We live in an age where childhood anxiety is rampant.
No matter how well you coordinate your chaos, you may not be able to prevent one of your beloved children from succumbing to anxiety. I’ve got two who are worriers and one that should probably worry a little more!
Joe and I didn’t know we had a child with anxiety
We discovered it when we arrived at a first-grade parent orientation for Beloved Child (BC). Excited about the new school year and to meet the other parents in the class, we were directed to our designated spot and noticed a note from BC. The teacher had instructed the kids to write a message to their parents; it could be about anything. Our parent counterparts shared with us what was on their children’s notes and they went something like:
- Hi Mom! I like my class.
- I had gym today!
- How do you like my desk?
We opened BC’s and found this:
Hi Mom and Dad. Which of these colleges do you think I should go to?
- University of Michigan
- Michigan State
Knowing our child, we knew this had been on BC’s mind. What 6-year-old needed to worry about what college was in their future? We hurried home to reassure BC that we had a great time at school and worrying about college was not necessary. There was plenty of time to decide. BC did not look happy with our answer.
In the ensuing years, we have dealt with more anxiety and several more strange questions about what the future holds.
The questions were never ones about monsters in the closet or other unrealistic situations. They were always serious, realistic problems that BC may need to face in the real world. They often started with “What if”.
Then, one day, we were driving around town and BC noticed a homeless man at an intersection. The question came out “What if I don’t get good grades and I become homeless?” Now, this was absurd because BC was an excellent student. Of all of my children, this one was not going to be homeless!
My initial response was “Oh don’t even worry about that. That will never happen.” BC didn’t look satisfied. I then continued, “You get good grades! You will be able to have any job you want!” BC stared back at me with no sign of reassurance.
That’s when I realized BC did not need reassurance that a good education and job would DEFINITELY happen. He needed proof. I needed to prove to BC that becoming homeless would NOT happen. I did some research, read some books and tried something shocking: I gave in to BC’s anxiety.
Here’s what I did.
Every time BC asked, “What if?” I said, “OK, what if?” Here’s how the conversation went:
BC: What if I don’t get good grades?
Me: What if you don’t get good grades?
BC: I won’t get into college.
Me: What if you don’t get into college?
BC: I won’t get a good job.
Me: What if you don’t get a good job?
BC: I won’t have the money to buy a house.
Me: What if you can’t buy a house?
BC: I’ll be homeless.
Me: Oh, I can see how that would worry you. Well, Dad and I will always let you live here if you need to.
Me: Of course. We’ll always be here to help you.
BC: Oh, Ok.
Oh my gosh, it worked!
BC didn’t want to hear ‘Don’t worry, that won’t happen’. BC wanted to know what would happen if the worst thing did happen. It was my job to calm the anxiety by showing BC that we could have a plan even in the worst-case scenario.
Another opportunity to use the strategy presented itself so I tried it again… it was pajama day at school and I was positive about this event because I received an email confirming it that very morning. . .
BC: What if I’m the only one who is actually wearing their pajamas?
Me: What if you are?
BC: I’d be embarrassed and everyone would make fun of me.[What my former, reassuring self would have said: I know it’s pajama day because I just saw the email and even if you were the only one, no one would make fun of you, plus you’d be so comfy!] Instead. . .
Me: Oh yeah, that would be so embarrassing. Let’s make a plan. Why don’t we go a few minutes early and watch some kids walk in with their pajamas to be sure? And if we’re wrong, I’ll just drive you home real quick and you can change. Go lay out some clothes just in case.
If you have a child with “what if” anxiety, try this.
Try this exercise to see if they get some reassurance that what they worry about either has no merit, or their worst-case scenario could have a better ending. Some children with anxiety may need professional help and I’m not suggesting that you only use the above strategy, but it could help alleviate some worry by taking your child through the worry instead of telling them not to worry. Anxious people will probably always be anxious people. Having tools to deal with anxiety is the key to overcoming it.
We found two books to be very helpful. The first is for parents of anxious kids. It is called Why Smart Kids Worry: And What Parents Can Do to Help. It explains how ‘smart kids’ often worry about very real fears and the response to their worries needs to be crafted. The second is School Made Easier: A Kid’s Guide to Study Strategies and Anxiety-Busting Tools. It is a workbook for the anxious child.
BC is doing great! Pajama days are behind us, but college selection is not that far off. Go Blue!