My sixth-grade daughter is having a lot of worries about going to school. I am trying to talk to her about coping strategies but she just gets more upset. Do you have any ideas for how I should handle this? How do you know when to get professional help? —Concerned Parent
Dear Concerned Parent:
There is an important secret ingredient to success helping your children manage their worries, and that is managing your own anxiety.
It’s a funny thing how parental anxiety can unwittingly color, in a bad way, everything you do with your child. Anxiety is not something you can pinpoint either. It is expressed in tone of voice, by too much persistence, in slight, almost imperceptible inability to really listen, and, of course, it gets expressed without any behavior at all; some children are very sensitive and they can just feel it.
Unfortunately, as much as parents are hard-wired to have anxiety, is as much as anxiety can add stress and pressure to the parent-child relationship, leading to a breakdown in confidence on both sides. Anxiety corrodes conversation – children veer away from it, and sometimes, I’ve even seen children try to soothe and reassure their parents, which is no good for anybody in the long run.
Getting a handle on parental anxiety is not easy, either. Particularly if the anxiety level is high, it is not always easily controlled by reason. It can be a very visceral feeling, and as such, intellect can’t always touch it.
So take a good measure of your feelings before bursting into coping strategies. It is easy, these days, for parents to experience a great deal of anxiety over even little problems, much less big ones.
Taking a laid-back attitude about any problem your child presents means that you are prepared to learn more about it. They key is, knowing how to say “oh, well” instead of “OH NO!” when problems emerge.
I have no idea why your child doesn’t want to go to school, but I’m interested. Something must be going on, inside her or outside her that is stressing her out too much. Maybe she can talk about it, maybe she can’t. But definitely, talking about it will help her. And the more interested and relaxed you can be about this problem, the more likely it will be that she can explain herself to you in detail.
Once you are ready to start coming up with solutions together, try to make all of your suggestions in the form of a question. Your ideas should be presented as explorations rather than expectations. Your goal is to be close to your child and for her to feel safe with you; not to change her feeling. If you can achieve the goal I suggest, her worries will be more manageable because she will be less stressed.
Now, I know that it is not possible for parents to feel no anxiety when their children are suffering. That would truly be impossible. But getting a handle on anxiety and acting confident and relaxed, and maintaining a cool air of interest, doesn’t mean you actually have to feel calm and at peace with what is going on. It is simply an ACTING job. Lots of times, parents need to shield their children from certain realities, and their negative feelings are about the best realities to shield children from.
So act relaxed, let your child know you are available to talk. Even better, wait for an opening to ask a few gentle questions. Then, explore, explore, explore. Here are some ideas for what you can explore: should we go and talk to someone who is an expert about this? Would you like to try going to school for just a half an hour for a few days? Would you like a cell phone so you can call me from school? Would you like some words to talk back to the kids you are afraid of? Should we get a tutor? Etc. Whatever the problem she confesses to, try to explore what could help her. If all you get is “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know” confirm that this problem has no solution yet. You need to talk more.
The time to get professional help is when you want it. It is a great luxury to have someone to talk to and process feelings and dynamics with. It can also be a great resource when you have run out of ideas to have someone who can explore possibilities with you in a relaxed way. It is never fun to have problems, but it is also a great opportunity to open the door to something new.
Claudia Sheftel Luiz, M.Ed., Cert. Psya., is a psychoanalyst in Westwood, MA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her Web site, www.claudialuiz.com.