get lost.

By the time Colin turned 5, I reluctantly acknowledged a pattern. When Colin worried, he tantrumed or cried, had difficulty sleeping, and feared breaks in routine. I sympathized. I often responded with adult-versions of these behaviors when life turned topsy-turvy on me. When I worried, I fretted or yelled, lost sleep, sometimes cried, and always called friends to panic aloud until I felt better. I struggled with disciplining Colin, trying to differentiate which tantrums came from worry and which from defiance. Was my little boy panicking or simply behaving badly? I posed this question to a doctor, who responded, “It doesn’t matter whether it’s worry or defiance. When he’s grown, the world won’t excuse his bad behavior, no matter the reason.” This was a revelation, and it was at that point, I knew I needed to deal with it. What could I do to teach Colin skills to find healthier ways to cope?

I talked with several doctors. I read some life-changing books, including Raising Your Spirited Child, by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, and Freeing Your Child from Anxiety, by Tamar Chanksy. Pooling all of my resources, I accumulated a mental “toolbox” of tactics:

  • Give the worry a name and personality. I gave Colin silly-looking monster pictures and asked him to name each one after a worry. Soon he had a dozen “worry monsters” with names like Fire, Germs, Giants, and Tarantulas. Personifying his worries made him more comfortable with them. He talked directly to the monsters, ordering them to leave him alone. One time, he tossed the whole bunch out his window, crying, “Go away and never come back!”
  • Make a “Worry Vault.” Colin kept a jar for imprisoning his worry monsters. At each day’s end, he locked them inside. He wasn’t allowed to let them out again until the next day. If they tried to pester him, he remembered that they couldn’t because they were locked up tight.
  • Establish a specific time to talk about worries. For us, this time was early afternoon. Discussing worries at bedtime made it difficult for Colin to relax afterwards. We allotted 15 minutes to talk about the worries, and then Colin had to put them away. If he brought them up again it was my job to respond, “Worry time’s over. We’re not talking about it anymore today.”
  • Limit reassurances. Contrary to what I originally believed, I learned that repeatedly reassuring Colin wasn’t the best way to help him. It only served to increase his anxiety. I could reassure him only once. When he asked a second or third time if our house would catch fire, I said, “I already answered you. You remember.” Sometimes he argued that he’d forgotten, but eventually let it drop.
  • Use mindfulness and imaginative journeys as a relaxation tool. Diversion can be very useful. When Colin fixated on a worry at bedtime, we’d take him on a “journey” instead. He’d close his eyes, pick a favorite place, like the beach or the park, and I’d verbally take him there. Sometimes he wanted to fly on his journeys, sometimes walk or swim. Oral storytelling was often enough to relax him.
  • Experiment with soothing tools. Colin and I discovered what activities or environments calmed him. Showers and baths always worked. So did classical music. Books also helped him, especially the picture book Is a Worry Worrying You? by Ferida Wolff (our copy is well-worn). Sometimes Colin punched pillows or screamed into one. Sometimes he rode his bike, swam, or ran around our driveway. If his body was physically tired, he was less likely to get mentally worked-up.

Nearly 10 now, Colin understands more about his nature. Gone are the worry vault and worry monsters. He still worries but comes to my husband or me to talk about it. If he’s verging on screaming, he’ll excuse himself to his bedroom to calm down. Oh, he still lets loose the furies every now and then, but so do I. I remind myself that progress will never be perfection, and that’s okay. In fact, I’m taking to heart some of the lessons we’ve learned together. Maybe tonight, instead of worrying about my next deadline, I’ll take a bubble bath and listen to classical music. Cue the Beethoven, please.

Suzanne Nelson ( is the author of Serendipity’s Footsteps, Cake Pop Crush, and many other novels for middle grade and young adult readers. A former editor, Suzanne worked for Scholastic, Penguin Books for Young Readers, and Holiday House, and holds an MA in Antebellum Literature and History from New York University. She tweets @snelsonbooks.

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