Even though I didn’t know what to call it, I have struggled with anxiety my whole life. In my mother’s generation, she admitted to having “bad nerves.” My boys were called “sensitive” by the time they were 18 months old. Biologically, sensitivity just means that the brain’s fight-or-flight reaction (an automatic response to perceived danger) is heightened above average.
In the cave man days, sensitivity saved us when we were being attacked by sabre-tooth tigers. The next time we saw a tiger, we knew to stay away or kill it. But in this epoch, that automatic fear response isn’t as useful in the living room, school, or the grocery store. According to Keys to Parenting Your Anxious Child by Dr. Katharina Manassis, approximately ten percent of the population struggles with excessive sensitivity which can lead to a life of fear and avoidance of situations that other people find only mildly stressful.
Because my boys and I caught the virus for worry warts, I made it my plan for this summer to understand our anxiety and how it affects self-esteem so I can better manage it and, in turn, teach my seven-year old boys to manage theirs.
Dr. Manassis’ book recommends desensitization as one approach to lessening anxiety and it comes in at least two flavors: Flooding and Systematic. My dad practiced Flooding when I was a kid. He pushed me off the dock and yelled, “Swim!” Dr. Manassis recommends gentle flooding for small children with mild fears. Systematic desensitization is gradual and can start with simply talking about spiders, then looking at photographs, eventually looking at real ones through Tupperware, and then letting one crawl on you. I still don’t let spiders crawl on me on purpose, so I guess the time line can be subjective and fear-specific.
She also suggests:
- Giving small and frequent positive reinforcement for “brave” behavior,
- Labeling the anxiety/worry when it rears its red-faced, weepy head, and
- Learning and teaching coping self-talk. At my house we use the phrases, “Is this a disaster like a flood or an earthquake?” and “What can I do to calm down and solve this problem?”
I’m making jokes but anxiety in older children may result in depression and even suicidal tendencies, so we should not make light of our children’s fears, but instead tune in and understand their extent clearly.
Dr. Manassis’ book is definitely worth the read because it’s full of other recommendations on relaxation, diet, exercise, sleep, and medication as well specific issues like perfectionism (who me?) and separation anxiety.
This summer I’ll also be reading parts of Overcoming School Anxiety: How to Help Your Child Deal with Separation, Tests, Homework, Bullies, Math Phobia, and Other Worries by Diane Peters Mayer and 501 Ways to Boost Your Child’s Self-Esteem by Robert Ramsey.
What approaches have helped lessen your children’s worry and anxiety?
Lorraine Wilde is a freelance journalist, environmental scientist, and mother. Her work has appeared in Entertainment News NW, Ithaca Child, and the parenting web site Neighborhood-Kids.com. She also blogs at My Wilde World.