25 Apr Assisting parents with managing overly anxious children – Part Four
In Part 1 we established that anxiety is a universal, normal and often helpful resource. It is only when anxiety becomes excessive that it is debilitating. Part Two offered some insight into the most common types of Anxiety Disorders and in the most recent installment of this series, Part Three, we discussed the grief and loss that goes with the diagnosis of an Anxiety Disorder in a child.
“I can’t take it anymore
Having an excessively anxious child generates two strong emotional responses in parents, namely grief and stress.
Mostly excessively anxious children are high maintenance. They tantrum, argue, persist, nag, obsess, require repeated reassurance, dislike change, are irrationally fearful – for a parents who want to make and keep their child happy, this is an ongoing source of stress and, over time, emotional exhaustion.
Ultimately parents become really anxious, simply because, on the one hand, they know how things will play out and, secondly, the child can be pretty unpredictable, especially in situations where the parent would prefer the child to be in control.
The more the parents becomes anxious and emotionally exhausted, the more they will tend to become rigid, intolerant, unwilling to deal with frustration and experience guilt and self doubt, based on repeated self-criticism.
A plan for survival
Parents are inclined to put all the focus of helping on the needs of the child. Of course there is benefit in therapy and even meds for the child, but if the parent is too emotionally vulnerable to employ and maintain effective management strategies, above interventions have limited value.
Although it seems counterintuitive, it is often better to firstly ensure that parents feel as grounded and emotionally stable as possible. Once that is achieved and maintained, the parent is in a much better position to deal with the various professionals involved, the prescribed interventions and the domestic management strategies.
Becoming and staying emotionally strong requires the following:
- Understand the condition. It is often surprising that parents who bring anxious children for therapy, often know very little about what causes excessive anxiety and how to manage it. Frequently they have made their own assumptions, without doing any research. Knowledge trumps untested theories, unfair labeling and blame.
- Taking regular breaks. Parents who try to “keep going” are much more prone to Depression, Anxiety and a number of physical ailments. Insisting on regular breaks creates the opportunity of the body and brain to recharge. Taking breaks goes with setting clear limits, such as “My phone will be off from 13:00 to 13:30 as I take my lunch break”.
- Doing something just for me. This means indulging in an activity or hobby where partners, spouses or children are not involved. It is something from which I take pleasure, be that a cultural, creative or sporting activity. This should apply to both parents.
- Prioritising us. It’s simple math: “I have to be OK + you have to be OK = so that we can be OK”. Parents should elevate their relationship above the needs of their children, family or friends. By doing this they maintain their friendship, share their common burdens and joys and are better able to pursue sexual intimacy.
- Identifying, activating, organising and utilising your practical support system. Asking for help is a really difficult thing to do. Especially anxious parents tend to believe that it is better for them to just get on with doing things themselves. They only ask for help (and not always in the most friendly way) if they are already overburdened and frustrated. Sometimes women find this aspect of life exasperating – they expect men to intuit what is needed. They may say: “but can’t he see I’m struggling? Why do I have to ask more than once“. Men function better when they know what exactly they need to do and are then left to get on with it in the way they think best. If they do not perform according to expectation, then hold them accountable, don’t go and redo the task.
- Engaging with emotional support systems. This is another area where men and women differ. Women need to network with other women. They need to WhatsApp their BFF, phone their sister, visit their mom, share hugs with girlfriends and share hugs when they see each other. Point being, there are female emotional needs that straight heterosexual men can’t meet. Men, on the other hand, are solely reliant on the emotional support of their partner / spouse. This normally entails limited conversation and good sex! So, men need to realise that they need to make a practical investment in sharing the load so that they create opportunities for their spouse to recharge. The spouse needs to understand that their lifestyle and obligations do not exhaust them to the point that they cannot assist their man to recharge.
- Coping strategy. Parents who follow a present-oriented and problem-focused strategy (“what’s happening right now? Is it a problem? Is it priority? Can I fix it? If not, how can I live with it?“) do much better than parents who are too future oriented and indulge in wishful thinking – “If only my child could feel better, if only ...”
- Making sense. If parents interpret their situation as pointless and hopeless, they will struggle. Part of overcoming adversity is to find some sort of meaning and purpose in our struggle.
Please take the time to assess how you and your partner / spouse are running your lives. Make the changes that will make you emotionally strong and resilient.
Part 5 of this series will offer a detailed and step-by-step strategy for managing the child’s excessive anxiety.