Supporting Function in the Anxious Child

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Anxiety tends to stink, for the most part.

There are times when it can be useful, such as when you’re in fight-or-flight mode, or when it keeps you alert to the needs of self-preservation.

In general, however, it can feel intrusive, interfering, and profoundly annoying.

The specific type of anxiety that I’m about to describe will sound very familiar. Everyone experiences some measure of anxiety when coping with the pressure to function and perform. For most people, while potent and experienced with great intensity, it generally eases after the trigger passes.

There are some, however, for whom the anxiety does not pass, and it chips away at their ability to function in daily life. Cracks in the veneer can run the gamut from irritability to meltdowns to all-out tantrums. At the other end, it can also look like inactivity, decreased participation in social events, school or work refusal, the inability to leave one’s home, and a general loss of functional ability.

For parents, this can be a terrifying thing to witness, particularly when loss of function pairs itself with depression or a phobia. Watching a child disintegrate is painful and taps into deep-seated fears related to a parent’s own regrets or disappointments about themselves. Naturally, the instinct can be to try to resolve it as quickly as possible and to freeze it in its tracks before it takes on a life of its own and causes the individual to hemorrhage motivation, self-esteem, and a sense of their personal capability.

It can become very tempting to ACT on behalf of the suffering person, resulting in impulsive choices. Sometimes parents try to explain the specific details of consequences, or paint a picture of negative outcomes, all in the hopes of trying to turn things around. Others might leap ahead to warn of the self-fulfilling nature of a bleak future, and the many ways in which their child will not succeed if they keep doing A, B, and C. It is well-meaning, an attempt to save their child and inject some sense of the pitfalls of a situation, but is actually experienced as enormous PRESSURE.

Interesting thing about pressure though: pressure is seldom motivating. If anything, it often has an opposite, paralyzing, almost chilling effect. Children often already know about the various negative outcomes associated with being non-functional. Most anxious children would give anything to magically change their fallibility because they don’t want to disappoint their families or seem somehow “less than” to society at large. They want so badly to be able to give their parents the ease of dreams and hopes fulfilled, but they just can’t. They’re not genies. They don’t have magic wands. They can’t make things happen on everyone else’s timeline. Believe me, if they could give that to you, they would. It would be a dream for them, because people might finally stop PRESSURING them and just ease off.

As counterintuitive as it might seem, the key to addressing anxiety is to ease up on the pressure and demands. Children that are overwhelmed by a laundry list of ways in which they have yet to meet the standards of others, run the risk of becoming tortuously uncertain and self deprecating. Preventing all-out collapse requires the fully supported step of feeling like they actually can fall, and still be loved. They need to be able to communicate their thoughts and feel like their issues can be fully addressed without judgment.  

The ability to do things in their own time, and having the genuine approval of their parents to take alternative pathways to achieve a normative goal is crucial. Without anxiety being emotionally scaffolded and openly addressed, it can become a source of shame, which has a devastating effect upon a child. The good news is that children are pretty flexible and willing to adapt, even if things haven’t been said encouragingly in the past. Openly discussing and normalizing their struggles while being very mindful of the hidden ways that we can non-verbally communicate disapproval is an important step towards giving them the space they need to develop in their own special way.

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May Hwa-Jones was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens. She interned at Rolling Stone Magazine and Elle Magazine in college, and was a freelance editorial assistant at Family Life Magazine. With a Bachelor’s Degree from NYU and a Master’s Degree from Stanford University in Literature, May explored editorial life in NYC, but moved towards a teaching career instead, which led to a teaching certification in secondary education and the eventual achievement of a second Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Denver. As a licensed clinical social worker, May has practiced psychotherapy for nearly seventeen years in multiple settings, from substance abuse clinics in hospitals to community mental health centers, finally finding her passion working with families in a school for severely emotionally disabled children in Westchester County. She is married to a self-proclaimed red neck from Colorado and has three children, who are the beloved centers of chaos in her life. Formerly a ballet dancer and musician for over 20 years, she now does Zumba to keep her joints from locking up and is an avid cheer-soccer-tae kwon do-music-art-dance mom. Her husband regularly begs her to stop volunteering to run more activities, but she never listens to red necks.