For the last month or so I’ve been torn on how much I should share on Beyond Blue and at Group Beyond Blue about my son’s struggle with anxiety. I don’t want to invade his privacy in any way. After much deliberation, I have decided to go with Anna Quindlen’s rule: until my kids reach the double digits, I can write about them. Once they are 10, I should stop. David is 6 now, one month away from being 7. So I’m safe to discuss this. I think.
I’ve mentioned his anxiety in a couple of my posts.
In the last two months, though, the symptoms have alarmed Eric and me, to say the least. He’s had several (bathroom) accidents at school, and his tantrums and explosive outbursts have definitely escalated and increased in frequency: when homework isn’t done exactly the right way, or when I place his book bag in the wrong place, or when fireworks go off at a baseball game, or if he hasn’t scored a goal at a play lacrosse game. Any slight variation—like my signing his report on the wrong line—can trigger a tantrum that will last up to two hours long.
The stress at home is compounded by the clash of parenting styles between Eric and me. Although we are good communicators—something that saves our marriage, for sure—we have different ideas as to how to discipline our kids. My sisters and I got in trouble for laughing at the dinner table. Eric’s home was more casual. So my style might seem harsh and intolerant to Eric; his approach can seem enabling to me.
Which is why the two of us needed to see a therapist together, to get a plan of action, and to agree on how best to handle our son’s anxiety.
Just talking about it aloud, with a third person present, was helpful alone. After we both had a chance to vent and describe the problem in our different perspectives, we came up with some goals:
1. Be as structured as possible.
Anxious kids needs as much structure as possible, which is really bloody hard for me, because I abhor structure. I am a “perceiver” on the Myers-Brigg personality scale, which means I like to keep it flexible and take it as it comes.
But David doesn’t do well with surprises—like the fireworks at the baseball game. I know this, and I pay for it every time I spring one on him. He is a conscientious and disciplined kid that absolutely needs to know the next step in order to process it before it comes. So Eric and I are going to work at organizing our time at home much like his classroom—with designated potty breaks, so he knows exactly when to go.
2. Strive for positive feedback.
The discipline chart we implemented last autumn was very effective. Until we (I more so than Eric) got kind of lazy. At which point, we began to take away privileges–video games, his Nintendo DS, or his Wii–instead of reward him with checkmarks or stickers, which translated into money.
“Is that working?” the counselor asked us.
We thought about it, looked at each other, and agreed: “No.”
Because when he is in a tantrum, he is beyond being able to control himself. At that point, any disciplinary action is futile. But if he is rewarded for a day without tantrums, a morning and afternoon without bathroom accidents, then he feels good about that, and he wants to do it again.
Most anxious kids (like me) want more than anything to please, and to get positive feedback. So disciplining David according to stickers and rewards is a much better system.
3. Talk about feelings.
You know, I write a blog. Most of the time I feel like a talking self-help book. But it didn’t occur to me to talk to David about his anxiety. Duh. I guess I forgot that by age six, and especially seven, kids can start to explain their emotions.
When David’s in the midst of a tantrum, he looks like a (very big) two-year-old. So my instinct is to treat him like one. But he’s not. He is a little person and needs to be able to express his feelings to his mom and dad, to feel as though he can safely talk about them. And we can help him process the anxiety so that it isn’t as scary.
4. Teach him about mistakes.
This was a comical moment at our family session. We were describing the hell we go through sometimes in helping David with his homework—especially if we don’t understand the directions (and most of the time I don’t – yes, that’s why I feel so stupid).
We both recalled the time when we were supposed to circle groups of threes, and neither of us could figure it out. David’s explosion lasted about two hours that evening. We finally put him to bed. In the morning, I tried, once more, to finish it. Which ignited a second round.
“How do both of you deal with your mistakes?” the counselor asked.
“The same way,” I said. I was kidding. But there was a thread of truth.
I don’t think either or us are perfectionists in the way David is. But, yikes, maybe I don’t deal with failure all that well. And maybe he’s picking up on that. I HATE it when that happens.
So we decided to make losing fun, whenever possible. If we lose at a game of tic tac toe, no big deal! If my page views for Beyond Blue go down, I can tell David: “The funniest thing happened to me today. I found out that fewer people are reading my blog. Isn’t that silly?!”
5. Have some fun.
The last thing we talked about is what to do in the midst of the breakdown, when he is lying on the ground, face down, pounding his fists, like a two-year-old.
“Have fun with it,” the counselor said.
“Try, in any way possible, to distract him, to take him to the other ‘fun place,’ which is outside the ‘tantrum place.’ Try to make a game of it. Use some creativity.”
This one is hard. But I suppose I could try the same sort of tactic with David that I did with Katherine the other day. She had a purple bruise on her chin from falling at Home Depot (with her dad, of course!). She didn’t want to go to school, because she was sure the kids would make fun of her.
So I told her that we should write a children’s book about the little girl with the purple chin. We spent a half hour on it—and then I sent it off to my agent (not really). And we both laughed much in the process.
I don’t know if this sort of thing would work for David. But I’m willing to try.
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