Listen to yourself snapping like a turtle. Feel your quickened heartbeat and clenched jaw. Patience goes down, anxiety goes up. What’s the crisis? The fall frenzy.
Welcome to September.
The clogged carpool line winds around the school like a snake, barely inching along. Don’t even think about cutting in line. The kids will just have to hop out and run to class, even though the youngest one is scared.
After school, a new rat race launches. How many activities and lessons can we fit in? Football practice is two hours every afternoon. The dance studio is about to lock out tardy ballerinas, but your child’s summer haircut refuses to go into a tight bun.
Hurry up, we don’t have time to peruse library books or get a sticker. Darn it, this new self-checkout is so aggravating. Darling, don’t even think about picking up that stick on the way to the car. And could the drugstore go any slower filling that backup EpiPen?
What’s for dinner? Seriously?
The cycle of stress worsens when you’re running late for school pickup. Turn the corner on a tight schedule, come flying in while on a conference call and find your daughter in a shaking, sobbing mess. What’s the big deal? She’s safe, isn’t she? But she doesn’t feel that way. Her anxiety peaks and her emotions explode, all because a parent is a couple of minutes late.
If your frantic day-to-day behavior sparks your child’s anxiety, it’s time for an overhaul. Having empathy for how your child feels is a good first step toward change, according to Boston psychologist Lawrence J. Cohen.
Dismissing emotions with statements such as “Don’t be silly,” “There’s nothing to be afraid of” or “Stop being such a baby” doesn’t help calm your child. Instead, acknowledge their feelings with a phrase like, “Wow, that was scary.”
In his new book, “The Opposite of Worry” (Ballantine, 2013), Cohen illustrates the effects of anxiety – from mild to extreme – on a child’s behavior. If your rushed child is hungry and tired, it will show up in how he or she acts – pitching a fit at the grocery store checkout, refusing to get ready for school. In addition to displaying empathy for how your child feels, loosen up and be more playful in your daily routine. Cohen advocates this approach in his new book as well as his previous one, “Playful Parenting.”
Cohen, who writes that he’s been anxious since his own childhood, is a psychologist and family therapist who specializes in play therapy. The anecdotes in his book include young years with his own daughter. A more relaxed parenting style, rather than scolding and hovering, strengthened the relationship with his daughter and built her confidence, he says.
Other tips culled from “The Opposite of Worry” include:
• Overprotection does not help a child’s anxiety. For example, on the playground: Your little one is climbing, and you are below shouting, “Be careful!” This isn’t helpful. Trust your child’s abilities instead of worrying so much. Your worry adds to their general anxiety and prevents risk-taking to learn new things.
• Children will have more fun on the playground if you put down your phone and actually watch them. This is because when the caregiver is “on alert” for any dangers, kids are less likely to feel they are alone and on guard.
• Use puppets or stuffed animals to practice social skills and work through fears with younger children. This is also a good way to practice talking about emotions: “Why do you think my character is angry? What should his friend do now?”
• Have your child draw pictures of her anxiety, and of herself conquering it. Perhaps her separation anxiety is a bug, and she is a superhero who squashes it.
• If your child is afraid of dogs, use a “stop and go” game to help. Walk together toward a dog, but stop when your child says “stop.” Then inch forward after another short pause. Go slowly and tune in to your child’s emotions.
• Have a “feelings time,” typically at the end of the day, to talk about feelings that have not been expressed during your busy day.
Email Betsy Flagler at email@example.com.