Sunday, February 25, 2018

Child Anxiety: Young Children & Anxious Behaviors

Hair pulling, nail biting, skin picking, lip biting, thumb sucking, knuckle cracking...Child Anxiety.

These are actually fairly common behaviors in young children. They typically serve as a means of managing some sort of anxious feelings and can range from occasional occurrences to daily habits. When they are frequent and cause noticeable problems (e.g., loss of hair, chapped skin, raw nails, etc.), it becomes worrisome for parents.

When you notice your young child pulling out their hair repeatedly over time, notice bald patches on your child’s head or body, see their finger nails or skin red and raw, it can stir up a lot of intense feelings. You may feel confused, panicked, ashamed or guilty. You may wonder, “What is wrong with my child?” or blame yourself, thinking, “What am I doing wrong?”

Children who are aware of their behaviors sometimes feel embarrassed or ashamed. Many parents experience a sense of shame and anxiety themselves when they take their child to social activities like a family fathering, playground or daycare. You are not alone.

If you have a young child with any of these anxious type behaviors, here are few ideas to keep in mind:

1. Take a deep breath, step back and find meaning.

While these behaviors feel alarming when they become more intense and frequent, they represent something for your child. It is important to stop and ask yourself, “What might this mean?” or, “What purpose does this serve?” Often, these kinds of anxious behaviors are a symptom of something else – not feeling in control of something, feeling insecure, scared, worried or overwhelmed, etc. and they are how a child tries to manage their feelings.

2. It is not your fault. 

A common feeling that you may experience when you witness your child’s anxious behaviors is a deep sense of guilt and responsibility. However, the underlying causes of these behaviors are much more complex. They can be a combination of a child’s physiology, their temperament, their environment and countless other factors.

It is important to reassure yourself and find support through family and friends so that you lower any sense of stigma or shame you may experience as a result of your child’s behaviors.

Remember, your child may use these anxious behaviors to self-soothe or to handle difficult feelings that would otherwise overwhelm them inside. Their behavior serves a purpose and it is important to patiently work with these behaviors over time. Reducing any lingering feelings of shame will help you as the parent stay calm and grounded when working with your child. Reconciling these feelings that get stirred up within you rather than beating yourself up allows you to take the pressure off both yourself and your child. It is important not to rush into a "fix it as fast as I can" kind of mentality.

3. Put your child before their behavior.

As Toni Morrison (author and teacher) once asked parents, “When your child walks into the room, do your eyes light up?” She spoke to how she realized that sometimes her first reaction to her child was a critical one—looking at their untied shoe, etc. How easily a young child can see their critical parent’s face and think the parent is critical of them!

Similarly, if you are wrestling with your child’s anxious behaviors, it is essential to continue to nurture your relationship with your young child, first and foremost, above all else. Even if the behavior stirs up difficult feelings internally for you as a parent, it is important to make sure that the behavior does not monopolize your attention and distract you from seeing your child as an individual.

Stay away from playing the blame game and turning into the behavior police. Young children are sensitively attuned to their parents’ reactions to their behaviors. If possible, when you notice your child engaged in these behaviors, ground yourself in the present moment with your child and gently redirect them toward another activity. This could mean gently taking your child’s hand and kissing it or redirecting your child to a favorite game you both enjoy playing together.

4. Cultivate patience.

Many parents bring their child in for treatment and expect a quick fix to their child’s anxious behaviors. However, treatment often takes time. These behaviors did not develop overnight and the child needs to work through the feelings that are bringing them on and learn new, healthier coping skills.

We can work close together to talk through strategies and skills that you can implement at home with your child. At the same time, your child may be working with us to continue to develop their sense of identity and sense of self as they work on developing different habits.

The course and length of treatment varies for each family, but often is a gradual process. Developing a process oriented mindset and settling in for the journey allows you to support your child with patience rather than rushing results.

Before a seedling can sprout out of the ground, it must take time for its roots to gain their bearings underneath the soil. Similarly, while you may not see significant changes in your child’s behavior right away from therapy treatment, keeping the above principles in mind will set your family up for a smoother trajectory toward nurturing your child’s development and growth while treating their anxious behaviors. 

- Minnie Tao, LPC