Are you a mom who is struggling with getting your child out the door in the morning? Does your child protest when its time to transition from one activity to another? Or maybe your child has a meltdown at school when its time to leave you and they beg you to stay and walk with them in to the classroom each morning.
Each child is different but in my 20+ years of working with kids and families, I have learned to identify what might be going on underneath the challenging behavior.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU HAVE A SENSITIVE/ANXIOUS CHILD?
- Your child has a hard time going to sleep at night
- Refuses to sleep in his/her own room or bed
- Asks a lot of “what if” questions
- Tends to ruminate or get stuck on certain thoughts
- Struggles with transitions
- Throws a tantrum when an activity has to end
- Refuses to put on shoes, cooperate to leave
- Needs you to stand in line with them at school
- Becomes angry / tantrums over small changes
- Struggles with taking turns
- Sensitive to foods / picky eater
- Expresses distress when you leave
- Perfectionist/has to erase and re-do a lot of work
- Procrastinates to get work done
- Avoids things that he/she does not like
- Easily overwhelmed with noise, big classrooms
- Worries about making mistakes, others being upset with him/her
If you recognize some of the above behaviors then read on for a few tips to help your child!
Kids who are more sensitive or anxious often show us through their behavior that they do not like change. The beginning and end of the school year, after winter and spring breaks, and other changes in the school year can upset children who are more sensitive and anxious.
They often struggle with flexibility and thrive on routine and predictability. So how do you help your child be more flexible and adapt to change?
1: BE CURIOUS
Try to identify what the fear is for your child and what may be triggering them. For instance, if your child is afraid to stand in line at school without you, then ask him/her what is worrying them. Are they nervous that other kids might say something to them that they don’t like? Are they shy? Are they overwhelmed with being close to others and don’t like to line up? Are they sad about you leaving you and missing you for the day?
Your child is telling you through their behavior that they don’t like to be separated from you. As a mom, you may also struggle with being away from your child during the day. It is important to tell your child that they are safe at school with their teacher, that they are loved and you will be reunited again soon. They may need more reassurance at the beginning of the year with the transition but instill confidence in them that they will enjoy school and you will think about them.
If your child is younger, read “The Invisible String” or “The Kissing Hand” with your child and remind them that you will always pick them up or be home with them in the evening.
2: DON’T AVOID THE TRIGGER OR FEAR
Kids will do everything in their power to avoid having the “yucky” feeling when they are nervous, anxious or sensitive. As parents (and moms especially) it is easy to help Your child avoid certain situations, make excuses for Your child or allow them to call the shots. However, avoidance only makes the situation worse and kids don’t learn that they can actually push through the situation that is triggering them.
If we allow kids to keep avoiding what causes them to be anxious, then eventually they have larger things to be afraid of, places they won’t go, foods they won’t eat. As a mom, it is easy to accommodate your child because you don’t want them to experience distress, however, it is important to identify your own thoughts and feelings around this as your child’s behavior may be triggering some anxiety and fear in you as well.
3: TEACH YOUR CHILD “SMART TALK”
One of the things I do with kids in a play therapy session is to identify what thoughts they are having when they are nervous in certain situations. Then we talk about how those thoughts affect their feelings and how those feelings affect their behaviors.
Work with your child to identify what anxious/nervous thoughts they are having. This may be related to school, friends, sports or difficult transitions. Is your child thinking of the worst-case scenario? Does your child think other kids are thinking negative things about them? When you identify what thoughts they are having, help them to identify how that makes them feel. You may have to help with this process but it is very valuable to help your child start to recognize that their thoughts may be making them feel anxious, upset or nervous about a situation.
Present a different possible outcome and help them to use “smart talk” to look at what positives may come from the situation.
4: DONT GIVE IN TO YOUR CHILDS ANXIOUS DEMANDS
Johnny is afraid to go into the classroom alone and wants mom to stay with him until he is feeling calm. He controls where mom stands, tells her to hold his hand, walk him to his desk, look through the window and wave three times, etc. It is very easy to give in to these demands to help your child settle, but it usually ends up making the situation worse.
Work on a regular goodbye routine that is short and sweet. Practice this at home and remind him that you will be back. Sometimes this is helpful to practice with a favorite stuffed animal or toy to help your child have control over the practice.
5: GIVE YOURSELF GRACE
Parenting a sensitive child or a child with fears/anxiety can be very challenging. As a parent, you may recognize some of the same things you struggle with or struggled with as a kid. You want to help your child and not see them suffer, but it is also important to hold boundaries with your child and help them to manage their feelings. Don’t be hard on yourself if you feel like maybe you “caused” this or maybe you did something to contribute to your child’s anxiety.
Most of the time there is a genetic factor, however, temperament and personality are big players in how a child develops. If you recognize that your own anxiety is a contributing factor, then I recommend seeking help to help you manage your own anxiety that in turn will help your child. Call me today to talk about how I can help with the challenges of parenting a sensitive and/or anxious child. I promise you will feel better as we work together on strategies to help you and your child feel better.
Malaika Clelland, LCSW, RPT-S