Lovey has always had a personality that at times is difficult to parent. She is generally a lovely girl (hence the name) but has from a very young age been slow to warm up. It takes her a good deal of time to acclimate to new situations and she’s really only comfortable with something after she’s seen it or been exposed to it many times. This is probably a big part of the reason why she walked late (17 months) or is such a “selective” eater. She has improved greatly with her willingness to try new things but every once in a while she has a difficulty and as parents Honey and I are thrown for a loop over how best to support her. We have never used the word anxious to describe her, but recent events have caused us to question if there is some underlying anxiety at play in addition to her cautious temperament.
Coming to the realization that I may have an anxious child was harder than you would think for someone who is a school psychologist. The old shoemaker’s children analogy comes to mind. However, Honey and I both have family histories of mental health problems and I have issues with anxiety from time to time. I also had similar fears and concerns when I was Lovey’s age. In kindergarten I peed my pants in class because I was afraid to ask to go to the bathroom during a special presentation. Once we were able to determine that this might be a larger issue than just being slow to warm up we knew we needed to come up with some strategies to help Lovey with her coping skills. We plan to talk to her pediatrician at her upcoming yearly visit to get any input he may have as well as to contact her school psychologist at the beginning of the school year to inform her of our concerns and to see if there are any supports she can offer Lovey in school. (Last year’s psychologist who already knew her transferred to a different school.) We also talked about a plan of steps to follow when Lovey is upset and visibly anxious about something. Recently this has been around new environments or when a familiar environment is changed. For example, when there is a substitute in the classroom.
We came up with the following steps:
- When Lovey is visibly upset (typically she will cry or shut down refusing to talk) we will tell her to talk three deep breaths. At this age, we need to model this for her.
- After the deep breaths we ask Lovey to name her feelings. This is extremely difficult for her and sometimes makes her more upset but we’ve seen improvement with this as well.
- Once she has named her feeling we ask her what is making her feel that way. Typically she says “I don’t know”, but with prompting she can usually get to the root of the issue.
- We then talk to her about why that thing is making her feel a certain way. For example “Why do you feel anxious about eating that lollipop?” (She’s not actually afraid of lollipops you guys, just an example.) From here we can use some cognitive-behavior therapy to get her to see that there is no reason to fear lollipops. We use langauge like “you’re safe, the lollipop can’t hurt you. Remember the last time you ate a lollipop, nothing bad happened and you liked it. Everything will be okay.” We keep talking to her about these things until she calms down and feel ready to tackle her lollipop.
We also work hard to remember to preview new situations with her. We tell her who will be somewhere, what the activity will be, what the expectations are for participation. In the past we have allowed her five minutes in a new enviornment to see what other people are doing before interacting with anyone. Also, we find she does better if she is one of the first people to arrive somewhere rather than walking into a crowd, this isn’t always possible though. If we are dropping her off at a place we always tell her who will be picking her up. We find that giving her as much information as possible eases her anticipatory anxiety.
Also, while we were at the library last week I picked up a few books that I knew dealt with worries, and one actually made it into the bag that also dealt with worries that I had never heard of; Lovey picked it out. We read these books together today and had a conversation about worry. Lovey didn’t identify with the characters but the more we talked, the more she understood how those feelings she has in different situations relate to the books. If you have a worrying child I would recommend these books, and a few others as well.
Wemberley Worried by Kevin Henkes. This is a about a little mouse who worries about everything until she makes a new friend.
Sheila Rae the Brave, also by Kevin Henkes. Sheila Rae isn’t afraid of anything and sister Louise is afraid of lots of things, until one day the tables are turned.
Silly Billy by Anthony Browne. I’m not a huge fan of this title because worries aren’t funny, but the book is about a boy who discovers worry dolls as a way to ease his anxiety.
A few other titles that we like are:
The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn. This is a great book for kids who have separation anxiety. The raccoon doesn’t want to leave his mother and so she leaves a kiss in his hand for him to take with him. Often when Lovey is sad to leave me I offer her a kissing hand. This was particularly helpful in the first few weeks of school.
The Llama Llama books by Anna Dewdney. There are several Llama Llama books that are appropriate to address anxiety, particularly Llama Llama Misses Mama. These books are for younger kids than Lovey, but still entertaining.
I’m sure there are several other resources out there for helping kids cope with worry and anxiety. It’s an odd thing to help your own child through this when you have been helping other people’s children through it for years. I’ll be sure to report back and let you know how our strategies work moving forward as well.