Why anxiety can make kids act like assholes

And how to help them.

I’m going to break with newsletter tradition today and start with a short preamble. It’s been a month. I mean, everything is fine. I’m healthy, my family is healthy, and we are doing pretty damn well for being a year into a pandemic. I’m just a wee bit overstretched, probably because I’m taking on reporting assignments, dealing with book edits, and recently started teaching a graduate class at NYU. Also — although my kids are attending in-person school and I’m oh-so-very-grateful for that — we have only had four full school days in all of February, because winter.

I know I’m not the only one who’s stressed right now. You probably are, too. Heck, I’m even seeing it in my sources. I had grand plans to tackle a particular parenting question here today. I contacted seven researchers over the past two weeks in the hopes of interviewing them (see how dedicated I am to you, dear readers?), and guess how many of those seven had the time to talk to me? Not a one. So…. needless to say I have shelved that particular question for now. Maybe another time.

Instead, I’m going to address an issue that has been on my mind lately, given that so many of us, including our kids, are worried about Covid-19, about school, about friendships, about money, about all the things we have lost out on, about getting all the things done. That issue is anxiety. Anxiety can sometimes make people act like assholes. I know, because I’m often anxious, and so is my nine-year-old. My anxiety sometimes manifests as short-temperedness; when I’m stressed or worried, my fuse gets shorter. My son also gets grumpy and agitated when he loses a sense of control. When his typical schedule gets upended, he becomes more challenging and has more meltdowns, because he’s struggling and has less of an emotional reserve available. When he has to do something new and potentially scary and doesn’t know what to expect, he teeters on edge, too.

To be clear, there are many ways that anxiety can manifest in kids. What you see might depend on the age of your child. An anxious toddler may be excessively clingy; an anxious five-year-old may have regular headaches or stomachaches; a tween or teen may withdraw and spend more time in her room. There are also several types of anxiety: social anxiety, generalized anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobia disorders, and panic disorders, and they all look different. It’s a lot to digest, I know, but here are some common behaviors to look out for, which I’ve pulled from a 2016 Slate article I wrote on the topic:

In general, anxiety colors how a person interprets and reacts to his environment, in that anxious people tend to assume the worst. Whereas my husband thinks mountain biking is thrilling, I see it as an opportunity for serious injury. You can sometimes glean that a child is anxious simply by listening for these same kinds of negative thoughts. When researchers told 5-year-olds the beginning of a story and asked them to end it, the kids who created unhappy endings were more likely to show signs of anxiety a year later. Research has shown that kids with anxiety are also more likely than other kids to interpret potentially neutral pictures, words, and stories as being threatening. Other traits that have been linked to anxiety in kids are shyness and timidity. One study found that 20 percent of babies and young toddlers who were excessively shy or timid developed multiple anxiety disorders later in childhood, compared with none of the uninhibited kids they tracked.

So what can you do to support an anxious kid? Read on for four science-based strategies.

  1. Help your child understand and overcome their fears.

    If your kid’s anxiety manifests itself through fear, you’ll first want to make your child feel safe, and then help them understand and overcome what they’re afraid of. Psychologist Tamar Chansky, author of the book Freeing Your Child From Anxiety, put it to me this way when I spoke to her for a story I wrote for The New York Times: “Find out what their mind is telling them.” 

    Often, you’ll discover that their fears are unrealistic or overblown. My son recently was anxious about going skiing, and when I prodded him, I learned he was afraid he would fall and hit his head and end up in the hospital. Once you’ve asked the questions to understand what your kid is imagining, you can gently correct their misconceptions, explaining why that bad outcome is actually quite unlikely. In my son’s case, that explanation was something along the lines of Well, but you have learned in your lessons how to stay in control when you ski. And you also wear a helmet to protect your head. So it’s very unlikely that even if you fell, your head would get really hurt.

    You can also explain to your child that when they excessively worry, their brain is playing tricks on them. Their worries aren’t warranted, but it’s like their brains get stuck. It’s possible to overcome the worries by thinking rationally about the situation and assessing whether the risks are truly as big as they seem.

    In her book, Chansky explains what a parent might say to a young child, but you can adapt the language for older kids, too:

    “Worry makes you feel bad inside when you don’t need to. If something bad really happens, like if you lose a toy, or your ice-cream cone falls, how do you feel? Right, you feel bad. But worry makes you feel bad when nothing is wrong. It whispers in your ear things that aren’t true, like ‘It’s going to be too hard. You can’t do it. It will be too scary. Something bad will happen. You shouldn’t try!’ … We can teach worry to leave you alone so you won’t feel bad inside when you have to go somewhere new or try something that’s a little scary. You’ll have your smarts to help you, instead of your worries. You’ll see that things are much easier to do when you take charge and don’t listen to worry’s advice.”

    Once you’ve helped your kid talk through their fears, you’ll want to slowly and gently expose your kid to the things they fear. For my son, that meant taking him skiing, and making it as fun as possible. Last summer, my daughter was terrified of bees, so we started by watching videos of bees and learning about them. Next, we watched bees from a window inside the house. Then we went outside together to watch a bee from a distance. The goal is to slowly ramp up exposure to the scary thing, while being there to support and encourage your child. Then they will begin to replace their fear with a calmer, more rational reaction. (For more on helping kids overcome fears, read my New York Times piece.)

  2. Make your child’s life more predictable.

    Another thing that helps anxious kids is to give them a sense of control. This, I know, might be hard to do right now, when pretty much everything feels like it’s out of our hands. But there are ways. Maybe you discuss the day’s schedule at every breakfast, so that your kid knows what’s going to happen that day. (My son’s teacher used to write up a daily schedule on the class whiteboard, and my son would memorize it as soon as he got to school — he loved having that sense of ownership over the day.) It may also help to schedule regular, predictable activities during the week — every Wednesday you make cinnamon rolls for breakfast, every Sunday is pizza and movie night.

    One thing that is not helpful for anxious kids is for their parents to act in unpredictable ways. It’s better to be consistent, as well as communicative. Here’s one thing parents sometimes do that typically worsens kids’ anxiety (this excerpt comes from a 2014 Slate article I wrote on clinginess, and the person I quoted is UC Davis developmental psychologist Ross Thompson):

    Take this common occurrence: A mother takes her kid to his new preschool, waits until he is distracted for a few minutes, and then slips out without saying goodbye. When you do this, “you essentially tell the child, ‘OK, when you’re in an unpredictable setting, don’t relax, because the person you count on may suddenly disappear,’ ” Thompson says. “Now you’ve added another layer of unpredictability, which is, how long is mom or dad going to be with me?”

    A better approach? Explain to your kid at school that you have to leave in five minutes, and then in two minutes, and then tell them when you’ll be returning. Try to tie it to a concrete event, like I’ll come back to get you after art class, sweetie. Then “you’re not only giving predictability to when mother’s leaving but you’re also giving predictability to when she’s coming back,” Thompson says. We all know how tough it is to see your kid crying and clawing for you, but by communicating your departure and return clearly, you’re giving your child the conceptual tools to manage and understand the situation, he explains—you’re giving him the semblance of some control, and that’s precisely what he needs.

    1. Don’t be an overbearing helicopter parent.

    Sometimes, children develop anxiety because their parents are anxious. If you’re the parent at the sledding hill who’s constantly freaking out about possible collisions, or the parent who turns into a grumpy stressball when you’re running two minutes late to an appointment, or the parent who tells your kid to “be careful” every time she steps out of the bathtub or climbs a ladder, then your kid might pick up on and adopt your worries. (Parker Posey’s character and dog from Best In Show come to mind.) As I explained in Slate:

    This kind of negative intervening or catastrophizing, as it’s sometimes called, can have a bunch of potentially bad effects. First, it sends a message that little Eva isn’t capable of doing these feats herself, an idea that diminishes her self-confidence and could make her feel helpless. (Feelings of helplessness have been linked to anxiety.) It also sends a message that climbing a ladder or getting out of the bathtub is inherently dangerous and something she should fear—and as I already mentioned, anxiety stems in part from a tendency to interpret potentially neutral situations as threatening. You don’t really want to plant more of those seeds in your kid’s head than you have to.

    Finally, parental over-involvement may not give your kid the chance to problem-solve on her own and develop the skills she needs to overcome new challenges. Research suggests that allowing kids to feel in control of their environment—giving them the chance to say hey, I got this! when they’re climbing or doing a puzzle or reading aloudis important for building confidence and preventing anxiety. If you’re constantly stepping in to help or protect, you’re saying the exact opposite: No, honey, you clearly don’t got this. One study found that toddlers who were shy and timid at age 2 were much more likely to remain socially anxious at age 4 if their moms tended to be intrusive.

    So how do you end the cycle of worrying and warnings to be careful? It’s a matter of catching yourself before you bark the warnings and then re-framing your thoughts. “Lead with your curiosity rather than your fear,” suggested Rachel Busman, a psychologist at the Child Mind Institute in New York City, when I talked to her for my New York Times piece. With my son, that meant saying to him before the ski trip, “Are you excited to go skiing today?” rather than something fear-forward like “So are you still feeling scared about skiing?” We want to encourage our kids to feel positive and confident, not remind them that they have something to worry about. (If you’re struggling with anxiety yourself and aren’t sure how to manage it, check out these tips from the Anxiety & Depression Association of America. And consider seeing a therapist. Opencounseling.com allows you to search for free- and low-cost therapists.)

    1. Talk to your kids about your fears and how you handle them.

    I know, I know; I just said you should encourage your kids to think positively — and that’s true. But it’s absolutely OK, and can be helpful, to talk about your fears with your kids and how you manage them. Maybe you tell your child that you used to be terrified of flying, but then you looked up the statistics on airplane crashes and that you remind yourself how rare crashes are every time you fly. Perhaps you add that you feel better when you take deep breaths during take-off and landing, too.

    When we have these conversations with our kids, we help them see how they can manage their own fears — through rational thinking and coping strategies. As the book Helping Your Anxious Child, penned by a group of Australian researchers and clinicians who study and treat child anxiety, explains, “it is really important that you don’t try and hide your fears from your child or pretend that you never get scared. All this does is show your child that it is embarrassing or ‘weird’ to be scared. Instead, you need to see managing your fears and worries as a shared activity—something you and you child can work on together.”

    Similarly, in his new book The Scaffold Effect, Harold S. Koplewicz, the president of the Child Mind Institute in New York City, writes that “we have all experienced fear, dread, sadness, frustration, confusion, panic and we all need to teach our children that scary feelings will be a part of their lives for their whole lives. What matters is how we deal with them. Show your kids that emotions don’t control you. You control yourself while experiencing them.”

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