Hi Dr Justin,
We have 2 sons, one 4 1/2, the other 19 months. The oldest is quite intelligent and overly anxious. His anxiety manifests in screaming, fast heartbeat, physicality, lack of sleep and running away. He can even have anxiety about things he is looking forward to. When getting his hair cut, he screams and tries to run. With swimming lessons, he has been in the pool in the past and hated it, so we left it, but now he is getting older and as this is Australia, swimming lessons are pretty essential. Again, we had screaming and trying to run. We spent the whole 30 min sitting on the side of the pool, not even putting his toes in the water.
I am just so worried that by getting my son to do these things even though he has anxiety about them I am breaking that connection. We sympathise a lot and talk to him a lot but ultimately, override his wish to not do it. Will he think we didn’t listen to him? Is it just my anxiety taking over? He does get to make choices in other areas of his life, but I wonder if it is enough. Sometimes sitting at the same table isn’t enough, you need to sit next to him. I don’t know if this is because he doesn’t feel connected to us or whether it is something else.
An anxious mum
Dr Justin responds:
Your email clearly suggests that your son has an anxious temperament. This is not to suggest that he has an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a normal part of being a human, although when anxiety becomes so great that it interferes with typical healthy functioning it is worth getting it checked out with your GP and a psychologist. Sometimes such anxiety is genetic. Other times it is a function of our children’s environment and socialisation. And it may simply be a developmental challenge that your son will overcome normally and naturally with time.
Here are a few things to consider as you work with him in anxious times:
Remember, he’s only 4
While your son is walking, talking, and acting like a human, he is still very much wearing ‘L’ plates. He is a learner. This means that sometimes you will feel that he is capable of doing things that he feels wary of or anxious about. Chances are that you are right. He can do them. But as a frightened four year-old, he may not want to. Be sensitive to his young age. Just because he will not do something now does not mean he will forever avoid it.
Build the relationship
If a child is feeling anxious or concerned, the thing that they usually need most is a loving parent who will help them feel safe. By being available and responsive, you will be more likely to maintain a positive connection. It can be natural to turn against our children with disapproval when they refuse to do as we ask – particularly when it is for their benefit. Some parents turn away from their children and simply ignore them.
Neither response builds the relationship. Neither response improves the child’s motivation to do what we hoped they’d do. Instead, this conditional negative regard leaves them feeling hurt and unworthy. Turn towards him, help him feel safe, and let him know he can do things in his own time.
Respond to emotions kindly and constructively
Take a close look at a book called How to Talk so kids will Listen, and Listen so kids will Talk. This book will help you in a host of ways, including useful ways to respond to your sons challenging emotions in constructive and kind ways. I do not know of a better book than this for helping parents respond to children’s challenging emotions.
Don’t force the issue
Sometimes we force our children to do things that they do not need to do. While we want them to have the ‘ideal’ experiences we believe matter, sometimes it is not worth the fight. Swimming lessons may be important, but are they important now? Or are there other ways or times that he can learn to swim? Is he comfortable swimming in the pool with you or his dad rather than in a big pool with dozens of other people splashing and making noise? Can you teach him enough of the basics to get by for now in a quieter, less overwhelming location? Or does he simply need to wait another year or two?
Make it social
There may be some activities – like haircuts or swimming – where your son can participate with friends. In some cases, this may be helpful. Watching his friends do something he feels anxious about may be a positive experience. Once again, however, we should not be forcing the issue, making manipulative comparisons, or pushing him if he is uncomfortable. At this age, the social world may not be highly influential. In a few years, however, peer influence may be a powerful help.
Allowing choice and self-determination can mean your son will be more willing to try something. When it is freely chosen, there is usually limited anxiety and resistance. You might ask, “Do you want to learn to swim, or learn to ride a bike?” Perhaps the location of the swim-school, or being able to choose a teacher may make a difference. Similarly, you might offer choice in relation to haircuts: “Would you like your hair cut by mum’s hairdresser, or dad’s?”
Watch your own emotions
Remember that emotions are contagious. You signed off your letter with ‘an anxious mum’. Our children can catch our emotions. They watch us, feed off us, and model us. Stay calm. Be composed. Smile a lot. Be encouraging and compassionate. Try to avoid being anxious.
In summary parents with children who are anxious, or who are not responding to behavioural requests in the way we might anticipate are best to:
- Invite their children to act in a certain way and provide a clear rationale for that request
- See the world through their children’s eyes, and understand what their reasons are for being disinclined to follow that instruction. (In other words, focus on their emotions, keep them calm, and listen to them.)
- Problem-solve together, ensuring that solutions are reasonable to parents.
- Minimise the use of control. Sometimes it may be necessary, but it should be used sparingly.