Pediatric psychologist Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart joins Janet to discuss the common concerns parents have about anxiety in children. Dr. Lockhart explains how we can distinguish anxiety from normal childhood feelings of fear and worry. She also shares steps parents can take to alleviate anxiety and prevent it from becoming an issue.
Transcript of “What Parents Need to Know About Anxiety (with Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart)”Janet Lansbury:
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I have the great pleasure of chatting with Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart. She’s a pediatric psychologist. She’s a parent coach and an author. She speaks nationally at schools and conferences and corporate workshops. And she coaches parents who have kids with anxiety, behavioral issues, and ADHD, and she has a couple of kids. So this is a very busy person. I’m thrilled she’s taking the time to join me today to discuss anxiety in children — what we can do to prevent and help.
Hi, Dr. Lockhart, how are you?
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: I’m doing good, Janet and how are you doing?
Janet Lansbury: I’m doing really well. Thank you so much. I feel like I know you. I’ve been following your work for a long time and I’m so glad to finally actually get to meet. I’ve been looking at your bio and really noticing the breadth of your work. It’s incredible. And just want to say thank you so much for all the service that you provide to parents and other professionals.
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: Thank you. I appreciate that. I’ve been following your work as well too. So the feeling is definitely mutual. And I think we’ve done things parallel, being on some conferences together and that kind of stuff, but never directly together. So I’m happy to be here and talking with you about the stuff that we both love as well too.
Janet Lansbury: One of the many things that you help parents with is when they have children who have anxiety and other behavioral concerns. I wanted to kind of zero-in in this podcast on anxiety. This is a time for anxiety if there ever was one, globally, and there are people that have chronic issues and then worry that their children are maybe moving into that. I wanted to hear your take on what we can do as parents. First of all, maybe… how do you as a clinician define anxiety?
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: Yeah, that’s a great question because I think that people use a lot of mental health diagnosis and terms interchangeably with just regular speak. When we say, “Oh my gosh, the weather is so bipolar.” Or, “Oh my gosh, that movie was so schizophrenic.” We use a lot of those kinds of mental health terms to describe everyday life and it’s very inaccurate most of the time. And so I think anxiety disorders are one of those things, because we have feelings like fear and worry. And then we have anxiety disorders, which can include a lot of things like a fear of being in a crowded space where you can’t escape, which is agoraphobia. We have panic disorders. We have specific phobias, so a fear of dogs or snakes or flying. We have generalized anxiety, which is kind of a general feeling of uneasiness, about a multiple sorts of things. They actually included selective mutism a few years ago into the anxiety disorder spectrum of diagnoses as well too.
So, you have a lot of different things that cover that. So really what distinguishes fear and worry from an anxiety disorder that’s severe is when it causes significant impairment on your everyday functioning.
It’s one thing if you’re a little afraid of dogs, for example, or spiders, and you just don’t like them. But if you’re constantly checking corners and you’re obsessive about it, and you’re always asking for reassurance from your parents and making sure that nothing is going to hurt you in the middle of the night, “You sure there’s no spiders in my bed, mommy?” And it’s constant and it’s impacting their ability to function in their everyday life, that’s when we’re looking at more of like an anxiety disorder type thing. And that’s where the category of anxiety falls, because it impacts everything, school, learning, friendships, their thought life, all of that kind of stuff, and that’s where that distinction between the worry and anxiety come into place.
Janet Lansbury: And what causes that, where maybe, like you said, it’s the one time being afraid when they see that animal or spider or whatever, but when it goes from that to now I’m checking every corner and doing very unreasonable things around this?
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: It’s a variety of things. There’s a hereditary factor. So there’s a lot of people that it’s just in your family, where a lot of people when I’m talking to them and doing an intake, they’ll say, “Yeah, anxiety runs in my family. My mom was a worrier. My grandma was a worrier and her grandma was a worrier.” And so it’s kind of like this hereditary factor. There’s a genetic component to it.
But there’s also a learned component as well, too, where if you have a parent, who’s a very anxious person and they act in anxious ways, then if you’re around them, then you are going to be more likely to be anxious as well.
When I was growing up, for example, my mom was hugely afraid of frogs and I grew up on an island. So I grew up in the Virgin Islands and we’re surrounded by water and she loved plants. So we had plants lining the entry to our front door and where do frogs hang out? In moist plants. So there would be these huge frogs over our doorway and that’s the only way to get in the house. And so then she would be like, “Okay, well, I guess we can’t go inside the house.” And I’m like, “So what are we supposed to do?” So that I started becoming hypervigilant and scanning all the time, because then I’m like, “Oh, well, what if there’s a frog?” Because the frogs on the island are huge. They’re huge.
So then it kind of became this learned fear of frogs because she was so worried. I picked up on it from her. Would I have been afraid of frogs if she hadn’t been? Maybe, maybe not. But it can also be a learned factor because anxiety is not something that we just have, it’s something that can be learned, definitely-
Janet Lansbury: Right.
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: … but then there’s another piece of it, which is there’s a predisposition factor where there are some personalities and temperaments that are predisposed or more likely to have anxiety or have an anxiety disorder because they’re more sensitive or they’re more observant or they’re in tune with their environment. And there’s a lot of evidence that shows that individuals who are more intelligent, even, are more likely to be anxious because they have very divergent ways of thinking. They’re kind of outside the box kind of thinkers. So they’re always thinking of what could possibly go wrong, anyway and that’s just how they normally think about things
Janet Lansbury: And sensitive, picking up all these different layers all the time, things that are going on. Yeah. That makes so much sense though, about the environmental factor of the parent, having that power, since children are always looking to their parents to check their center and really hoping or needing those parents to be centered as much as possible.
You see it when children are even… They fall and they look up at their parent to see, “What do you think about this? Is this all right?” Like, “Am I going to be okay?” And children are picking up everything constantly from their parents.
So what do the parents do if they are like your mother, or they are very easily anxious or they have clinical anxiety? How do parents manage this to try not to have it affect their children so much?
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: Yeah, that’s a great question. And the thing is that when I often see children or teens with anxiety, I prefer to see them along with their parent. Because as I teach the child or the teen about specific strategies, I also want the parent to learn, because more often than not, the parent is also struggling with it. And the cool thing about anxiety strategies is that they’re pretty much universal across the board. You just tweak it a little bit based on age to make it more digestible for a child to understand.
So I think a big part of it is, for the parent, that they need to address their own anxiety. They need to do the work like anything else, right? It’s that we have things that are going on that we’ve been rehearsing and habituating for decades, which is often the case. Then, we’ve gotten really good at being anxious and it’s just an automatic default.
And so if our kids are constantly hearing and seeing and living it out, then we’re always reinforcing it. So they can get all the help they want, but if you are still then reinforcing the other way of thinking, then it’s going to be hard for them to get out of that anxious mindset.
So I think a big part of it, first, is the parent has to be aware that they actually do have anxiety and then do the work to overcome that. So they’re not constantly giving it to their child. And I think that’s a really, really important first step.
Janet Lansbury: And this is just one of the many, many important ways that children inspire us to work on ourselves in a positive way and heal ourselves. And-
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: Yeah, exactly. For me, I always like to start with education because once you can understand: this is what this is, this is why you meet the criteria for this diagnosis, for example, if that’s the case. Or, this is how it impacts you physically, emotionally, mentally, cognitively. When you can get that and you understand where it comes from, then when you start learning the strategies, you understand why the strategies work.
So I always like to start with that insight, kind of doing your work, the education, and then starting out with a very basic, the easiest type of stuff, which is just the deep diaphragmatic breathing. So teaching the parent and teaching the child how to take deep belly breaths, because that helps with a lot of physical anxiety. And that’s just one component of anxiety. But teaching the child to have control over their body, that they have agency over the way they react physically to something and they can respond instead, can be really empowering. Because that’s what happens a lot with anxiety: you’re having this panic attack and you can’t breathe. You think you’re going to pass out. You think you’re going to throw up. You’re sweating profusely. You’re shaking. Your body is literally in control and you don’t even feel like you have any type of say in what’s happening.
But if you can teach some deep breathing, then you can say, “Okay, this is what’s happening to your body.” That’s through the education. “Your blood pressure’s going up. Your breathing is becoming shallow, because all of the blood and all the breath is kind of centered in your chest area. We got to bring that down, bring it into your belly and allow you to breathe in, hold it and breathe out.”
There are all different kinds of breathing that you can learn. But that’s really, really important — to teach that individual that you do have control over your body in the way you physically respond to this trigger.
Janet Lansbury: And then is there anything else that you generally do to help?
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: Yes. So another big part is helping them to redirect their focus so that their thoughts don’t become the enemy. Because what often parents will do is say, “Oh, just don’t worry.” And although that’s well-intentioned, that’s not easy. Obviously people don’t want to worry and if they could stop worrying, they would.
So we want to then, instead, be aware that we’re even having the anxiety or the worry in the first place and then help them to redirect it to something else. So maybe saying like a mantra or an affirmation: “Yes, I know that frogs look nasty and gross, but I will be okay.” Or, “I know that the dark is uncomfortable for me, but I know that I’m safe.”
So being able to acknowledge it and then replacing it with something that’s a more helpful and more adaptive thought. And then using a lot of affirmations to kind of make like this new imagery. I like to use a lot of visual and sensory imagery.
So what would be a safe thought, a safe place? And integrating what you would hear, see, smell, taste, feel. What would the temperature be? Who would be there? And creating this whole imagery to kind of help ground you that you’re safe and that you’re okay.
Janet Lansbury: Right. And I think normalizing that it’s okay to have that feeling, instead of saying, “Don’t worry.”
“You are worried about this. This is troubling you. This is bothering you.” And even wanting to know more about that and actually letting ourselves go there.
I actually had a bout with anxiety this summer, I think many people have this year, and it was kind of this free-floating thing. I wasn’t thinking anything in particular, but it was like a constant state of a stress cycle. And I realized that there was some grieving I actually needed to do that I hadn’t done. Like kind of long ago grieving, and it sort of came up for me. And that was part of my healing process to actually feel the feelings that were underneath the anxiety.
Do you ever get the feeling that anxiety, sometimes when we get caught up in that, it’s like we’re kind of avoiding the deeper feelings that are behind it?
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: Oh, definitely, because one of the things that people mistakenly do is that they engage in a strategy that they think is actually a coping strategy and it’s actually an avoidance strategy. So for example, if you say, “I have anxiety about studying for my test, because I don’t think I’m going to pass. So I’m going to take a nap, because my body needs rest, because I’m feeling very anxious about the test.” So then you think: Oh, taking a nap is a coping strategy.
No, what you need to do is study. Taking a nap is actually an avoidance strategy. And that’s the problem with a lot of strategies is that it can seem like it’s a coping when it’s actually an avoidance.
Or saying: Okay, I’m going to go for a walk because I’m feeling overwhelmed by what’s going on in my house. And so then yeah, going for a walk might be a coping strategy, but if you have a lot of things that you need to do that you’ve been avoiding doing, and you’re procrastinating, that’s actually an avoidance strategy. It’s a fine line between the two.
But one of the things that we do know is that the biggest thing that feeds anxiety is avoidance. When you avoid, it creates the short-term relief of: Oh okay, great. Now I don’t have to deal with this studying of the test. Okay, great and now I don’t have to deal with all this loads of laundry. Or: I don’t have to deal with speaking and on this particular topic to this person that I have to talk to.
But then what you’re doing is you’re reinforcing for your brain: Oh, okay, so avoiding that actually provides short-term relief. And then it further reinforces the anxiety and then you have this whole cycle all over again.
So avoidance is the worst thing to do. And that’s what a lot of really effective parents do is that they think: Okay, I’ll just pull my kid out of this program. Or, I’ll just tell them that no, they’re not going to go back to the Zoom meeting, thinking that that’s going to help them with their anxiety.
And it does provide that short-term relief, but the problem is now that we’ve taught our kid: Oh, avoidance is the way to make yourself feel better. Not doing the thing that scares you actually provides relief.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. And it’s saying: I agree that you can’t handle this. The parent isn’t saying that overtly, but by avoiding it, the parent is saying: I also believe that you cannot handle this normal anxiety people get before a test, or something. Or: I feel like that’s not safe for you to feel that. That’s going to hurt you to feel that or that. It IS a problem.
So it’s that validation of normal feelings as things that you can’t handle.
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: Right. Then they’re getting that message and then you’re further reinforcing it, although you think you’re protecting them. But, no, now it’s getting reinforced.
The big thing about anxiety, too, is that it’s one of the most common struggles that people have, but it’s also the most treatable. And many people will go years without treating it because they’re like, “That’s just how I am. That’s just who I am. That’s just my personality.”
And the longer anxiety goes on because we’re constantly in a cycle of avoidance and reinforcement, it starts to spread into other areas. So you’re anxious about taking a test. Now you’re anxious about public speaking. Now you’re anxious about speaking to people at school. And now you’re anxious about traveling, and it like starts to bleed into other areas. And then now you have this more generalized anxiety where you just have this uneasy feeling about everything. And that’s why it’s important not to just let it go and pretend like it doesn’t exist, because it doesn’t go away on its own. It needs to be addressed in some way, in a healthy way.
Janet Lansbury: Wow, yeah. That makes a lot of sense.
So if you could have a few things just generally to offer parents to help them avoid creating this kind of anxiety, what do you say to them? Let’s say they have a very young child and the parent maybe has suffered anxiety in the past and feels there may be that genetic component and that there may possibly also be an influence of the parent, because the parent is kind of containing it. What kind of general guidelines can you give parents for when children appear to be anxious at a situation?
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: So I think, first, to be able to tell yourself and tell your child that you’re not alone in struggling with this. Lots of individuals struggle with this. And what we do know, stats-wise, is one out of every five children is dealing with some kind of mental health issue. So it might be anxiety; it might be depression, ADHD. Lots of kids struggle with this, but they don’t all present the same way.
So first of all, understanding there’s nothing wrong with you and there’s nothing wrong with your child. They don’t need to be fixed.
The other thing, too, is it’s important for the parent to explain to their child how anxiety works.
Children developmentally are very concrete thinkers, very tangible, very here and now, they take things literally. So for example, my brother-in-law when he was a kid and people would say, “Hey, Christmas is around the corner.” And he would look around the corner, go on the street and look around the corner. That’s that tangible… You know, phrases of speech don’t make sense: “frog in your throat,” “butterflies in your stomach.” They literally think those things are there.
Anxiety is abstract and many kids can’t process abstract things. So a lot of kids suffer by themselves in isolation because they can’t put words to what they’re experiencing. That’s why it’s so important as the parent to educate yourself and then to explain to your child how anxiety works, how anxiety tries to act like it’s a friend, but it’s kind of a bad friend because it tells you all the things that are wrong with you in the world that aren’t always true, or it’s an exaggeration of the truth.
So it’s explaining to them how that works, so they know they’re not alone and they know that: Oh, there’s a name for this.
And then they can externalize it. So it’s not me that’s worried, it’s these intrusive thoughts that are invading my brain that’s telling me that things are true that’s not actually true.
And then the other thing is to help guide them in changing their thoughts and challenging their behaviors. Stop rescuing them from their thoughts and their behaviors and actually give them the tools. So taking deep breaths, being able to replace the scary thoughts with more adaptive thoughts.
And then, like how you said, Janet, like normalizing the feeling and acknowledging the feeling. “Oh, I know that it’s hard when you feel so worried about going back to school. It’s hard to feel that way, isn’t it? So when are some other times that you felt like something was hard and we were able to overcome it together?” And helping them with that problem-solving mindset where, “Yes, this is the problem. This is uncomfortable.” Acknowledge it. “And then what do we do with that discomfort? How can we get past that?”
I did that with my son when we were in the middle of this pandemic and it was like a couple of months in and myself and my family, my in-laws, we were all kind of isolating as well. And they wanted to come over for a Memorial Day. And my son is like, “I feel uncomfortable with them coming over.” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m uncomfortable too.” And he was like, “Really?” And I said, “Yeah, we haven’t seen human beings in two months, so I feel uncomfortable too.” And so he’s like, “Oh.” And I said, “So then let’s just be uncomfortable together.” And he’s like, “Okay. But I’m not hugging them.” And I was like, “Me neither.”
So acknowledging it-
Janet Lansbury: I just felt my temperature drop when you said, just that “let’s be uncomfortable, let’s be this.” Or, “Oh, that’s how you feel? Yeah, that’s normal.” Giving that permission to feel it. It’s all good. It’s all okay.
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: Right. And you should be uncomfortable. It’s not abnormal to be uncomfortable when we haven’t seen people in two, three months, however long it was. And so I think we have to be able to normalize it rather than dismissing it or trying to fix it real quick to make them not feel it.
Janet Lansbury: Or being afraid of it ourselves, which will come through. Like with the school, you could even find out more if you’re holding space for that feeling to be okay, like, “Oh, you’re anxious about school starting?” And then you can ask, “What worries you?” And you can get that information to actually help them make a plan or make it a little easier for them.
But yeah, it all has to come from that beginning place of normalizing it, accepting it.
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: Exactly. Because if we dismiss it or we rush through it or we say, “Oh, you shouldn’t feel that way.” Then they’re going to feel like that something is wrong with them. And why is my parent dealing with it fine and I’m feeling all horrible? So there must be something wrong with me. And there must be something that I need to fix.
But if we can validate it and say, “Yeah, I get why you feel that way.” Or even if we don’t understand it, we can just say, “Oh, I get why you would feel that way. It makes sense.” And then making those connections.
I think it’s really important for parents to really make connections for their child between their emotional experience, their somatic experience, like what they’re feeling in their body. “So yeah, when I feel nervous, my heart beats really fast in my chest. I can feel it, I feel the lump in my throat. Because we’re seeing people we haven’t seen in a long time and we’re kind of afraid of getting sick, I totally get that.”
And so if we can make those connections and they understand that I’m just not anxious for no reason, there is a reason why I feel this and this is why. And it’s a valid reason because it’s valid for me. That’s what we do in cognitive behavioral therapy. We’re literally making the connections between our thoughts, our behaviors, our emotions, and our circumstances.
Because people automatically assume, “Oh, everybody in this pandemic is having a hard time.” That’s not true. There are some people who are thriving. There’s some people who… They’re doing remarkably well. And then there’s other people who are doing not so great at all, but all of those experiences are valid because we all have different experiences. So, although everybody, the whole world is experiencing a pandemic, we all have different perceptions of the event. We have different life experiences because of the event. 10 people can go through the same thing and 10 people will have completely different reactions and responses to it and we have to normalize that all of those responses are valid given that person’s experience.
Janet Lansbury: Yes, absolutely.
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: And also I think a big, big thing for kids with anxiety is to create a lifestyle where you’re beating anxiety on a daily basis. So, you’re giving mini challenges, like, “I know it’s really hard for you to walk down the street because the dog behind the neighbor’s fence always scares you, do you think as we go on our walk today that you want to challenge yourself by staying on the same side of the street, or do you want to do it a little bit easier today and go on the opposite side of the street? What do you think?”
And so kind of giving them opportunities and empowering them. “How would you like to beat your fear today? How would you like to beat your anxiety today? Do you want to take it a little bit easy today because you don’t feel equipped or do you want to see how brave you can be?”
And you even saying that… So if you know that you’re struggling, your kids know that you’re struggling with certain things, you could also then say that…
Perfect example, a couple of weeks ago I had a cool opportunity to be on a panel for PBS Kids. It was being done live and streamed, and I was in my office and my husband and kids were at home and they’re going to catch me live. Afterwards, when I came home, my son is like, “Mommy, you did such a good job.” My daughter was like, “Yeah, good job.” And then they were like, “Were you nervous?” And I said, “Yeah.” And they were like, “Really?” And I said, “Yeah.” And they were like, “But you didn’t look nervous.” And I was like, “Because right before we started, I closed my eyes. I took a breath and I said, ‘I can do this. I’m excited about this. My heart’s beating fast because I’m super excited.’ And then once I started, it was enjoyable. It was fun. It was engaging. And so then, yeah, I wasn’t nervous anymore.” And he was like, “So you did it while scared?” And I was like, “Yeah, exactly. I did it while scared.”
And so being able to let them know that I did feel nervous, even though this is something that I do often, I still do get nervous and this is what I did about it. And that’s how I was able to overcome it. And that’s a good model because that way you’re showing them, you’re creating a lifestyle that mommy doesn’t get it right every time either. And sometimes I have these fears that I have to overcome, and this is the way that I do it.
Janet Lansbury: Right. And even seasoned professionals get-
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: Yeah.
Janet Lansbury: … nervous and it’s just human experience not to feel shame about, or extra worried because: Oh, I shouldn’t be feeling like this.
Man, I used to feel like that with speaking that I’m sweating and all these things are happening and this is my problem and I’m messed up. And then of course it just makes it a ton worse. When I finally realized that: Oh no, these are normal things and you breathe through them. But it’s perfectly valid to feel that way, it really helped me a lot.
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: And sometimes we misinterpret our somatic or body experiences. So that’s a great example that you gave is that you’ve that feeling before speaking, that your heart might’ve been racing, maybe you kind of felt this dryness or lump in your throat, whatever it was. And then what happens is that when people have a lot of anxiety about those things, they’re like: Oh my gosh, I must be feeling this because I’m anxious because I’m thinking I’m not going to bomb this experience. When maybe the feelings that you’re having are actually because you’re really excited. And maybe you’re like 80% excited, 20% scared.
And the fact is that when we’re excited and when we’re scared, our body kind of does the same thing. With worry and anxiety, we tend to get those wires crossed and we misinterpret the signals that we’re getting and we’re thinking: Oh, my heart is racing, so I must be scared and I must be the wrong person for this. They made a mistake. And then we interpret that feeling as worry and anxiety. And that we’re now this imposter who can’t do this job.
Janet Lansbury: Yes. That’s a really good point. And it reminded me of something that I try to remind parents about this time of year when it’s before their birthday or we’re going to take them somewhere that they’re excited about that for children, especially for young children that don’t have the life experience to be able to compartmentalize: Oh, I’m excited about this thing that’s going to happen, it really does feel the same as fear to them. So, when everybody’s getting them all excited about the holidays and the presents they’re going to get or something, now their behavior is going off the rails or they seem so fragile or they’re acting out or whatever. And there’s a reason for that. And it’s that dysregulation that’s the same dysregulation they would feel if they were upset or afraid, but it’s just about happy excitement.
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: Right. And that’s where we have to make sure that we explain to them that those sensations can feel and be experienced in the same way in very different circumstances. And it doesn’t mean that it’s a bad thing, it just means that our body is reminding us, that it’s working the way it’s supposed to, and that we have to then bring in the cognitive part of it of saying: Okay, oh my heart’s racing. Rather than interpreting it as fear we can say: Oh, my heart’s racing. I must be super excited and maybe a little bit scared.
And then being able to just come to terms with that and putting words to that so that they’re not just alone suffering in these abstract experiences and they don’t know how to use it. And that’s why I’m a big proponent of using feeling words and empathizing with kids and equipping them with different types of feelings, so that we can expand that feeling vocabulary. And they can be able to say, “Oh, yes, I’m very frustrated. I’m very irritated, I’m very overwhelmed, I’m very bored.” And we can really help them understand what that experience is, that: Oh, when I experienced that, it must be that I’m feeling that.
Janet Lansbury: And also it helps, I think, for us as parents not to overstate. Sometimes the child will be startled and the parent says, “Oh, you’re scared. That was scary.” Where in fact, they were just startled or surprised.
Like what I was thinking about the holidays and such is that anticipation — that’s a feeling that you have anticipation. It’s a little different from excitement, because excitement is more like you know what’s going on, and anticipation is like you don’t really know how it’s going to be, but you’re thinking about it. It’s wonderful for parents to think in terms of specifics and what is really happening here, instead of like, “Oh, that made you sad that I said no about the…” whatever it was, “the boundary that I had to set.” It makes it harder for us to set boundaries if we start believing that we’re making our child sad every time, instead of “disappointed” or something that doesn’t feel as heavy and damaging.
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: And we may get the word wrong, we may be totally off base-
Janet Lansbury: Yeah.
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: … but at least it’s a starting point.
And I think a big thing that I hear from a lot of parents, especially now after… what is it, nine months now of quarantining? For many people, they feel like: Okay, well, that’s all well and good. I can empathize and I can reflect their feelings and I can educate them. And then what if none of that works? What if it crashes and burns and now they’re having this big old tantrum? What do I do now?
A lot of what I really encourage parents to do is to be okay with your child’s big emotions. Like it’s okay that they’re upset. And if they’re having a tantrum, if they’re having a meltdown, if they’re saying they hate you and they don’t want to talk to you and… It’s okay for them to feel that. And I think we have to allow them that space to be upset, to be overwhelmed, to be disappointed, to be scared and upset, all those different things and to say, “When you’re ready to talk about it with me, I’m here.”
I think that so often parents put a lot of pressure on themselves to feel like they have to solve it in the moment and that I’m going to do this strategy and it’s going to work. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it crashes and burns and sometimes your child is not following the strategy and doing it the way you think it’s supposed to work, and that’s okay too, because again, you’re modeling for them that there’s going to be disappointment and there are going to be times when things don’t work out as planned and that’s okay too. Having that resilience and having that growth mindset and having that feeling that I can still move on, I can still have grit and resilience, that’s also a good lesson too.
Janet Lansbury: Absolutely. Yeah and I think it starts with trusting the feelings — that it’s not only normal, but probably really positive experience that your child is letting go of, a lot of pent up emotion. And it’s very rarely just about that one experience that set it off, it’s almost always that they’re having this cathartic release of everything they felt coming from us and in their lives. And so it’s all good. And yeah, talking to children during that gives the impression that we’re not comfortable and that we want them to stop and that we’re not okay.
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: Right. And even with the little ones, the ones, the three-year-olds, you don’t even have to use the words, just your presence is your posture, it’s your energy in the moment. Because if you’re huffing and puffing and turning all kinds of colors and rolling your eyes, they’re going to feel that what I’m feeling isn’t okay because obviously the way this parent is showing their frustration is showing me that it’s not okay.
So it’s about really doing your best to tell yourself in your mind: It’s okay that they’re having a hard time. It’s okay that they’re having a tantrum. This is developmentally appropriate and normal. I’m not a bad parent. Like to really be saying those things to yourself, to dial down your emotions because you’re going to feel them. So it’s just a matter of what is the energy you’re giving off when your child is in that moment of nuclear explosion, right in that moment.
Janet Lansbury: Exactly. And I think this is probably the biggest challenge for parents, because what we’re giving off is what we’re actually feeling. So we really have to feel safe, which is for most of us turning a 180 from the way that maybe we were raised or we instinctively feel. We really have to feel that: okay, this is the right thing to be happening right now. This is important for my child. This is positive. They’re going to feel better after this. This is all good.
And just taking care with our own anxiety to breathe and not try to say anything, not try to use a tool to fix it or do anything, but just trust. And then yeah, afterwards, maybe we can think about it and say: you know what, we’ve been doing too many activities. Or, this is too late in the day for me to have done this. Or there’s other reasons that it’ll make sense to us to problem-solve for what’s going on.
But yeah, it just takes practice to see how much clearer and better children feel when they’ve gotten these feelings out of their system and haven’t gotten the message from us that they should be afraid to even feel that way — you know, that it’s wrong to have that feeling, which is… Yeah, it’s very easy for us to give that impression, because it does feel all wrong to us when our child that we’ve spent so much time trying to keep happy and content… that they’re not. It can feel like a failure to us as parents.
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: Oh yeah, definitely. Especially when you’re putting your all into something and you’re planning this amazing outing or whatever and then they ruin it with this tantrum and you’re like, “Great, you’re so ungrateful after everything I’ve done for you.” And it’s really easy to feel that way.
But I think it’s really important to know that a lot of behaviors of kids do, it is really developmentally appropriate. It is expected. It’s not out of the ordinary. When it becomes out of the ordinary, when it’s excessive, when it causes significant impairment for a long period of time — and a really long period is like four to six months for kids in terms of excessive behavior, tantrums, excessive anxiety and worry — then that’s when you want to seek out more professional help to make sure you’re on the right track. Because doing it on your own is probably going to be too overwhelming and you want to get additional support. But for the most part, most kids, the way that they handle things, it’s pretty much expected. And it’s normal. If we can tell ourselves that, it will be easier to handle it.
Janet Lansbury: Well, thank you for being somebody that’s helping parents handle it. And thank you again for this discussion today. I really enjoyed it-
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: Yes.
Janet Lansbury: … and I learned a lot.
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: Thank you. I really appreciate being on here and talking about this, because I think that if parents and kids are more equipped, we can really change the way people perceive a lot of stuff.
Janet Lansbury: Is there anything you have coming up that you want to share with us?
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: Yeah, definitely, related to this topic, so it’s great timing. I have an online course coming up that will be live. And then also the recording will be sent to those who registered in advance and it’s called “Fear, Worry, and Anxiety: Tips for Parents.” It’s next Thursday, December 17th at 6:00 PM Central. And again, it will be live, but also recorded. I’ll go into a lot of the things that we talked about here today, but then a lot more in-depth strategies that parents can use. And there’ll be a big portion of the course where people can ask questions live as well too that I’ll answer.
Janet Lansbury: Sounds excellent. Thank you so much.
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart: Thank you too.
Also, 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 might be interested in. And both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in e-book at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or Barnes & Noble and in audio at audible.com. You can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.
Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.