October 22, 2019
It’s no secret that anxiety increases as we get older. Why is that? Why do we spend so much time dealing with anxiety and why is it so common?
If you look at a newborn or even a toddler you realize that their happiness comes from their needs being met. They are simple. If you feed them when they are hungry, respond to them when they cry, change them when they are dirty and help them to go to sleep when they are tired, they are for the most part “happy”. It is really that simple. Yet, millions of dollars are spent marketing to parents things to make their lives easier or more colorful. Marketing preys on the insecurities of the new parent as they stroll through the millions of options there are for car seats, high chairs, blankets, bottles, pacifiers, etc etc. The list is endless. Babies though, are happy with the simple. They don’t care what they are wearing or what stroller they are riding in. They really don’t. Yet parents spend a small fortune to keep up with what society has decided is cool or en-vogue. It’s fine I guess, if you can afford it and want to, but it is completely unnecessary.
Then come the childhood years when kids start going to school and begin comparing themselves to others. All of a sudden they become aware of the difference in each others appearances, homes, cars, clothes, etc. They begin to compare themselves academically, socially, and physically to their peers. It is during this time that the incidence of behavioral problems increases significantly. The reason for this could be because of these comparisons. All of a sudden, the child with the learning disability thinks they are stupid, or the child that acts silly realizes that this makes kids laugh so he/she does it more, or perhaps they feel like kids are excluding them in play groups or parties and they wonder if their is something wrong with them.
This is the window of opportunity that parents are given. This is when the window is open and all you need to do is reach in. If you think it is more than you can handle, seek help. Set up a meeting with the teacher, the principal, and gather information about your child and what they are observing in the school setting. Everything is important. Is your child going to the nurse everyday? Is your child giving you a hard time when you drop them off at school? Is your child struggling to read or having difficulty with math? Everything is important. Do not dismiss it or think that it is a phase or that your child just needs to mature. Your child’s social-emotional well being is developing during this time and just like you spend so much time worrying about what your child is eating and ways to ensure their bodies are healthy, we also need to pay attention to the health of their minds.
One of the best ways to do this is by encouraging kids to feel what they feel. Do not dismiss their feelings by saying things like, “you’re fine”, “you’re too sensitive”, “forget about it”, “get over it”, “stop crying”, etc. Instead, let your child feel what they feel. Hold them when they feel sad, explain to them that it is okay to be angry sometimes or to feel overwhelmed. There will most definitely be times in their lives when they are disappointed, upset or angry. Give them permission to feel those feelings in their entirety in their own way. Allowing a feeling helps lessen the intensity of that feeling. The opposite is also true. If you dismiss a feeling or tell them they are over-reacting, that feeling is still there, inside them, with no where to go. It needs a way out, so it presents itself with outbursts, sleep disturbances, physical symptoms, behavioral problems, tantrums, or anxiety.
Anxiety is one of the most prevalent mental health disorders affecting society today. Many adults are dealing with this on a day to day basis. Some turn to drugs, smoking or alcohol to help alleviate their feelings of anxiety. Others take it out on those they love or closest to them (even their children). It’s the worst feeling ever when you lash out at someone you love or yell at your kids. This cycle of anxiety and anger is all too familiar in our society and one that needs our attention.
What if you actually admitted to your kids that you were having a bad day and really needed their help. What if you came home from work and told your kids that something at work upset you and that you wanted to go for a walk to clear your mind or talk to a friend. Modeling coping mechanisms that are constructive instead of destructive not only will help you but it will help your child understand that a) You are not perfect b) you have days that are tough and that its okay to feel upset c) How to support those that you love when they need you (empathy).
Encouraging communication with your children by sharing a story of something that has happened to you, is a great way to start a conversation. In fact, you may be surprised how much you will benefit from the talks with your kids as well. You will remember perhaps your childhood with its ups and downs and this will help you identify with your children even more. Kids love to hear stories about their parents! The realization that you too struggled with life’s issues is comforting to your child or teen. They probably never stopped to think about you that way. They are so worried about how life is affecting them that when we shift their thinking to something they can relate to, all of a sudden, their perspective changes.
This brings me to my last point. Most people spend 99% of their day worried about themselves and their immediate world around them. Perhaps they are thinking about work, home responsibilities, their health, their friends, their family, etc. Yes, the general population is trapped in their minds replaying the same thoughts day after day. Sometimes these thought are destructive and are filled with feelings of inadequacy. This is the foundation of anxiety, our thoughts. It is our responsibility to change our way of thinking and what we focus on. If you really stop to look around, you realize that most of what you worry about never even happens. What a waste! All that worry, all those sleepless nights and all that anxiety, for nothing!
What if, instead of just allowing our thoughts to control us, we actually actively thought about positive things throughout our day. What if we tried to see the good in people instead of complaining about the bad? We all have the power to do this. This is the secret to decreasing anxiety in your life. Teach your kids the power of gratitude, the magnitude of their thoughts and the gift of appreciation and empathy. A healthy mind is the key to a healthy child.
Elizabeth Vainder, M.D., F.A.A.P