In my last post, I discussed some important techniques that we can use at home to help our kids find more success in school. In this post, I’ll discuss three more important principles for helping our kids who show symptoms of anxiety or excessive worry about either school or life in general. As with all parts of parenting, nothing is certain, and you know best what will work for your family. Some mental health problems will require professional help, and some kids may reject everything that you do. Most of us, however, can dramatically increase the odds of success for our kids if we keep the following principles in mind.
Get out of the way
Maybe the most important principle of all that I have discussed is for us to contain our own anxiety. In recent decades, we have seen cases of childhood anxiety skyrocket. There are many different things causing that increase in anxiety symptoms, but many experts point to a rise in protective parenting. By bubble-wrapping our kids, we deprive them of important learning opportunities and turn common fears into severe anxiety.
• Let our kids practice problem-solving — Letting our kids handle their own problems allows them to develop their emotional skills in handling uncertainty and developing autonomy. If we constantly step into the controversy, we don’t teach them how to develop those skills.
I constantly see this trait when training young adults about child protection policies. Often, when I pose a question to a group about how to handle bullying, a young person answers, “Tell a responsible adult.” I always respond, “Ah, yes. But now you are the responsible adult. So, what do you do?” Invariably, I get stammers and frozen stares. No one has ever taught them how to be the adult in that situation. If all we teach our kids is how to find a responsible adult to handle their problems for them, then they will spend the rest of their lives looking for someone to do just that.
• Don’t teach them to be anxious — Ironically, sometimes our efforts to help ease a child's anxiety just teaches them that they can’t handle life on their own. Protecting them simply creates more anxious children. I ran across this blog post by a therapist who made the excellent point that “anxious adults convey to their children that the world is a dangerous place and children believe them.”
We can easily see this phenomenon in many kids who have learned the wrong lesson from child protection training. Rather than understanding that they have rights to control their bodies, they learn to be afraid of strangers. I had one foster daughter once whose mother had talked to her many times about how to respond if some stranger tried to kidnap her. Now, no stranger ever had tried to kidnap this child (indeed, the odds are less than being struck by lightning), but she was terrified of talking to any adult she didn’t know. Being able to talk to strangers is an important life skill that she simply had never learned.
Of course, there are problems that are beyond our kids’ ability to handle. Conflict between friends, which our kids need to learn to handle, may turn into vicious bullying that requires adult intervention. Such things as a dispute with a teacher may require us to get involved. Before we jump to our kids’ defense, however, we should at least ask ourselves what message we are sending and whether our kids really need us. We don’t really need to step in as often as we think we do. Many times, the most important thing we can do is stay out of our kids’ way.
Keep Strong Structure
Saying that we should get out of our kids' way is not a plug for permissive parenting. Children need strong structure and predictable routines. There is a lot of mental health research showing that nurturing structure can lower the risk of anxiety. Children who have suffered traumatic experiences particularly need firm structure and predictable consequences. Of course, they won't like the structure, but they need it. Consistent structure is the most effective way, or at least the best foundation, for helping a child feel that the world is not dangerous and can be navigated safely.
Limit social media & video games
By now, we have a lot of evidence about the disadvantages of social media and the bad effect they can have on kids. To the extent that we can control our kids’ exposure to it, we should do just that.
• Social media present false pictures - Our children simply don’t have the life experience and emotional resources to understand that social media are like movies in that what you see on the screen is almost never real life. Like actors, people who share on social media tend to show only their best side and their greatest accomplishments. If we believe that it’s real, then inevitably we will feel that we aren’t measuring up. It's a small step from there to low self-esteem.
• Watch for cyberbullying - Then there is the disastrous association between social media and bullying. Kids no longer have to be face-to-face in order to bully someone; they simply have to announce their opinions on social media. “Likes” and “upvotes” make it painless for other kids to pile on. The entire process can be devastating for our kids and give them more than enough reasons to hate school. The first step that most experts advise for dealing with cyberbullying is simply to unplug. Opinions that you don’t hear can’t hurt you. And if your kids have limited time on social media to begin with, then there are fewer opportunities for bullies to target them.
• Pick your battles - Of course, limits are easier to talk about than to enforce, particularly with older kids and teens. Moreover, sometimes this is a battle that will hurt more if you win it. When I fostered older children and teens, for example, limiting their cell phone time was tantamount to severing their connections with their family and friends. Taking away what they saw as their lifeline would have fatally poisoned the relationship from the beginning and set up a power struggle that simply wasn’t worth the effort of winning. I had to be content with persuasion and trying to keep them occupied with other activities. Similarly, with stepchildren, you may have to live with more lenient rules that your spouse sets for his or her biological children. Social media and video games simply are not as important as the health of your relationships.
• Use electronics as a reward - To the extent that you can control electronics usage, make video games and social media a reward rather than a default mode. Do what you can to make it part, rather than the enemy, of a healthy lifestyle. Encourage regular exercise (which also helps with anxiety and depression), and don't let them use it as an excuse for avoiding the rest of the family members. Many kids can find a positive community in online games, and even young children can learn useful skills such as eye-hand coordination and social manners. Just make sure that your kids are learning IRL (in real life) skills at the same time.
Keep in touch with what’s happening
Finally, ask whatever questions your kids will let you ask them. None of us deals well with prying questions, but we are less resistant to inquiries from people that we know care about us. Have whatever conversations you can with your kids, and use the opportunities you have to learn about how things are going for them in school and the rest of their lives.
• Know when to ask questions - If you see signs of anxiety in your child, such as trouble sleeping or avoiding social interactions, start asking questions. Again, it's not a good idea to pry, but you can give your kids an opportunity to tell you what's going on. It may be something as simple and common as the stress of new social situations and doing new things, or it may be a situation that is a big deal. Either way, pay attention to your child's behavior to see if you need to create an opportunity to talk.
• Don’t predict trouble - Sometimes, with all the best intentions, we set our kids up to expect trouble. For example, don’t ask, “Did you have any problems today?” Simply ask, “How was your day?” Use open-ended questions and let them bring up whatever problems they had, if they had any.
• Keep it casual - Keep your questions casual, no matter how badly you want to know the facts. Find a non-threatening atmosphere, maybe in the middle of normal family projects such as setting the table for dinner, to chat about everyone’s day. I used to get most of my information from my teens while we were driving from one place to another. Something about not having to look me in the eye kept the atmosphere casual and safe enough for them to tell me many things about their lives.
• Listen seriously - Even while you are keeping the atmosphere casual, listen seriously to their story. Kids tend to disclose bad things a little bit at a time, and they often start with hints. Don’t hesitate to ask them to clarify something, such as asking, “What do you mean that it was weird?” You may (or may not) hear a deeper version of the story when you take the details seriously.
• Know that the first story you hear may not be the whole story - Finally, know that you probably won’t get all the details the first time your kid tells you about something. Children and teens tend to tell about things, particularly traumatic events, in bits and pieces. They will tell a bit of the story and then, if the world doesn’t fall in, they will tell a bit more. If their world does fall in, then they will back up and try to retract whatever statement caused the controversy. These tendencies sometimes make them look like they are lying, but it’s simply the way that kids, particularly kids who have suffered trauma, talk about things. Be patient, ask more questions, and don’t be surprised if they tell more of their story as they feel safer and more comfortable with you.
These principles are important and can be helpful for any parenting style. We can't solve all of our children's problems, and actually our efforts to do that can make life worse for them. But if we get out of the way, keep boundaries strong for them, encourage responsible social media use, and give them every opportunity to talk to us, in the long run, we can increase their odds of success.