Kids’ anxiety: Back off, helicopters, bulldozers!
Anxiety, worries, fear of failure, looking stupid, judgment in the eyes of the world — or the class, the school, the kids on the bus. It’s not easy being a kid in a worrisome world, or the parent of a worried kid.
“Worry is a habit,” said Dr. Paul Foxman. “And the proof it’s a habit is that if the thing you’re worried about gets solved, you worry about something else.”
And worrying too much isn’t good.
“It takes a lot of energy, right?” Foxman said. “It’s soul-sucking, and that’s too bad.”
Foxman, director of the Vermont Center for Anxiety Care in Burlington, Vt., addressed close to 100 parents on Dec. 5, at the Ridgefield Library.
“Our youth are feeling very anxious and very stressed,” said Dr. Carol Mahlstedt of Ridgefield’s Project Resilience, introducing Dr. Foxman.
Earlier in the day, she said, he’d led a training session on kids’ anxiety problems for 18 to 20 Ridgefield Public Schools staff members.
The program, called “Dancing with Fear: Helping Young People Create a Life Beyond Worry and Anxiety” is part of the parent workshop series “Parenting the Selfie Generation: Resilience for Life.”
Fear, anxiety, stress — the words are often used interchangeably, Dr. Foxman said, but they’re are differences.
The human body has a hard-wired response to danger that includes the release of over 100 different hormones — the famous “fight or flight” fear response that has helped keep people alive since the days of sabertooth tigers.
“Anxiety,” Dr. Foxman said, “is the fear response when there is not actual threat."
But the world today is filled with “virtual threats” that can trigger anxiety, even if there’s no fighting to be done, nothing to flee from.
There are three ingredients, Dr. Foxman said, that when combined contributed to an anxiety reaction: Biological sensitivity, personality style, and stress overload.
The “biologically sensitive” — also known as “high reactors” — account for about 20% of the population.
Dr. Foxman spoke of a daughter — his own — who couldn’t tolerate the seams in the toes of socks, or pajamas treated with fire-retardant chemicals, as required by U.S. law.
“She wouldn’t wear them,” he said. So he and his wife, living in Vermont, went shopping in Canada.
“We had to leave the country to buy pajamas,” he said.
“She was also a picky eater,” he added.
“If you have one of these,” Dr. Foxman told parents, “they can grow out of it.”
He recommended a book “The Highly Sensitive Child” by Elaine Aron.
Dr. Foxman said there are three relatively simple sensible steps that can help anxiety-prone kids avoid problems: Getting enough sleep (nine to 10 hours a night for kids); diet and nutrition; exercise and movement.
“Just those three things can go a long way in reducing anxiety in biologically sensitive people,” he said.
Concerning sleep, he said that a recent survey found that most teens rarely get more than six hours of sleep, weeknights, as opposed to the nine or 10 hours they need.
“Five days a week, that’s a 15-hour sleep deficit,” he said.
On diet and nutrition, he said sensitive people do better with a different eating style.
“Eat more often, smaller amounts of food,” he said. “Four or five times a day — keep your blood sugar level constant.”
Also, avoid coffee and the various caffeine-based alertness products.
Exercise can be dance, sports, swimming, running, taking walks.
The anxious personality has certain traits, and they’re not all bad.
These kids tend to responsible, perfectionist, they like to please, they avoid conflict, they have low assertiveness, they like structure, they have difficulty relaxing.
They “tend to take things personally” and are “easily exploited” by others.
“They’re more likely to be the victim of bullying than to perpetrate bullying,” Foxman said.
The good news is kids with these traits are often “hard-working, high achieving students” who are “thoughtful and reflective,” Dr. Foxman said. “Teachers like them.” They often grow to become psychologists, teachers, counselors, nurses — they go into the “helping professions.”
A factor in anxiety problems is “stress overload,” although the cause isn’t always obvious.
“Stress is often delayed and hits us after,” he said.
“You might just be on the school bus and you have this wave of anxiety.”
Sometimes, the stress gets associated with the place it occurs — and they end up going together, even though the place wasn’t initially the cause of the stress.
It’s worth identifying the cause and trying to deal with it.
“If we can manage stress, we can control anxiety,” Dr. Foxman said.
But it isn’t a problem that’s likely to be “solved” for good.
“I think about stress the way the AA community thinks about alcoholism,” Dr. Foxman said. “It can relapse.”
There can be a variety of clues that a child has an anxiety issue or problem, including: school avoidance; academic decline; frequent worrying or indecisiveness; frequent “somatic complaints,” such a headaches or tummy aches; sleep problems; separation issues; behavior problems; depression, self harm, food issues, drug use.
“A lot of young people self-medicate their anxiety with drugs and alcohol,” Dr. Foxman said.
What can parents of anxious kids do?
“One of the best things you can do for your children is manage your own stress and anxiety,” Dr. Foxman told the parents.
He enumerated a variety of unhelpful parenting styles: “helicopters, bulldozers, snow-plows and the disengaged, self-absorbed.”
“Helicopters, bulldozers and snow-plows are all variations of overprotective parenting,” Foxman later explained. “These are colloquial terms used to describe parents who, out of love, do too much for their children, thus depriving them of having the experiences from which they learn coping skills and resilience.”
So, parents often try too hard guide their kids, smooth the way for them, rather than allowing them make mistakes and grow from the experience.
“If you protect them too much, they won’t learn,” Foxman told the roomful of parents.
Separation anxiety is something kids tend to get over about age 6. But not all do.
“Some kids come to school, older than 6, still having separation anxiety issues,” Dr. Foxman said.
“Kids with separation anxiety are often the children of parents who have difficulty letting go,” he added. “It’s a variety of separation anxiety in parents.”
There’s a whole list of “anxiety disorders” that the medical and psychiatric professions recognize: separation anxiety, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, trauma and stress related disorders, anxiety due to a medical condition.
But all these things run as a continuum, from just a personality trait to a diagnosable disorder.
“There are a lot of children who are shy or socially inhibited — that’s not a diagnosis,” he said.
When should parents call in professional help?
There are after all, situations in life that are legitimately things to worry about.
Dr. Foxman said if worries or anxiety seem “excessive or unreasonable” and go on that way for six months or more, a professional consultation should be considered. Of course, if there are self-harm issues, or a concern about suicide, six months of waiting and watching may not be appropriate.
There are also things parents can try to do to reduce a child’s stress.
Dr. Foxman offered a list of of “stress solutions” that can help reduce children’s anxiety: “Healthy lifestyle” (sleep, diet, exercise); realistic time management; “green recreation” (getting outdoors in the wide world); having “structure and rhythms” to family life (like dinner together every night); limits on media use (screens off an hour before bedtime); talking with someone about anxieties; and “flow” recreation.
Flow happens when someone is engaged in something to the point where they lose themselves in it, lose track of time. This can happen playing sports, making music, dancing. It occurs when there’s an “optimum match between skill level and challenge” — like playing a sport against an opponent who’s an even match, as opposed to someone easily defeated.
“Video games can be a flow activity,” Dr. Foxman said.
A study of 5,000 boys and girls found kids who play an hour of video games a day scored better on social and emotional health than did kids who played no games at all — but “kids who played three or more hours of video games a day scored worse” than the non-players.
It’s a question of degree and moderation.
“You can become addicted to anything,” Dr. Foxman said.
“Anybody have a perfectionist child?” Dr. Foxman asked. “...We have a lot of anxious perfectionists.”
With these kids, he likes to find something they’re already good at — a sport, a musical instrument, whatever — and have them remember their experiences as a beginner.
“I say, ‘Do you remember how you learned?’ What we do with perfectionists is help them understand that mistakes are part of learning.”
Another lesson is setting reasonable goals, he said.
An approach he sometimes uses with kids who over-worry is “auditioning.” He tells them to pretend they’re trying out for a play, seeking the part of a carefree person. “Play-acting the part of someone who doesn’t worry,” Dr. Foxman said.
Playing the part, they can learn to live it more.
Among the program’s goals — and, hopefully, parents’ goals — is be to develop “resilience” in children.
“The ability to bounce back from frustration and keep going in the face of adversity, the ability to handle life’s curveballs,” Dr. Foxman said.
Kids learn this by getting through problems.
“You have to allow them to experience frustration,” he said.
Allowing kids to control their own lives more, to fail and grow, can be hard. But it’s important.
“The role of parents changes,” Dr. Foxman said. “At some point, you become a consultant. You can no longer wear the T-shirt: ‘Because I’m the mommy, that’s why.’”