My daughter, Aria, is now 10 and I am starting to wonder if her anti-yes personality is something to worry about. She has always been painfully slow to open to new people and new experiences. Some might call her a slow burn. Getting comfortable is a thing for her. And it can be highly uncomfortable to witness it as her parent.
She will stare at the floor of Chipotle and wait for me to order for her (I try to refuse to) and say thank you into her shirt at check out. Once she gets to that socially warm spot, she is open, playful, fun and bat shit hilarious. I'm talking comedian-level confident humor and sophisticated sarcasm. She will simmer to a full on Chatty Cathy. But it takes a lot of time. Along with this is a hesitance—make that a resistance—to new things. Any proposition on my behalf to try anything is always met with a firm "no." Gymnastics, dance, art class, sports, new places, hikes, museum, experiences. Anything.
Lately it's gotten worse. Just talking about sleepaway camp as a concept, for example, something that would not happen until two years from now, can bring upon a massive anxiety attack. I am talking, full on breakdown. And I'm getting worried. It's getting worse. I wanted to consult an expert and figure out what could be at the root of this.
I called upon an old dear friend from high school, Jaxi Rothman, a child, adolescent and family psychotherapist in private practice in Lewisburg, Pa. I needed an insider scoop. When is this a problem? When do I consult the experts? When is "no, no, no" a sign of something deeper? I spilled this all to Jaxi and asked for her most informal, relatable, "therapist/friend-to-friend" mashup of advice and insight on the subject. Here is her 6:30 a.m. take on things. And I love every beat. If you are in the same position, I know you will, too.
Q: How can we tackle her seemingly massive fears about everything that happens outside of this house?
A: Explore, explore, explore. Ask questions about her fears. Have her write them down. Ask her what her worst case scenarios are. Ask her to draw them. Align yourself with her to fight these fears. Support her, and remind her that she can learn to control her fears and anxieties.
Many times, children manifest anxious symptoms because they are unconsciously trying to contain their parents anxieties.
Q: When is it time to consult a therapist?
A: It is time to consider talking with a specialist when and if your child's fears and anxieties are interfering with her daily functioning, and if her fears are turning into true phobias (where she believes it is impossible for her to face or participate in whatever fears she has) or when she asks to speak to a counselor/therapist.
Q: What can I expect from a meeting with a therapist?
A: There is so much background information that a therapist would need to gather from the parent or parents about the child's development, her school functioning, the way she behaves interpersonally both with friends and with family. Also, have any "big" events occurred recently? Maybe the birth of a sibling, a move, a separation/divorce, a death of a pet or family member. Often kids will describe a certain event that "triggered" their worries and fears.
Q: Will I be involved in the therapy process with her?
A: There are many childhood anxiety disorders, and the only way to properly diagnose the condition is to spend time with her parents and her. I should add that many times, children manifest anxious symptoms because they are unconsciously trying to contain their parents anxieties. This needs to be explored. And there are times, when if the parent or parents make a change, the child's anxiety will diminish.
Explaining to them that their anxiety will not kill them, that they can have control over them is very empowering for kids.
Q: Is this something that will get worse or naturally go away?
A: Some kids will grow out of their fears and worries, and some kids won't, without help. It depends on the type of anxiety and how it manifests. Regardless, teaching kids about what anxiety is is always a good idea; the more they understand, the better. Teach them that healthy anxiety is the body's appropriate response to something scary or dangerous; it's a great warning system. But when anxiety becomes overwhelming and unmanageable, it is the brain and body reacting to worries that are not realistic dangers. This is a key distinction. However, regardless of the type and amount of anxiety, teaching children breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, teaching them to imagine their anxiety as a little bug and imagining themselves as a bigger bug, which can squash the little anxiety bug are helpful strategies. Also explaining to them that their anxiety will not kill them, that they can have control over them is very empowering for kids.
Q: Can you tell me a little more about childhood anxiety?
A: There are many types of childhood anxiety. Some are separation anxieties, some are phobias, and some can be OCD. There is a high correlation between anxiety and depression.
Q: My daughter has a caveat that if her best friend "does it" she will, too. I am starting to worry that this best friend is becoming a crutch.
A: If the child has a "best friend" with whom she feels comfortable, this is a good thing, which should be supported. I would encourage parents to explore with their child what it is about that special friend that provides comfort. And then I would brainstorm with the child about other ways to replicate the safe and secure feelings she experiences with her special friend. Engaging the child in the process and in the solution is key; this is what empowers her to feel she has autonomy and agency over her feelings and thoughts. And the truth is that most anxieties are indeed just that: feelings and thoughts that at times overwhelm kids (and us). Teaching them to explore them, talk about them, face and battle them are the beginning of the solution.
Many parents think that if their child is afraid of something, then that "something" should be avoided at all costs. In fact this is the opposite of what parents should do to help their child. Slowly, gradually, patiently and lovingly encouraging the child to face the "thing" or participate in the "anxiety" that scares her is one key way to help her overcome her fear. This is called gradual exposure therapy. As you gradually expose your child to her fear, you help her practice breathing exercises, teach her coping strategies, reminding her that her fears will not kill her, and then talk about how she felt. You progressively expose her to a little more each time, or for a little longer each time, and continue to breathe with her and explore her feelings and often this will work to remove her intense fears.
I can't thank Jaxi enough for this. I learned a ton from her answers. Mostly that Aria is most likely metabolizing my stuff—my tensions and anxiety. I will for sure start to look more deeply at myself and the ways in which I can provide a more grounded, centered emotional experience for her. Other than that, I am going to look for a good therapist to give her the tools to process her anxiety now. Maybe if I had some of those tools myself at 10, I wouldn't be as emotionally irresponsible as I so often am when it comes to maintaining healthy boundaries around my own tension in front of my kids.