“Typically, when we think of anxiety, worry comes to mind. And that can certainly be a big part of it, yes. But when the worries turn larger and scarier than makes sense for your little one, anxiety has often already arrived.”
So many aspects of my education in the field of Marriage and Family Therapy changed my life.
I learned about how to be a therapist, sure. More than that, I learned about how to be in the world and also how my world was affected by everything around me.
It was within my Child in the Family class that I had one of my biggest revelations.
My professor was an amazing child therapist, unbelievably talented in working toward healing with young children to teens.
One day she was teaching on anxiety and she said something like this:
“Young children often do not know how to verbalize feelings of anxiety, so instead they manifest as stomach aches and headaches. Often, when your child is complaining of stomach aches or headaches, there is an anxiety struggle within.”
I was blown away.
Honestly, I had never learned as a child how to wrap words around the mysterious stomach aches I got every time I was to switch from one parent’s house to the other.
Looking back, it’s so clear. But I would take a bet that most parents don’t even have the language for what’s going on emotionally with their kids.
And if the parents don’t have the language for and awareness of anxiety, the kids don’t either.
If those same kids don’t ever learn the language for and awareness of their anxiety, they will never learn how to ask for help.
My hope is to create a space here where we can start shedding some light on what forms anxiety can take in children so that we can better identify and understand what’s going on with our kids. From there, we can talk more soon about a few books, resources, and tips on what to do with that anxiety so it doesn’t hijack your child or family.
Typically, when we think of anxiety, worry comes to mind. And that can certainly be a big part of it, yes. I’ve seen paralyzing worry in children, concern for their life or safety that seems way out of bounds. There are predictable worry scenarios – a first day of school, for example. Your child still needs you there. But when the worries turn larger and scarier than makes sense for your little one, anxiety has often already arrived.
But what about when it’s not just worry? What else could it be that clues you into your child’s anxiety?
For many, it’s the stomach aches and the headaches.
Does your child complain of a belly ache right when they have to leave to go to another parent’s house? Or perhaps in the midst of fighting, have they ever said, “I don’t feel good” or “My head hurts”?
Anxiety is a visceral, physical feeling for kids (and also for adults, if we’re honest), and we want to be aware of what’s going on for them.
What about your child who has been potty trained for years regressing to bedwetting at night at mom’s or at dad’s?
Has there been a recent surge in nightmares waking them up at night?
Or even do they seem to be exhausted all the time but never sleeping well at night?
Again, anxiety is a likely culprit for all of these.
Has your child been withdrawing to his or her room more since the divorce?
Have they stopped talking, stopped engaging with others at the house, stopped wanting to join the rest of you for dinner?
Or is it the other way? Are they incessantly clingy all of the sudden, never wanting you out of their sight?
Anxiety, anxiety, anxiety.
Then there’s the issue with control.
Have you observed your son or daughter needing excessive control over seemingly unnecessary objects, people, or tasks?
It could be as simple and harmless as tantrums when the cups and plates aren’t placed exactly where they wanted them to be or as damaging as eating disorders or the pulling of hair leaving bald spots on your little one.
Please note – These are very serious issues requiring not only your attentiveness but also professional help.
Our awareness as parents is so crucial at any time, but when anxiety leads to control and then leads to self harm, we absolutely cannot miss it.
A sudden need for control makes sense, if you stop and think about it.
Your child’s world is spinning out of their control, so often their anxiety manifests itself in controlling the few things they can. There are pieces of this one that are scary for a parent and other pieces that just seem annoying and time consuming.
As it is with most of these, the behavior itself is rarely the issue – you, the parent, noticing the behavior is the real game changer. As always, parental alertness is key.
This next warning sign warrants a whole other level of parental alertness and presence and was the final piece that rocked me to the core in that same class of my graduate degree.
Our professor was teaching on childhood anxiety again. She told story after story of how parents would come to her with their child who was acting out – poor behavior at school, cutting classes, attitude issues with mom or dad, experimentation, and so on.
She said she would listen to the parents tell these stories of their acting-out child and then she would ask, “Are there any other children in the home?” So often the answer would be same. “Yes, we have another child, but we’re not worried about her. She’s perfect.”
And our talented professor and sought after therapist would answer time and time again – “It’s not your child who is acting out that I would worry about. They are showing you their anxiety. It’s the other one who isn’t.”
Perfectionism is one of the sneakiest forms of anxiety I know.
So you may have been worried about your son or daughter who was cutting class or sneaking out with friends. I’m not saying don’t worry about them or seek help or discipline. They need you too.
However, it’s the “perfect” child in your home who may be carrying all of the stress of the family and the divorce on their little shoulders.
Children need to know they are safe enough with you, their parent, to make mistakes and be kids and not have it all together. Children who think they need to have it all together and take care of everything in the home and in themselves and never act out arrive in their adult years unprepared for what it will hold and sometimes then the anxiety is more than they can bear.
I talked this week with a friend of mine about when her parents divorced while she was in her young adolescent years.
The stress in her home was overwhelming and it was actually peace, not anxiety she felt when the divorce initially happened. She was a “good girl”, active in her church youth group, making good decisions overall. She didn’t even know the predictable anxiety was there until it caught up to her in college with an eating disorder and a whole heap ton of stress.
It’s likely the anxiety was there beforehand as well, but what if she just never knew how to name it or handle it? And what would have happened differently if she had?
Webster’s definition of anxiety is: “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”
From the anxiety I have studied, the clients with anxiety I have worked with, and the anxiety I have experienced in my own life, I would say that definition is tremendously lacking.
It lacks the way anxiety can feel like a living in a cage and the way it can manifest physically in your body. It lacks what it does to your relationships and how it affects your brain. And for children, it lacks the way it vastly changes your childhood from the free and beautiful experience it could be.
As a parent, I know you feel as I do, and you would do anything to prevent your child from anxiety in any part of life.
Especially now, in the midst of the divorce or separation, you probably just want to keep them immune from any struggles.
Unfortunately, they are going to struggle regardless in their own way. If it’s anxiety (or really whatever form it takes), I would argue what they most need is just you, the parent, aware and present with them in it. I hope this guide serves as a good starting point for awareness in recognizing the warning signs for what’s going on with your precious son or daughter.
Because of the length of this blog, we will feature another blog to add some specific resources in another blog soon.
For now, if you’ve become aware of great anxiety with your own child, please reach out, your primary care physician, or a local child and family therapist. There is help nearby always, all the time. You do not have to do this alone.
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- What Your Son Needs When The Ground is Shaking: Specifics for Mom and Dad - December 1, 2017