1. Parenting

How to Help Your Child With Anxiety – Using the Parental Intelligence Way

Do you wonder why your child or teen seems on edge, unduly nervous, or restless at times—maybe all of the time? Are you uncertain if and when you should be worried? Are you so busy that sometimes you dismiss these thoughts but later reconsider them? You may be noticing that you have an anxious child or teen.

Parents often find that anxiety is a difficult state of mind to help their children manage, modify, and eventually master—but it is not impossible.

Such parenting challenges can be met by learning about the Parental Intelligence Way of understanding and managing the behavior and feelings of children and teens with both fleeting and chronic anxiety.

Parental Intelligence is an approach to parenting that gives even busy parents an organized, reliable way to attend to these varied situations, whether they are minimal or excessive.

Parenting anxious kids, specifically, requires you to understand that anxiety is an emotional state that reveals meaningful thoughts and feelings which you can ultimately learn to decipher. This new, enlightening perspective, gained through Parental Intelligence, can be such a relief!

As you practice this process, you will become a meaning-maker empowered to read the thoughts and feelings underlying your child’s anxiety like an open book.

Once you understand what is going through your child’s or teen’s mind, you can collaborate with them to solve their problems. This not only relieves anxiety but strengthens the parent-child bond.

Illustration

Ten-year-old Lidia is drumming her fingers on her cheek as she stares at her homework. She has a worried expression on her face with a furrowed brow and pursed lips. She seems disorganized with papers scattered about.

Her mother notices but is preoccupied with getting dinner prepared before Lidia’s father comes home to relieve her of her parental activities; she will be the keynote speaker at a fundraiser tonight and cannot be late. She is a busy woman, barely getting home on time from work to get everything done.

“Oh, no”, she thinks, glancing sideways at her daughter, “she’s as anxious as ever—about what this time, I don’t know. But I do know I don’t have time for a chat. What’s a mother to do anyway with a chronically anxious kid?”

Lidia starts to cry, quietly at first, but soon she is bawling. Head down, she is clearly distraught. Her mother tells her to have her snack and do her homework later. This would give her time to settle down.

Always wanting to listen to her mother, she controls herself and goes upstairs, only to resume her stream of tears when she’s alone. Her body is trembling, and her throat is dry. She hates that her mother is going out; the thought triggers her separation anxiety.

Let’s replay this situation, only this time, Lidia’s mother uses Parental Intelligence, a different approach that allows her to be more empathic and proactive. Notice the shift in Lidia’s mother’s attitude and how her daughter responds gratefully.

Seeing her daughter in obvious distress, Lidia’s mother steps back in her mind to see if she could imagine what this was about. She’s tempted to rush in, but she wants to give Lidia some time to regulate her emotions on her own.

When clearly this isn’t happening, she sits by her, puts her arm around her, and asks, “Sweetheart, what’s the matter? Something going wrong today?”

Lidia nods, still crying. “I didn’t make the second cut on the lacrosse team.” To her mother, this doesn’t seem too disastrous, but to Lidia at ten years old, it means not being in the popular crowd. “And my hair frizzed up because of the rain and that awful Leslie teased me and she did make the second cut.”

Lidia’s mother’s heart breaks for her while self-reflecting about her own feelings of being on edge about her presentation that night. She wants to know more about what is on Lidia’s mind because she is a very well-liked kid.

In order to begin understanding her child’s mind, she says, “Tell me more about this situation.” “Well,” said Lidia, “it means next year I won’t make the travel team, and that’s a way to get a scholarship for college.” “College! That’s years away. You have a superb academic record and surely will by high school. Do you think we can take things one at a time? Next term, you can try out again.”

Given that reasonable perspective, Lidia’s tears recede, and she gives her mother a big hug. “I don’t feel so dizzy anymore, and my chest isn’t pounding now. Phew! I thought I’d never feel better.”

Now Lidia’s mother knew: her daughter had been having a panic attack. No wonder she was crying so hard, she thinks. She must’ve been really scared. Thank goodness she’s calm so her separation anxiety won’t kick in when I go out.

Using these first three steps of Parental Intelligence, in just fifteen minutes, mother and daughter were settled down. Lidia began her homework, Mother made dinner, and Dad came home in time.

Parental Intelligence gave this busy woman the tools to keep her daughter from slipping over the edge unnecessarily. What a difference!

How did this busy mother turn a possible disaster into a learning and bonding moment with her daughter and prevent a full-blown panic attack? The answer is simple: she used Parental Intelligence in just 15 minutes. Let’s see more clearly how this works.

Five Steps to Parental Intelligence

The five steps to Parental Intelligence are:

  1. Stepping Back
  2. Self-Reflecting
  3. Understanding Your Child’s Mind
  4. Understanding Your Child’s Development
  5. Problem Solving

Together, these five steps provide a road map to help you get to your destination: the place where you understand the meaning behind your child’s anxiety. What was once obscure will become clear. When the meaning or meanings behind the anxiety are understood, it is much easier to decide the best ways to handle the situation.

Going through the five-step process with your child often uncovers problems that are of greater significance than the original anxiety. What had previously been unspeakable will become known, and a new and stronger alliance will form between you and your child.

Step One: Stepping Back

The process of stepping back includes the suspension of judgment. This allows you to take time to figure out what happened before taking action. If you never pause, you never allow emotions to subside and thinking to begin.

Stepping back prepares you to engage in the parenting mindset that says what happened is meaningful. Even in an emergency, once the immediate situation has been handled, there is room for refraining from ready conclusions and for stepping back.

Step Two: Self-Reflecting

Self-reflecting allows you to discover how your past affects your present approach to parenting. Self-reflecting allows you to observe yourself objectively and think about the genesis of your feelings, motives, and actions in both present and previous relationships. It’s so tempting to just jump to ready solutions and skip questioning what’s going on inside of you.

For parents, self-reflecting is an extension of stepping back. It requires you to consider what led to your specific initial emotional responses to your child’s anxiety, prompts you to think about your actions from many perspectives, and allows you to consider many causes for your responses to your child.

You begin to question, Why did I react that particular way, now that I see it wasn’t the only way? What were my motives and intentions? What is my past affected my thinking and actions in the present? What
were my emotional reactions to my child’s behavior, and where did they come from?

When Lidia’s mother reacted to Lidia in the second version of the vignette, she had taken some time to self-reflect on her own experiences of anxiety.

In fact, her own anxiety about the impending fundraiser instantly alerted her to what Lidia might be going through. Doing so, she was then able to help her daughter to decrease her nervous state of mind lovingly and effectively.

Step Three: Understanding Your Child’s Mind

“What’s on your mind?” is a question often asked casually, but understanding your child’s mind is central to knowing your child.

Understanding your child’s mind starts with knowing your child’s mental states, including intentions, thoughts, desires, wishes, beliefs, and feelings. Be aware that contradictory and diverse mental states can occur at the same time.

Anxious behavior is meaningful, even if you don’t catch on right away. Of course, it’s important to check your ideas with your child. This shows empathy: “It seems like your feelings were hurt by the teacher, so you got nervous and bolted out of the classroom. Was it something like that?”

Let’s say your child reveals she is feeling hurt. After hearing your child’s response, you might continue: “Now that we can figure out what was going on in your mind, were there other choices you may have had so that you can react another way next time you feel hurt?”

Trying to understand your children’s minds shows them you believe in them and teaches them to believe in themselves. Treating your children like capable human beings with well-functioning minds and
good intentions build trust.

Step Four: Understanding Your Child’s Development

There are developmental stages at which children master different skills, but not all children reach those stages at the same time.

For example, your seven-year-old may be more adept at completing a math problem than a nine-year-old. Your thirteen-year-old may be more empathic than a sixteen-year-old. Two children in the same grade may perform differently on the same assignment.

The age when a child reaches a certain skill level is the child’s < developmental age for that skill, regardless of the child’s chronological age. When parents take into account the developmental age of their child—which reflects the stage the child has reached in mastering certain capacities—parents and children get along better.

Ask two questions: What is expected at my child’s stage of development? and How far apart is my child’s chronological age from my child’s developmental age?

Being critical of a child for not completing tasks expected for their chronological age creates anxiety. Expectations that do not reflect your child’s developmental age won’t be met and will create acute emotional distress.

Step Five: Problem Solving

The more you continue working on the first four steps, the more natural they will become, getting you ready for the last step: problem-solving. Interestingly, by now, the initial problem, the specific anxiety has become part of a set of problems to be solved over time.

The immediate importance of the initial anxiety may have lessened because it has been recognized as a symptom of more pressing issues lying underneath. These are the problems you ultimately hope to solve, together with your child, using Parental Intelligence.

Problem-solving aims to find mutual meanings, which may be new to both participants. Meanings are exchanged through taking collaborative turns in talking things out in order to correct misinterpretations of the anxious behavior in question. Parents and children learn new coping skills that can be used in the future.

Without a good relationship, problems are rarely solved. The steps leading from stepping back to problem-solving seem linear, but you may need to go back and forth among them.

While problem-solving, you may realize you need to be more reflective about your view of reality and your child’s view of reality. If indeed, you and your child can see the problem from each other’s points of view, both you and your child should be ready to solve the problem together.

Distinguishing Fear from Anxiety

It’s important to distinguish fear from anxiety. Fear is the reaction to real or perceived actual danger, whereas anxiety is a disproportionate vigilant response to the anticipation of a future threat that may lead to avoidant behavior.

When someone is fearful, they have a fight-or-flight reaction with thoughts of immediate danger requiring escape. Anxiety is more often related to muscle tension and a wary, watchful, sometimes overwhelming cautious attitude.

An anxiety disorder, however, features excessive fear, often related to behavioral disturbances that persist beyond normal developmental stages. For example, we expect a toddler to be anxious momentarily when his mother leaves the room. He is not yet fully certain that what he can’t see is still there. So, he follows her and reassures himself she is still at home.

However, should an elementary school child or teenager do the same, we would find it abnormal and worrisome, requiring intervention to help us understand the underlying causes and the remedies.

Summary

Parental Intelligence is an approach to parenting that gives even busy parents an organized, reliable way to attend to these varied situations, whether they are minimal or excessive.

I coined the term Parental Intelligence because I believe parents who are willing to pause and reflect before they react can find many of the answers and insights they need within themselves.

Parenting anxious kids, specifically, requires you to understand that anxiety is an emotional state that reveals meaningful thoughts and feelings which you can ultimately learn to decipher. This new, enlightening perspective, gained through Parental Intelligence, can be such a relief!

As you continue to practice this process, you will become a meaning-maker, empowered to read the thoughts and feelings underlying your child’s anxiety like an open book.

Once you understand what is going through your child’s or teen’s mind, you can collaborate with them to solve their problems. This not only relieves anxiety but strengthens the parent-child bond.

About the Author

Website: Laurie Hollman, Ph. D.

Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst with specialized clinical training in infant-parent, child adolescent, and adult psychotherapy and is an expert on the Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

She is an authority on modern parent-child relationships who has published three award-winning parenting books and has four more books to be released in 2020 and 2021. She has been on the faculties of New York University and the Society for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, among others.