Monday, June 25, 2012

12 Ways to Help Children Face Their Fears

With the launch of the Olympics in a few weeks, it occurred to me that if there was an Olympic event for worrying, our family would definitely have a chance of winning the gold medal. After all to become champions you need to get a lot of practice.
Malcolm Gladwell, the journalist, in his wonderful book Outliers explains that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become good at something. That's almost 417 days of constant worry. Between the five members of our family, over the last 11 years that's about 8 days each a year! (Phew and I'd been worrying that I hadn't been putting my math skills to good use.) 

About 8 years ago, concerned that some of the anxiety issues my children were facing, were cause for concern, I asked a barrage of questions to mental health professionals that really changed how I have been able to help my own children face their fears. Two of their answers really influenced my subsequent quest to support  my kids.

 I consulted a developmental Pediatrician to ask him about how I would know if the anxious behavior my son was exhibiting was something he might need help with or was just a developmental milestone.  One of the best yardsticks he gave me was to ask me to think about how my eight year old’s anxiety was impacting his activities and affecting family life. (For example he came into our room every night, complaining of bad dreams/he did not want to go on a play date or want us to leave him and his siblings with a sitter). The pediatrician said "If your child's and your family life is being disrupted it's a problem. If it's something the whole family can live with then it isn't." When I consulted a wonderful social worker who specializes in toddler toilet training and asked her, "If I ignore the retention problems of my toddler will they sort themselves out on their own?" She said "No they will get worse."

The answers to these two questions have guided me ever since, by allowing me to learn strategies from excellent professionals to help my kids face their fears. First I learned that I had to accept my child had an issue that was really affecting the quality of his life and that would not go way without intervention.  I also realized that if I chose to either ignore the outcomes of these behaviors or enable these behaviors to continue then I would not really be helping my child at all. I have learned that ignoring anxiety or rather the behaviors that come from being anxious does not make them go away. In fact it reinforces the behaviors. Fear fuels anxiety and facing those fears is the ultimate weapon for overcoming them.

With the summer plans kicking in-there were many fears to be fuelled in our family. (See Anything But Routine). Benjy was travelling on his own to Israel with two plane changes-a journey that was to take him 24 hours including several hours of waiting at one layover, but it was the cheapest way for him to get there. Aron was training to be a fire fighter and Jacob was going to sleep-away camp for a month and getting shots from the doctor before that. I could feel my anxiety rising just thinking about them all going off to face their anxieties without me!!!

So here are some things we put into action to ease everyone's fears, (mine most of all). I realize these concerns and suggestions can apply to worriers of all ages so I try to practice what I preach! Although I have grouped these into specific categories, all of the suggestions are valid for every case. Most importantly accurate information and forward planning really seem to ease anxiety and empower everyone.

For a teenager travelling by plane alone, across continents or to Florida you can reduce anxiety by:-

1. Getting to the airport with plenty of time to spare, help them to find the check in desk and remind them to confirm requests such as special meals.
2. Have them weigh their luggage in advance so they don't worry about being overweight.
3. Take a photo of their luggage on their phone-This will help them identify it on the carousel or describe it if it goes missing.
4. Try to make all connecting flights with the same airline so that your teen is only dealing with one crazy air transport company who hopefully will be more vested in helping.

For a child about to get shots (immunizations) or preparing for a visit to a doctor:-

1. Ask your child in advance, what information they need to help them tame their worry. Make a list of questions and help them get the answers -e.g. name of the doctor they are seeing, how many shots they are getting; are they allowed to shoot back???

2. Anxious kids tend to catastrophize and imagine terrible things that are very unlikely to happen. So encourage them to think through the worst case scenario and why it is so unlikely to occur. Then, together  imagine that scenario in such a ridiculous way that you both just have to laugh. E.g. you'll get 4 billion shots and they don't call them shots- they call them rumbadiggles. (This one actually worked.)

3. Teach your child to advocate for themselves. Role play what they can say or do in a worrying situation. My son asked the doc if he could have his shots at the beginning of the appointment rather than the end. The doctor responded that of course he could. This got them over with and enabled him and me to focus on the rest of the visit.

For a child going off to be a Firefighter (or a new experience or activity)................well this one had me a little stumped:-

Thanks Glynis for this photo
1. Start by finding yourself some meditation techniques and a bottle of something to put in your tea, and then tell your child how proud you are of him for each new/challenging/ grueling day he gets through.

2. Help set up checklists the night before so that everything including lunch is ready to go if he has an early start, and huge amounts of equipment/ belongings to schlep.

3. Remind him that each day that he faces his fears; he becomes more confident, in control and able to tackle anything life might throw at him.....

4. Remind him of his advocacy skills.

5. Keep your own fears to yourself and face them when he's not around!!!

Perhaps we can go for the "Facing Your Fears" event in the Olympics instead. I now realize we've had a lot of practice with those skills too.

Have an anxiety free week.


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  1. One of your BEST posts EVER, Gilly! Such great advice - with humor and compassion. : )

    1. Thank you very much Melissa. Parenting is definitely a work in progress and so is overcoming anxiety. Worth the effort in all cases:-)

  2. Great post. I wish my parents had recognized that in me. It wasn't normal to be having night terrors every night or at least multiple times a week.

  3. Thanks Corey. I think our generation is a lot more aware of and able to access help for issues like anxiety for our children. The biggest step is accepting there is an issue in the first place....

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    1. Dear Simona,
      Thank you very much for visiting Brainstorm and for your very generous feedback. Thank you also for offering to feature me on your site. It looks very impressive and certainly has attracted a large number of members.I will email you.

      Many thanks