I recently read an article about how, "Anxiety drives a lot of symptoms in a school setting (and at home) that are easily misconstrued as ODD, ADHD, or defiant behavior." That article brought back memories of my daughter at age 9, just before she left school half way through 4th grade due to the effects of severe emotional bullying and a subsequent breakdown. Prior to the events in 4th grade she had always been very well behaved, she was a people-pleaser, a perfectionist, she loved school and her teachers and prided herself on always trying to do the right thing. But, it was half way through that last school year when things started to change. At that time I had no idea that the effects of the bullying were affecting her so much, that she didn't know how to communicate to her teacher or I what she was feeling inside, and that each and every day she was living with severe anxiety.
On the outside all I could see was that she was starting to "misbehave." Suddenly, she wouldn't do what I told her to do, she would run off when her teacher or I would try to make her attend something she didn't want to attend. When she caught sight of the school mascot she would run off and hide. When it was time for Math she would bolt out the school room door. Later I learned, because she struggled a little with Math, it made her extremely anxious, inside she was afraid of getting an answer wrong when the teacher called on her because of the smirks she would get from the bullies, and the look on her teachers face that she took to mean disappointment. These two things, the bullies and the thought of disappointing her teacher, were almost unbearable for her. I can explain the reasons for everything now, because it has been 6 years since my daughter was in school, but back then all I saw was an extremely "jumpy" and defiant child. I had no idea at that time that the reason she was acting out was anxiety. She masked the intensity of the severe and chronic anxiety that had built up inside her very well, I would have never thought that fear and emotional pain were the reasons behind her defiant behaviors. I kept trying to control her, persuade, bride, threaten, anything...to get her to comply. At that time it was the only form of parenting I had ever known - and I was panicking, my happy little daughter who brought me so much joy looked like she was changing into someone I didn't know or understand, and honestly, that scared me to death. I just wanted her back - but I didn't have the knowledge or tools to know how to reach her.
Later on in that 4th grade year after attending an after school event, my daughter started having panic attacks and was never able to return to school again. We had been homeschooling for about a year - or attempting to homeschool, when one day after she had a terrible emotional meltdown over schoolwork, I finally told her, "Ok, I give up..." I was at my wits end, I had tried everything I knew to get her to comply, to do her schoolwork and be happy and agreeable like she use to be, nothing was working. Finally, as she started to be able to communicate some of the details of the bullying she had experienced, I began to realize that I knew nothing about what my daughter had experienced, what she was feeling inside still, or why she was acting out. That day after the meltdown, with no where else to turn I finally told her, "I believe you, I am going to trust you when you say you can't do something, I am going to trust you when you tell me you are too sad, or too tired, or too depressed, and I want to hear what you are thinking, please try to tell me what you are feeling???" She didn't have an answer for me, but somehow the word came to my mind and I said, "It looks to me like you are experiencing a great deal of "anxiety." She looked up at me with this look I will never forget, it was a look of relief and hope mixed as one, for the first time ever she got the sense that I might understand, and relief that a name had been put on the incredibly intense and painful feeling she had been feeling inside for so long.
Finally knowing that anxiety was the reason behind my daughter's behaviors was life changing. But we needed help in order to help her. We searched and searched and finally found a gifted therapist, and took her right away. From that first session she knew, the therapist knew what was causing my daughter's behaviors and anxiety. She sent us home with a video to watch called, "Taming The Worry Monster." She told us to watch it once as a family, and for my daughter to watch it two more times by herself. That video was also life changing for us. It gave my daughter the information and tools she would need to conquer severe anxiety, and it gave my husband and I a glimpse into the world of a person experiencing excruciating fear and emotional pain. We had to change our parenting, our daughter we learned was a highly sensitive person, HSP. The therapist told us, or almost shouted at my husband, "Your daughter is 10 times more sensitive than the average child - you can't talk to her that way!" We heard her loud and clear, and started to change the way we talked to our daughter, a softer, kinder way, always taking into consideration her high sensitivity and the emotions she was experiencing, no matter what the behavior. It was then that a new realization came over me, if there is a behavior there is always an emotion, and an unmet need. I also learned, that when you have a highly sensitive child, there doesn't have to be a trauma or other experience that causes them high anxiety, just living day to day life as a highly sensitive person, can at times, be overwhelming. If you have a highly sensitive child or a gifted child with high emotional sensitivity, high sensory perception, and general overall heightened intellectual awareness that does not match their emotional maturity, normal daily life can at times seem too much for them to bear.
My daughter was very articulate even early on, but even she was unable to explain to us the terrifying anxiety she was feeling inside. Most young children don't know how to explain an emotion or feeling, they just keep trying to be happy and have fun and be a kid, they just keep trying to please us as much as they can, but inside they are not ok. When high anxiety is lurking beneath the surface, they can easily loose control of their words, actions, and behaviors. They don't know why they are acting out, they only know they feel scared, or hurt, or controlled, or misunderstood, or not trusted, or lonely, or worthless...and more, but they don't have the words to describe what they are experiencing to us. So it all just keeps bottled up inside them, until they let it out in some sort of explosive behavior, or try to lessen their own distress through refusal and avoidance.
It's up to us as parents to talk to our kids when they are acting out, instead of just assuming, lecturing or punishing. More importantly, let them talk, and LISTEN, listen carefully. When anxiety is involved their words won't always be spoken in a calm and respectful tone. If we are aware and prepare for this, the intensity of their words won't keep us from hearing what they are feeling and experiencing. When our children do start to open up and share their biggest emotions, no matter how hard it is for us to hear their true feelings, it helps to remember that the only thing that can hurt them is the thoughts and feelings they keep inside. When they get them talked out, they can then let them go, this is the start to conquering anxiety. As parents, we start by giving them a name for what they are feeling, a word, "It sounds like you are really frustrated, angry, discouraged, sad, angry, hurt...right now." By learning to name the emotion or feeling they are having, they now have a way to in the future let us know what they are experiencing, and subsequently release their anxiety. If we want them to continue to share their feelings with us, we need to make sure we accept whatever they are telling us as valid, we need to validate their feelings and show empathy, in order for them to be able to process their feelings and let go of them. Denying what they are feeling by minimizing their experience will only cause them more anxiety. Comments such as, "Don't be scared, everything is fine," or "There is nothing to be anxious about you know the information on the test," or "You are not hurt, you're fine it's just a little scratch," although spoken with good intention, will only make them feel more anxious.
What they need is our understanding, our verbal validation of the feeling they are experiencing, and for us to show true empathy. Validating feelings and showing empathy does not mean we agree with everything they are thinking or saying, it just means that we are understanding of their experience and distress. If we let them openly share what they are feeling with us without minimizing or judging it, with this important information - a name for the feeling they are experiencing - we will start to understand the reasons for their anxiety or what is triggering it. With the understanding of what is behind our children's anxiety, we can then introduce copying skills and changes to their routine that will help to reduce the stress and anxiety in their lives. In the end, through implementing proactive parenting strategies, identifying and correctly utilizing strengths and inherent modalities, and taking advantage of newly learned copying skills and aids to help with emotional and sensory sensitivities and intensities, we can help them to again move forward toward taking on a normal school schedule or daily routine.
Many times, kids feel anxious because they don't have control over their own schedules and lives. This is especially true for highly sensitive children, those with emotional or sensory sensitivities and intensities, and those who are most comfortable with order and organization. Things like putting a calendar on a wall so they can see what is planned for their week, letting them know about changes in routine as soon as we know about them, showing empathy and understanding along with supplying sensory aids to help with sensitivities to light, sound, touch, and taste, giving them a timer or periodic countdowns to appointments so that they can complete a project before leaving, and letting them have more choice in their schooling or the friends they spend time with, can all help to greatly reduce stress and anxiety. If they have sensory issues, social anxiety, or other phobias and fears, it can feel terrifying to not have control over your own life. Letting our children know what our plans are the day before an event can help them to mentally and emotionally prepare. We can also sit down with them the day before to talk over any fears or worries they may have, to come up with a plan to help reduce the stress and anxiety of a particular event. We need to remember to listen without judgement and without minimizing their concerns. I know when I first started to hear all the fears and worries in my daughters head that were causing her anxiety, it was very uncomfortable for me. I wanted to find a way to fix it or control it because I didn't like the way it made ME feel, I wanted it to go away. But pushing away feelings or anxiety only brings on more anxiety, and I soon learned that just listening, validating her feelings and showing empathy, was many times all that was needed to help her calm down and move forward.
Most of the time we really don't know what is going on up in the heads of our children, we don't really know why they act the way they do. Next time they act out, ask them. Start the conversation and help them to identify the feeling they are experiencing; be it fear, anger, frustration, disgust, jealousy...or just overall anxiety. Until we create an atmosphere where naming and sharing feelings is encouraged no matter how intense the feeling, how confusing or troubling the behavior, or how unkind the words are we hear, we won't have the important information needed to help our children develop coping skills, find ways to reduce the stress in their lives, and go on to live a life free of anxiety.
Hugs & Happy Parenting!
Julie L Gibson-Vasquez The Proactive Parenting Coach