Being Active and Proactive
Most children, especially when young, usually do not plan ahead for a situation that creates anxiety. That means your child will likely approach an issue in the same ineffective way time after time. Understandably, this can perpetuate a sense of failure and an inability to trust herself. If you know from experience that allowing your child to be in charge of herself in the morning creates havoc and anxiety — step in and change it. Do not hope she will figure it out.
Better yet, if you know that time and organizational skills have been problem spots, be proactive. Identify a potential issue and set up a plan to create success without everyone having to go through the stress of failure first. For example, say your son is invited to a birthday sleepover party. He is especially excited because it means some of the boys at school like him enough to want him there. However, when you get there he freezes at the door, grabs your leg, and refuses to go inside. At first you gently encourage and coax. When that does not work, you plead. Finally, you scold him and shake him off of you with embarrassment and irritation as the other boys and moms watch. Walking away, you are frustrated and perplexed that an exciting, fun event turned into a disaster and feel terrible for how you left him. This situation gives you and your son an opportunity to develop a plan, proactively, for the future. Next time a new situation comes up you two can sit down the day before to discuss it. You can talk about how he feels about being invited, what the most fun parts of the party might be, what he thinks they might all do, what he might be nervous about, and what his greatest fears might be. You also might suggest that you do not mind staying for a few extra minutes until he is settled in with his friends, or picking him up early if the sleeping over part feels the most scary. Most kids will agree to go to a party if they know they have a way out of what they fear most, and when the scary part comes they often are having so much fun they do not want to leave after all.
Build a Plan
Part of being active and proactive is knowing how to build a plan. In the book Worried No More by Aureen Pinto Wagner, Ph.D., the author has created a clear, solution-focused, and parent-friendly treatment plan to put you and your child on the positive side of handling anxious behavior. The book is an excellent resource, chock-full of easy-to-read and -follow suggestions.
Breaking her plan down, this is what is most important for you to know:
First define the problem or behaviors you believe need to change.
Prioritize your list.
Make one goal for each issue on the list.
Brainstorm possible interventions and write down any possibility you can think of that might help.
Cultivate readiness by asking your child her thoughts about what she feels might work best for her.
After you have taken the steps above, apply the interventions, and then evaluate how effective they were. This process can be done at home or in the school setting, putting you and your child on the road to recovery. It is okay to be creative — this is your child, your family, your life. When you are brainstorming, it is helpful to think about the intervention in three parts: the thinking side, the active side, and the physiological side.
Here is an example of addressing the cognitive, behavioral, and physiological features of anxiety:
Let's return to the example of the little boy who was invited to the sleepover birthday party. Once home you will sit down with him and first discuss the fearful thoughts that went through his head. If he can't remember, that is okay. Instead, ask, “What do you think you were afraid of?” Then help him see the realistic side of his fears. In other words, remind him he was invited because they wanted him to come, that he plays with them after school and has a great time, and so on. You also want to create positive thoughts about what he can do if he becomes scared, like talk to his friend's parents or bring his favorite stuffed animal or blanket. That's the cognitive piece. Next, you want to set up exposure to the same event again so he can confront his fears. Call and make a sleepover first at your house and if that goes well, then at a friend's. It is crucial the first exposure to another sleepover is at your house, his home turf where he feels safe. Talk to your child about what went well at home to encourage him to do it at the friend's house too. That is the behavioral part of the intervention. And lastly, address the physiological — teach your child how to use relaxation and deep breathing skills to reduce what he is feeling inside of his body so he can calm himself down and be more successful next time.
By proactively cultivating readiness in your child, you gain active participation, hopefully motivation, and your child can also see how committed you are to help. This allows her to feel a sense of control with support and safety.