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  1. Guest

    Parenting An Anxious Child

    Dr. Debra Kissen sheds light on practical, easy-to-implement tips and tools to assist your child in moving past their fears. Watch the video below. If you have asked yourself any of the following questions, this webinar may be helpful to you: “Is my child’s behavior normal? Is it developmentally appropriate for my child to have these fears? How can I help my child meet her full potential? When is it time to get help?” This webinar will answer these questions and more, and give you the tools to help your child overcome anxiety.
  2. Anyone who is a parent knows that the job is tough. Really tough. If we moms and dads were really honest with ourselves, we'd have to admit that we had almost no idea what we were getting into when we brought that first baby home. The old saying about kids not coming with a training manual is true. And the problem of "What do I do with this kid?" is intensified for parents in our contemporary rush-rush, worry-worry world. The problem is that when parents don't quite know what they're doing and they're too busy to find out, they tend to shoot from the hip. Shooting from the hip can lead to two opposite, out-of-control parenting styles, neither of which is good for children. Let's call these two styles "Underdog" parenting and "Big Dog" parenting. The Underdog parent is a pushover. The children run the house and mom and dad tend to take a back seat. Where Big Dog parents are involved, however, it's the adults who intimidate and it's the kids who stay out of the way. Big Dog parents are T-Rexes in disguise. Underdog parents' behavior with their children is motivated primarily by anxiety and guilt. "Don't want to do anything to offend the children" and "If the kids are mad at me I must have done something wrong" are the overriding thoughts. Big Dog parents' behavior with their children, on the other hand, is dominated primarily by irritation and anger. "Because I said so!" and "Do what I tell you or else!" are the predominant themes. Underdog parents whimper, while Big Dog parents bite. Underdoggers plead with their kids like this: "Come on now, honey, don't you think it's time for bed? Why can't you just do this one little thing for me?" Translation (in other words, what does the youngster really hear?): "Even though you're my child, you're too strong and powerful for me. I haven't the slightest idea how to control you other than begging." Whimpering tells the children that they—the kids—are really running the show and that their parent is basically weak and helpless. Big Dog parents bite. They can bite emotionally as well as physically. Here's an emotional "sound bite": "What the hell's the matter with you!? You better start listening to me or else! How many times do I have to tell you?" Translation (in other words, what does the youngster really hear?): "You're no good, kid, and you never will be. If it weren't for me, you'd be in even more hot water." The Big Dog parent may throw in a spanking after the lecture to make sure the point is driven home. Big Dog parents bite. Not surprisingly, these two opposite forms of out-of-control parenting produce two different results. Kids from Underdog parents tend to become adults with a robust sense of entitlement. They think the world owes them a living and they try to push other people around. When life doesn't treat them like they think it should (which is inevitable), they blame everyone else for their misery. Our children from the T-Rex moms and dads, though, will become adults with a deep sense of insecurity and unworthiness. They'll think everyone else is better than they are and they'll tend to withdraw. Even if they do succeed at certain things, they won't be able to give themselves credit for what they've done. How can we interrupt this tragic cycle? Well, there is a book with an odd title, called 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12. In this book, parents will understand that their parenting job consists of three things: 1) controlling obnoxious behavior, 2) encouraging good behavior and 3) strengthening relationships with the children. And yes, specific, effective, tried-and-true and fairly simple strategies are provided in 1-2-3 Magic for accomplishing these three parenting tasks. The program is evidence-based—it works. But something stands between Underdog parents and their ability to adopt new strategies like 1-2-3 Magic. The same thing, in different form, stands in the way of the Big Doggers. It's their attitude. It's their view of parenting itself. Both of these kinds of impulsive, out-of-control parents need a major attitude adjustment before they can learn to become decent parents. Yes, useful advice for managing children is out there, but the Underdog folks and the Big Dog folks have to learn how to think differently before they can use these helpful suggestions. The attitude adjustments required here fall into three main categories: 1) appreciating the "rights" of family members, 2) understanding the effects of different parenting styles, and 3) accepting the need to switch to deliberate, thoughtful parenting strategies. Let's look at each of these. Rights. Underdog moms and dads need to understand that not only do they have a right to be a parent, but it is in everyone's best interests if they—the adults—do set limits. Kids not liking limits is normal. It is not a tragedy and it is not due to parental error. Big Doggers, on the other hand, need to appreciate that their children have rights. The kids have a right not to fear physical or emotional abuse from their own parents. Big Doggers need to consider the possibility that a home should not always revolve around the whims of the largest mongrel in the joint Effects of parenting style. Underdoggers need to realize that repeated parental whimpering creates Entitled Super Brats. Big Doggers need to realize that repeated biting eliminates kids' sense of self-worth. Deliberate parenting. Both types of parents, Big Dog and Underdog, need to accept the necessity of switching from an automatic/impulsive to a more deliberate/thoughtful approach to parenting. It's not that hard. "Parenting" primarily out of irritation and anger is not really parenting. Neither is "parenting" primarily out of anxiety or guilt. Both Big Doggers and Underdoggers need to see that simply engaging in emotional self-indulgence is bad for everyone in the family—including themselves. Good parenting advice is already out there. 1-2-3 Magic offers a ton of good suggestions. But for many moms and dads, the main thing that stands in the way of their becoming decent parents is a straightforward—though not easy—attitude adjustment.
  3. All of us who live in Chicago pride ourselves on our ability to “hunker down” when it becomes unbearably cold out. What better way to deal with the Chicago Arctic than to sit around in PJs, drinking hot coffee and curled up with a good book, letting errands wait and leaving icy roads for someone else? Then come kids and their exasperation with being stuck inside when the threat of hypothermia is all too real. Telling my 6-year-old to read a book and enjoy some downtime while the outside freezes over would garner a similar reaction to my suggesting that Pokemon is passe: utter ridiculousness. Throw his 4-year-old sister into the mix, and I’ve gone from wearing a referee cap to donning full body armor. The fighting when there’s no place to go gets fierce. While parenting is challenging, it’s all the more real when weather conditions compromise our kids’ ability to get space from one another. While I am no means an overly creative parent, I have found that some proactive planning and expectation management can make a world of difference when the weather doesn’t quite allow for the breathing room our sunnier days permit. Make winter resolutions Why focus on a single day for your kids to set goals? When the winter is at its worst, I have challenged my children to come up with a few things they want to do prior to the return of spring. The goals don’t have to be significant—maybe read a few more books each week, finish a puzzle, learn the words to their favorite song—just enough to keep the focus on themselves and not competing with their sibling. Plan “You and Me” days Although an elementary concept, I try to plan one day a month for myself and my husband to spend a few hours one-on-one with each of our children, without their sibling. A movie, an art class, bowling—it’s usually something outside the home so that the attention is on one another, rather than someone competing for my attention. Not only is it good for my son or daughter to be alone from their sometimes nemesis, it refocuses me and makes me realize how I love those darn-adorable, quirky kids. Let ’em be Rather than try to intercept, one of the most valuable things I have learned is that they can generally work out their differences. While “figure it out” can lead to catastrophe, I’m often amazed to have sent my two bickering kids down to the basement, only to hear giggles and shrieks of laughter erupt as they have moved past their differences and on to trying to make each other crack up. While I am never sure how long the serenity will last, I will lap up those brief moments of affection like that hot cup of coffee I’m missing on the couch. Because we all deserve a little serenity now and then, don’t we?
  4. Parenting an anxious child comes with the constant question: “How do I push my child and be comforting and supportive?” Unfortunately, there is not yet a perfect science to parenting or treating anxiety. But helping your child face the world with bravery over succumbing to the worry monster can be achieved with consistent and compassionate coaching. As a clinical psychologist, I am always looking for the best and most effective ways for parents to assist their child in developing healthy coping, and not encouraging anxious and avoidant behaviors. These 10 simple tips will help you and your child get through to the light at the end of the tunnel, a life where worry doesn’t win. 1. Validate your child’s emotional pain and discomfort. It may seem like your child is freaking out about "nothing" when, for example, she enters full tantrum mode to avoid being dropped off at a birthday party. But to your child, this is a tremendous deal. Think how bad it has felt in your own life when you were upset about something and someone responded to you and your pain with a sentiment such as “it is not such a big deal…you are fine.” How did you feel in that moment? We have all experienced the one-two punch of experiencing emotional pain and then beating ourselves up for having that pain. Give your child the gift of learning to recognize and acknowledge when she is experiencing emotional distress. Explaining an occurrence is not the same thing as “making an excuse.” Nonjudgmentally acknowledging when we are experiencing emotional distress is the first step in learning how to move through the unavoidable moments of suffering that are built into the human experience. 2. Educate yourself about "the body on anxiety." The discomfort children experience when they are in “anxiety mode” is real. Their brain’s fear response system (otherwise known as fight, flight, freeze) has been triggered and are now experiencing all of the physiological changes to their body that would occur in a true emergency. Their heart rate and breathing are increasing; blood flow is moving from their small muscles to their big muscles that are associated with fleeing, such as their arms and legs; and their pupils are dilating to allow them to see all potential dangers more clearly. All of these physiological changes would be quite helpful if they were in a real emergency. Thankfully, they are not in a true emergency when experiencing the false alarm of anxiety, but it feels to them like they are. 3. You can validate your child’s discomfort without buying into the “doom and gloom” predictions made by their anxious brain. Along with the physiological changes that occur when the “anxiety switch” has been flipped comes a change in thinking patterns. The world shifts from seeming predictable and safe to unpredictable and dangerous. Opportunities for failure, death and other unfortunate outcomes seem ever-present. Just because your child believes that terrible things are likely to occur does not make it true. Access your “wise mind” when your child is unable to access his. 4. Believe in the strength of your child. She cannot break. Anxiety is not dangerous and cannot hurt her, but avoiding life and age-appropriate experiences can.You don't need to shield her from life's challenges. 5. Model vulnerability. It is not only okay but powerfully healing to share with your child when you are struggling and scared. Struggling and fear are part of the human experience and she will learn it is all okay. 6. Create a family culture that nurtures taking chances and learning from mistakes over perfectionism. As an exercise, you can go around the dinner table and each take turns sharing one way you took a chance today. By highlighting meeting challenges head on you are reinforcing bravery over avoidance behaviors. This family exercise emphasizes how it is the journey of learning and experiencing life that truly matters, not the outcome of achieving or winning. 7. Teach your child how to identify when the "worry monster" has surfaced and is attempting to call the shots. It is incredibly helpful to come up with kid-friendly language to help your child make sense of his anxiety. In our first few sessions with children struggling with anxiety, we name and draw a picture of their “worry monster.” Some names my wonderful, brave little clients have come up with are: worry bully, “It,” Bob," and "Mr. Annoying," to name just a few. The function of this exercise is to assist your child in more objectively viewing her worries and fears vs. seeing the world through anxieties and fears. Once we learn how to identify when the “worry monster” has surfaced, we can next learn how to talk back and disengage from its taunts and negative predictions. 8. Pick your battles. You can't work on everything at one time. Determine the fear-based behaviors that are most negatively impacting your child and your family and create specific plans on how to address these behaviors. By trying to address everything, you will end up addressing nothing. 9. Learn to identify when your own “worry monster” has surfaced. Don't believe your own fears and worries that try to predict how much suffering your child will go through when they experience moments of anxiety. Although you may have experienced anxiety in your own life, it is no real indication of how it will go for your child. Kids are incredibly adaptable; they learn quickly that the best way past anxiety is through it. By facing one fear at a time, your child will quickly learn how brave, strong, and confident he truly is. 10. It is okay to get anxiety coaching from the sidelines. Therapy does not have to be a long-term, complicated endeavor. There is effective, empirically supported, short-term therapy available to assist your child and family when stuck and overwhelmed.

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