Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

When Your Kid Is Anxious: 5 Strategies I Just Learned

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.
Say what???
“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.
To read more Beyond Blue, go to, and to get to Group Beyond Blue, a support group at Beliefnet Community, click here.

  • nyjlm

    Oh Therese, I’m so sorry David is experiencing anxiety. He’s so fortunate that his parents recognize it and are doing something to help him. I say this often- there’s definitely a special place in my heart for kids with anxiety, since I was one, only no one knew it!
    I wish that my parents had taught me some coping skills. On the bright side, I know that my experience has helped me with my daughter, who also has ‘big emotions’ as I started calling them when she was 3.
    We own and frequently read many books about emotions- especially anger. I too think my dd’s anger comes from a place of perfectionism. We have one guided imagery/breathing cd that is specifically made for kids; unfortunately for me she doesn’t enjoy it that much! lol. However, I’ve taught both of my kids many of the same techniques that I use to calm myself (and they are similar to what she’d hear if she wanted to listen to the cd).
    A book that absolutely helped me through some of the worst of my dd’s tantrums is The Explosive Child by Ross Greene. Her tantrums had already been at their peak when I read it, but as I read I received so much affirmation in the way that I’d handled them.
    It sounds like you have a great plan, and that you and Eric have a great support in the therapist. Hang in there!

  • Judy

    Dear Therese, Thank you for your insight,and information concerning coping, in “6 TIPS FOR CAREGIVERS”. I am a CAREGIVER, by profession. It is not an easy job, but I love it.

  • Anonymous

    I love the way you wrote a book together about the purple chin! My kids are in double digits now, but my daughter was high anxiety and had tantrums too. I was very alarmed as she screamed that she wished she was never born and would disappear. I spoke to her pediatrician and he told me that my hovering was feeding the tantrums. He suggested I back off and stay away but alert. I did, and the tantrums died out after becoming shorter and shorter. I also had great success with the charts and giving checkmarks for good behaviors.

  • Peg

    Therese, as usual, you explain yourself very well and even though today’s thoughts are about your David, I always learn something for me, too.
    By the way, someone, somewhere said when their child had a temper tantrum of sorts, he (the father) acted out in the same way and the child immediately stopped, but I can’t remember what happened after that, whether it was a long term solution, or not.

  • Paul Pfaff

    Some things that work well for our daughter, now 8. Take ’em or leave ’em, as you wish.
    Consistency in schedule, especially between dinner and bedtime. Dinner – help clean up – reading time and TV – shower – bathroom – get ready for bed – prayer – tuck in – sleep. Having the same routine every night gave her a sense of familiarity with us and our home that translated well to other areas of her life.
    Water. Showers, or swimming, every day, more often as needed. Can’t remember where I first saw this, but have found with our girl and comparing notes with other parents that water has a tremendous calming influence for lots of kids. Not suprising, since it is God’s preferred symbol for healing. Even a good hand washing can help calm her now.
    Decrease parental attention during tantrums, never increase attention for tatntrums. I know, you already know that, but its easy to fall into the trap. That upon which we focus increases … especially true for children.
    Lots of positive strokes – every day, especially the bad ones.
    Good luck …

  • Gen

    Hi Therese. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the books by Elaine N. Aron – “The Highly Sensitive Person” and “The Highly Sensitive Child”. The former has helped me understand myself better and not feel so bad about my sensitivity and anxiety. I don’t have any kids yet but I imagine I might be needing the latter book when I do! Good luck.

  • Deb

    My child (now 10) has always been very over sensitive to things like fireworks, changes in routine, fire drills, thunder, etc. He was diagnosed with Sensory Integration Disorder, which at first I thought was a little silly. After a year of working with an occupational therapist there is a HUGE change in his anxiety level. It is not something that is treated with medication but rather physical/occupational therapy to retrain the communication between the brain and “the senses”. I don’t know enough about your child to know if it is the same thing that you are struggling with, but it might be worth looking into :)
    I can totally relate to the different parenting approaches – we are in the same boat. Not so bad with the 10 year old, but the 15 year old daughter runs with it and it is causing a lot of problems!

  • rebeccat

    late to the conversation, but with my 9 year old, we found that learning to laugh at himself was key. He went through a transition period where he would start throwing a fit, catch himself, and then turn it into a forced laugh as if he were just kidding about throwing the fit to begin with. I think he would just get caught up in the fit so quickly that by the time he realized it was happening, he was completely out of control. As he became more adept at realizing what was happening as it was happening, he was able to catch himself.
    I would also recommend cutting red and purple food coloring out of his diet. My oldest son was very sensitive to it and it caused serious behavior problems until he out grew it. It’s such a simple thing to do that I figure it’s always worth a try. I know that for my son it was the difference between being a fairly high strung, active kid and being an out-of-control monster.

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