A friend of mine recently said something that really stuck with me. He said: “Pain is a fact. Suffering is a choice.”
Seeing a child who is in pain is any parent’s worst nightmare. Knowing how to ease suffering can have long-lasting effects on both your relationship and your child’s trajectory. So, how can you detect anxiety-related suffering in your child, and what can you do to help?
The following advice is not from a licensed practitioner; It’s from a former anxious child.
Step 1: Take a moment to understand what’s really happening.
The first step is to figure out whether or not your child is experiencing a developmentally appropriate reaction. For example, separation anxiety is common in children as they first attend school, so it’s best to monitor its intensity as the school year progresses. Many professionals also say that shyness at a young age can decrease over time. It is understandably difficult to distinguish a possible disorder versus a typical life experience – especially in young children – so remaining attentive is the best way to go.
Step 2: Do my child’s symptoms interfere with daily activities?
This is an important question to ask when you consider your child’s symptoms. Here are some of my own childhood feelings and behaviors that went beyond ‘typical’ anxiety and signaled a possible disorder:
- Often complaining of nausea or a general ‘unwell’ feeling
- Biting nails and/or cuticles
- Not wanting to go to school, birthday parties, field trips, or family outings – not because I didn’t enjoy learning or laughing with others, but because of fear and mental/physical discomfort
Step 3: Communicate, communicate, communicate.
One way to move forward as your child’s ally is to encourage him or her to try and explain what they’re feeling – particularly at a point when these feelings are at their strongest. Young children do not think abstractly, so it’s helpful to focus on the more concrete aspects of their discomfort.
Instead of asking what’s wrong, ask your child what their body feels like and what thoughts they’re having. Bringing these sensations and ideas to the surface can allow your child to communicate more effectively, and to recognize these repeated feelings/thoughts in the future. Treating these symptoms as a predictable part of their daily experience can guide your future conversations and, even more importantly, can help your child to reflect on their progress. (Even if they’ve successfully gotten through a particular situation before, their anxiety may say that it’ll be different this time or something will go wrong. You can challenge this thinking by reminding them of past successes.)
Instead of asking why he or she doesn’t want to attend an event, ask what they think might happen if they do attend the event. This can help your child to overcome the confusion of wanting to experience the joy of an event but feeling uncomfortable about actually being there.
Give them time to think, and thank them for their effort and openness. Your willingness to listen with patience and understanding is an enormous help in itself.
Step 4: Seek balance.
Far beyond childhood, we often make our greatest gains when we wade through our feelings, rather trying to forget them or push them away. Encourage your child to function while they experience discomfort. This is tricky for parents who are trying to strike a balance between enabling their child to retreat and running the risk of pushing them too hard. Going back to the event example, motivating your child to attend while assuring them that they can call you if it becomes too overwhelming is a great strategy. Plus, anxiety often shows up as a result of anticipation before an event, so moving through this initial discomfort – with a strong backup plan later on – is an excellent way to strike the balance you seek.
Step 5: Ask a doctor.
This sounds counterintuitive, but seeking a doctor’s advice and gaining a possible diagnosis can actually be quite empowering. It does not have to take over your child’s life – in fact, it can provide a healthy amount of distance between your child and their anxiety. They can begin to recognize pain versus suffering, facts versus thoughts, and perception versus reality – once they know that there is a concrete (and quite common) source of their symptoms.
If you avoid talking about it, whether it’s in an effort to protect your child from confrontation or the initial awkwardness of a diagnosis, or even because you hope their symptoms will go away on their own, this will most likely add to the confusion they already experience and their anxiety may become more prominent in the long-term.
Step 6: Do the best you can.
There are many different ways to nurture an anxious child. If you think you’ve said or done something wrong when trying to help in this situation in the past, take the advice you’d give to your child when they feel they’ve made a mistake: Learn from what happened and move forward. Be there for them, talk to them, be patient with them, ask questions, receive their answers with love – and you’re already on the right track to helping your child lead the most fulfilling and joyful life possible.
Written by: Carissa Latona, Special Ed Teacher
Edited & Designed by: Christina Denham
My name is John Haber. I’m a Pediatric Occupational Therapist and the founder of Nogginsland. I became a COTA in 2003, and then went back to school much later, receiving my Master’s Degree in OT from Mercy College in New York in 2016.
Over the years, I’ve worked with a variety of populations in different settings, from school districts, to developmental disability centers, to children’s hospitals.