Raising parents

Dear parents of Little panickers,

I am your kid, all grown up, and I’d like to tell you a few things you may not know about the child you raised from scratch.

Your child is not acting out “to be difficult” or “for no reason.” If your child is coming to you, complaining they can’t sleep when they haven’t even tried, there is something going on, they just don’t have the words to say. You need to help them. If your child is having tantrums that you can’t explain, that are getting worse, the tantrum is the frustration they feel being unable to express themselves and what they need. Your anxious kids have extraordinary feelings. They register the world with their bodies first and foremost. Those registers don’t always break down into words, which means they cannot express themselves to you the way you are accustomed. You must learn the language your child speaks before trying to teach her your language, which is the language the world will demand of her.

Ordinary children experience the world with their minds AND their bodies. When they are worried, they can reach into their arsenal of reason and logic. They don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, or the next day, and they’re just fine with that. Things are vague and abstract? Not a worry. But anxious kids are not fine with that. They need things to be concrete; they need to know what’s going to happen. This is what anxiety is—the dread of uncertainty. The dread of discomfort. The fear of feeling fear. Of course, no one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow or the tomorrow after that but teaching your child how to break down abstract concepts like time, is a good place to start.

My sister Kara did something with her kids that was a game-changer for me. Every night at bedtime, she walked her kids through the day they’d just had. Then, she walked them through the day they’d have tomorrow. She told them what to expect so that they knew what was coming. She created a SENSE of certainty. This blew my mind. It was the most simple technique, but it was life-altering for me. Now, before I go to bed, I run through the next day so I don’t feel paralyzed when I wake up.

When your anxious kids have questions, answer them. When they ask questions that are hard for you, remember they are ten trillion Pi times harder for your kids. When they ask, “What do I do if you don’t show up?” Don’t say, “I’ll show up;” or “That’s not going to happen.” The question isn’t whether or not it will happen, the question is what should they do? This is the heart of anxiety. We don’t know what to do in the face of uncertainty, and being able to have a plan, or talking it through, alleviates anxiety, and soothes. If you take that away from kids, they will never learn how to self-soothe. They will never learn how to manage difficult situations in the world. So, answer them. What should they do if you don’t show up? Who will they live with if you die? Tell them. You can lead-in with “While it’s very unlikely anything will happen to me, I understand you’re really worried about this, so let’s make a plan together because I am hearing you tell me that will help you feel less anxious.” Knowing what will happen creates a sense of certainty, and they not only need this from you, they need you to teach them how to do it for themselves. Answering their actual questions does both.

Me, at around 5 or 6, and already a pro-panicker.

Anxious people are constantly pushing back against reality. The cause of suffering is the inability to accep things as they are. When you tell your child not to worry when they are already worried, when you tell your child that you won’t die when they want to know what will happen to them when you do die, you are not only gaslighting them, you are training them to deny reality, which keeps them trapped inside the anxiety they need you to help them manage.

So, parents of anxious children, try to remember that your child knows things you don’t, like how it feels to be chronically afraid for their lives. You have a lot to learn from them, and you have a lot to teach them, but you can’t teach them what you don’t know. There are plenty of incredible books out there for parents of children. Here are just a few to get you started: Dawn Huebner,Tamar Chansky, Robert Leahy.

Finally, instead of beating yourself up for not knowing what to do, learn what to do, and then tell your child that you’re sorry. You’re sorry for not knowing sooner. Tell them that you made mistakes because you didn’t know what to do and apologize for your mistakes. Then, ask your kid, if they’d like to go on a worry adventure with you, and learn all about the extraordinary depths of feeling your child possesses, together.

Next week will be part 2: Dear Little Panickers.


2 responses

  1. David K Schlank Avatar
    David K Schlank

    Ooof. Hard to be the 45 year old guy tearing up at the bar… but here we are. This whips me back to childhood and the world of uncertainty I was constantly drowning in. It also reminds me that in some ways I’m still that child – though one who is about to be a father for the first time – and one who will definitely use what I’ve learned in this piece. Thank you.

    1. Amanda Stern Avatar
      Amanda Stern

      I think a bar is the perfect place to tear up. I also believe that those of us who suffered from emotional disorders as children, and were untreated, remain those untreated children. We have to raise them ourselves, right alongside our adult selves we’re raising. Based on all you’ve said here, I have no doubt you’re going to be a wonderful, empathic father.

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