Concerned About a Child’s Anxiety

In this episode: Janet responds to a question from a parent who’s saddened that her 4-year-old is showing signs of general anxiety. “I’m seeing a pattern of scouting for danger instead of just letting loose and having fun,” she says. She also recognizes this tendency in herself. This mom is wondering if her daughter’s disposition is inherited or learned by modeling, and if there’s anything she could be doing differently.

Transcript of “Concerned About a Child’s Anxiety”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m responding to a question from a parent who’s concerned that her four-year-old seems to be displaying signs of anxiety, and she’s wondering what she can do and how to handle this. Here’s the message I received:

“Hi. Here’s a question I’d love to hear you answer on Unruffled if you have the time. My four-year-old daughter has been displaying signs of general anxiety. Tonight, for example, we were driving around a nearby neighborhood looking at holiday lights: a simple, pleasurable experience. At one point, my daughter said, “Mom, wait. How will we know how to get back home?” I was meandering through side streets slowly, so I think she might have thought I was going to get her lost. It saddened me to think that while looking at glimmering lights, that was the thought running through her head. A similar experience occurred when I asked her if she’d want to go out on a boat on our upcoming beach side vacation.

I’m seeing a pattern here of scouting for danger instead of just letting loose and having fun. I know this pattern well because it’s my own Achilles’s heel. I’ve recognized this way of seeing the world in myself only recently, and I’m doing a lot of work with a counselor to lessen and get perspective on this tendency.

So, I have many questions. How should I handle these type of questions from her? I don’t want to downplay her concerns. For her, they’re real. I reassured her that I knew the general direction of how to get us back home. Should I be doing anything more? Is this normal thought behavior for a four-year-old? Is this a genetic disposition or was it learned by modeling after me?

Thank you for any insight you might be able to offer. I have your books and listen to your podcast and find your approach to parenting resonates well with our family.”

I thought this would be a great one to respond to because it brings up some very common parenting issues that can get in our way. As parents, we are prone to worry. We have a tendency to hear the shark music. Jump ahead to, “Uh oh. There’s a problem here.” Particularly if we are on the sensitive side ourselves, which it sounds like this parent is.

In this case, when I read here that they were driving around a nearby neighborhood looking at holiday lights, and her daughter said, “Mom, wait. How do we know how to get back home?” I’m curious as to why this mother would jump to that being a frightened, anxious question. She hasn’t mentioned that her daughter seemed scared or panicky when she asked that question. I’m not sure what the tone was like. But in and of itself, that’s a very reasonable question. They’re out in the dark, her mother’s driving slowly, and she’s wondering how does this work? How does her mother know how to get back home?

That could be answered very reasonably. “Huh. That’s interesting you asked. Actually, the way that we’ll get back is we’ll go back the way we came. I remember which turns I made, so I can make the opposite turns and take us all the way back.” Or maybe you have MapQuest or one of those apps, and you can say, “This is how I’ll find out how to get home because I’m actually not sure.” Or maybe as this mother seems to indicate, “I know this neighborhood very, very well actually. So, I know exactly how to get back, and I can show you this step-by-step as we go.”

I would advise trying to remember to dial back, responding to what children are literally asking instead of jumping to a concern about it. Yes, it’s wonderful to be curious about what’s going on in our children’s minds, but jumping to fear about it is not going to help us or our child, and can lead us to giving a fear-based response to our child, who will be responding out of fear and our child will sense that. That actually teaches our children that this is a scary situation, that it isn’t comfortable, that maybe I don’t know my way back and I’m trying to reassure you. It’s not completely okay and comfortable for me that you asked that question.

That’s how this can get all kind of complicated. Is our child behaving a little anxiously because they sense something is wrong here, there’s real danger here? Or are they behaving that way because I’m setting that tone? This is how we can actually, unwittingly, encourage and foster anxiety in our children, which is obviously the last thing that we want to do. That’s also why it’s wonderful that this parent is dealing with her own feelings, her fears, and her projections. What that will do is help her not project this out onto her child.

That leads me to the other issue that this parent brings up in her story and her questions. These fears that we have as parents, a lot of us, that our children will have the qualities that we don’t like about ourselves. The truth is, we don’t have complete control over that, and we never will. We can’t control whether our child is a more introverted person, a more sensitive person, more assertive person, a high energy person, an athletic person, a not athletic person. I’m bringing up these specifics because they’re all things that parents have expressed concern to me about, but these are all genetic tendencies that children have, and there’s nothing wrong with any of them. They’re all just right. To be able to give our children that message and that confidence that they need to be whoever they are with all of their traits and tendencies, we have to get to get to that place of self-acceptance.

We have to accept that, in this case, hey, I’m a sensitive person and I’m considering situations at other levels than other people do maybe, and I like to have control of the situations. I like to know how I’m getting there, how I’m getting home. That helps make me feel comfortable and empowered. Maybe I got the message as a child that that wasn’t okay, that I should be ashamed for that, or that I would be rejected when I act like that, or I’d be laughed at, or I’d be scolded or punished for having these tendencies or this disposition. That’s the part we have to heal so that we can be that clean and clear parent for our children that we want to be, and not hear the shark music every time they may seem to have qualities that are familiar to us in ourselves that we don’t feel good about. We have to find a way to feel okay about ourselves.

Magda Gerber, my mentor, always talked about the importance of self-acceptance so that we can accept our child, accept our children, as they are, and encourage them to flourish as themselves.

Sensitivity and awareness, like this little girl has, is a gift. It’s a tremendous gift. There are also, for four-year-olds, developmental reasons that they want to gain a sense of control over a situation. That’s why I write and talk a lot about predictable routines in a day. In these early years, children are developing so rapidly. We can imagine development like a flood of water passing through, and we just need some things to hold on to, to make us feel safer. Those predictable routines, those parents that have consistent boundaries for us, those anchors in our day… we need those.

Then we have the holidays. There’s a lot of stimulation and excitement, schedules tend to go out the window, all of which knocks children off balance, particularly the more sensitive ones.

It makes sense that this little girl, even if she has no other big transitions happening in her life, at four years old during the holidays, would be looking to gain some control in situations by getting really clear on where she is, where she’s going, how she’s getting back. Within those safe boundaries and anchors, there is space for her to relax and enjoy. But this is different for every child and different in every situation. We can expect there to be more, again, more control seeking during times of jolly disruption or not so happy disruption or excitement.

I remember when my daughter was four, my oldest, and we took her to Disneyland. She’d actually been there once before. It was just my mother, and me, and my four-and-a-half-year-old. She had a baby sister at home. I remember this because I was lugging a big breast pump around Disneyland, which is obviously not the most fun thing to do. But I wanted to carve out this time for my daughter. Here we were in this obviously very exciting, overstimulating place for a little child.

It was interesting what she did. She wanted to dictate every single move we made. “Okay, now we’re going here. And then we’re going to that ride or that exhibit. And then we’re going to this part, and we’re going to look at that.” As we were at that next step, she was thinking about the next step that we were going to take. It was a safe place for her to take control. My mother and I didn’t have agendas of our own. Just to be there for her, within reason. Mostly, we let that happen.

It made sense to me, given the time of life she was in, at four-and-a-half years old, the fact she had a baby sister at home and was going through that huge transition. I hadn’t considered it this way until we got there, so I didn’t see this coming. But later thinking about the day, it made a whole lot of sense. It was even smart of her to take care of herself that way, so that she could enjoy the experience. It had to be somewhat on her terms. That was fine.

Now, if my child was trying to gain control of the situations where I could not let her do that, then I would have to hold onto my boundaries and allow her to let go of those feelings, which obviously is not comfortable either. But it’s healthy, it’s positive, when we have to say, “No, I know you want the blue cup, but I’m only going to give you the green one for now because the blue one’s in the wash.” Our child might get so upset about that. Trusting that that’s okay, that we’re being reasonable, kind leaders, and we’re helping our child let go of what has become unhealthy control, control that’s holding them back rather than giving them the comfort and freedom that they need.

Now, let me just make sure I’m specifically answering this parent’s questions:

“How should I handle these type of questions from her?” Honestly, simply and without worrying about them, if at all possible, would be the best. She said she doesn’t want to downplay her daughter’s concerns. Absolutely not. I wouldn’t downplay. I wouldn’t tell her she’s not right to feel how she feels or ask what she asks. It’s okay. It’s safe for her to say those things and feel that way. Again, understanding that it actually makes a lot of sense developmentally, situationally, and perhaps temperamentally for this child. There’s nothing to fear here. We can respond normally, sensibly, honestly, directly. Downplaying somebody’s concerns actually always has the opposite effect. It amps them up because, as this mother says, for her, they’re real. If you tell me that I shouldn’t feel what I’m feeling, that makes me feel worse because now I not only still have these real concerns, but I feel like there’s something wrong with me for having them, adding discomfort to the concern.

This mother says, “I reassured her that I knew the general direction of how to get us back home.” Yes, I wouldn’t worry too much about reassuring her as if this is an unsafe state for her to be in. I would just tell her the truth.

Should I be doing anything more? No, that’s all you have to do. That’s all we have to do often is calm ourselves, be real, be honest.

Is this is normal thought behavior for a four-year-old? Absolutely.

Is this a genetic disposition or was it learned by modeling after me? Probably it is a genetic disposition, and it can be amplified if we modeled it. So, for our own selves to feel comfortable and for our child, the best thing we can do is take care of these difficulties that we have. Talking to a counselor, talking to a therapist, talking to a friend, making peace with our baggage. We all have it.

I really hope some of that helps. Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, JanetLansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in.

I have two books that are available on audio at Audible, Elevating Child Care and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame. These are bestselling audio books that you can get for free by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast. Or you can go to the book section of my website. You can also get them in paperback on Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

Oh, and don’t forget to follow me on Instagram. I’m on Instagram, @JanetLansbury.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

7 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I love this response Janet. It’s true, we don’t have to jump to conclusions all the time. However would you think anchikd chewing on their sleeve alot and saying they are nervous, would that require a different way of looking at things? Should it be considered develomentally appropriate at 3.5 or 4 years if the child is understanding more adult ideas? How should I respond should I ask if he is feeling worried or just observe, “you are cheeing your sleeve.”. ? Does anyone know ?

    1. Thank you, Han. Regarding your son, I would want to know what he is nervous about and what that word means to him.

    2. Thank you, Han. Regarding your son, I would want to know what he is nervous about and what that word means to him. In other words, I would approach this with curiosity and want to calmly explore it, rather than jumping to giving a response.

      1. Thanks Janet. Would the RIE approach then to explore by making suggestions; such as “do you feel comfortable or uncomfortable here? ” ” Do you like that there’s lots of children or it’s noisy for you?” . To be honest the word nervous is just picked up from me from when he started chewing badly at 2.5 when I tried to help by labelling his emotions.

  2. Another excellent article! The question goes to the heart of parenting and your answer goes to the heart of good parenting. All this takes place in a culture which fosters and encourages the kind of anxiety this parent is at risk for passing on to her child. I write about that in my post today at http://geniusinchildren.org: What are the deeper, cultural causes of anxiety, depression and suicide and what we can do about it?
    Thank you again for your brilliant way of bringing us all back to our senses.

  3. Hi Janet,
    My daughter is 11 and has been suffering from severe school anxiety since she was 6. We have tried numerous things over the years and she has been in counseling for most of that time. She tells me that the advice she gets from her counselor (and us) on how to work through her anxiety doesn’t help. This morning I went into her room and she had fallen asleep with a box of tissue on her bed since she had been crying so much. It breaks my heart and I don’t know what else to do to help her. Is it possible this anxiety will always be with her regardless of intervention? Do you have any suggestions?

    1. Hi Kristin,
      I am sorry, but it’s hard for me to advise without knowing a lot more. Crying sounds like a very healthy thing for her to do. That’s how we can release the fear.

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