While I am grateful for the seemingly never-ending supply of clients to my private practice, the acuity and volume of need during the pandemic has me wondering about inventive, accessible and equitable ways to meet the demand. I have tried classes, I have designed webinars, and I've begun to offer one-time consultations to parents. This blog intends to provide some tools for concerned parents with 3 key points: 1) how to assess your child's mental health, 2) how to respond to their anxiety, and 3) how to find support for your child.
Assessment: Given the amount of change we've all been living through, it is only natural that our kids are feeling more anxious and insecure. While all kids demonstrate resiliency, not all kids are the same. If your child is struggling to meet age-appropriate expectations in academia, with peers, or in basic functioning (nutrition, sleep, hygiene), then professional support may be warranted. Another way of determining whether or not to make the call would be to consider whether or not a child's behavioral or emotional challenges are siloed (ie just at home or just in relationship to a parent) or global (school, home, bus, you name it). If it's the latter, a professional can help you identify the problem(s) and treatment.
How to Respond: Your child can barely tolerate the slightest change in plans. They lose their minds when the bus arrives 5 minutes late. They refuse to sleep alone because of their fave pajamas are in the wash.
What do you do?
First, close your eyes and take a breath. Ground yourself by feeling your feet on the floor. The more calm you feel, the more you'll be able to deliver your parenting without judgment or strain. Then, from a place of calm, reflect back to your child what you're seeing and hearing:
Situation A (the bus is late), you might say "It's hard to wait. You want to get to school on time."
Situation B (their pajamas are in the wash), you might say "You love those pajamas. They are your favorite."
The point of the reflection is to join with their feelings before moving onto problem-solving. This is experienced by your child as validation. In other words, it tells your child that they are seen and understood. You'll know you achieved it when you get the head nod or when you see a sigh/exhale. Or maybe when they start crying.
The point is this, once they know their feelings are understood, then they can be nudged towards taking care of those feelings. The grounding technique you used for yourself can be useful for them too. My favorite, counting down from 5, works like this: ask your child to name 5 things that they can see right now in the present moment, then 4 things they can hear, 3 things they can touch, 2 things they can smell and 1 thing they can taste. The goal is to utilize their five senses to ground them in the present moment and effectively shift their focus away from the stressor.
Finding Support: Okay, so you and your kid got through that challenging moment but these kinds of moments are happening at a frequency, intensity or duration that currently interferes with the rest of their (and your) lives. And while helpful, they need more than this strategy to ensure their emotional well-being.
If you haven't already consulted with their pediatrician, it's a good call to make. Some pediatric offices have behavioral health support as part of their team of providers or, even more likely, they will have a list of providers to whom they refer their patients. If you have the flexibility, be prepared to consider pulling your child out of school in order to meet with a therapist. Initial flexibility may yield more immediate support for your child and gets your child onto a clinician's caseload, meaning when a more preferred appointment time becomes available, you may have first dibs. Additionally, talk to your school about the availability of support in the form of social groups and/or 1:1 with school advisors or psychologists, as well as to ensure your child's teacher(s) is aware of the concerns you have about your child emotionally or behaviorally.
Being a parent is the hardest job on earth, as far as I'm concerned. I think the adage "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link," applies to parenting, i.e. as a parent, you're only as healthy as your most struggling child. With that in mind, when our children suffer, we have to double down on our own self-care. Seeking support for yourself, whether that be your family/friend network, faith community, or a therapist, can be the difference between existing and evolving through these challenges. Educating yourself through groups, books, or podcasts also reduces feelings of isolation and self-criticism. Don't forget to put on your own oxygen mask first. Your child's well-being relies on your own; therefore, knowing how to get the support that you and your kid need is an invaluable part of helping your anxious child.