The Six Best Ways to Manage Anxiety - From Psychology Today
(1) Reevaluating the probability of the threatening event actually happening
Anxiety makes us feel threat is imminent yet most of the time what we worry about never happens. By recording our worries and how many came true, we can notice how much we overestimate the prospect of negative events.
Even if a bad event happened, we may still be able to handle it by using our coping skills and problem-solving abilities or by enlisting others to help. Although not pleasant, we could still survive encountering a spider, having a panic attack, or losing money. It’s important to realize that very few things are the end of the world.
(3) Using deep breathing and relaxation to calm down
By deliberately relaxing our muscles we begin to calm down so we can think clearly. If you practice this without a threat present at first, it can start to become automic and will be easier to use in the moment when you face a threat. Deep breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system to put the brakes on sympathetic arousal.
(4) Becoming mindful of our own physical and mental reactions
The skill of mindfulness involves calmly observing our own reactions, including fear, without panic or feeling compelled to act. It is something that can be taught in therapy and improves with practice.
(5) Accepting the Fear and Committing to Living a Life Based on Core Values
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an approach that encourages people to accept the inevitability of negative thoughts and feelings and not try to repress or control them. By directing attention away from the fear and back onto life tasks and valued goals, we can live a full life despite the fear.
Exposure is the most powerful technique for anxiety and it involves facing what we fear and staying in the situation long enough for the fear to habituate or go down, as it naturally does. Fear makes us avoid or run away, so our minds and bodies never learn that much of what we fear is not truly dangerous.
What is Positive Parenting?
Wouldn’t it be nice if children came with an instruction manual? The ways in which we are expected to parent our children today is often different from the way we were parented. Social attitudes have dramatically changed parenting expectations about work and family life, about discipline, about communication, about sibling rivalry, about homework and more. Without sufficient guidelines to help modern-day parents, they are left feeling helpless and frustrated.
To cope with these changes, parents need to adopt more positive parenting techniques. A positive parent provides children with structure and security, with love and limits,and with self-control and self-respect. Raised in this atmosphere, children will develop healthy attitudes about relationships, and they will be more responsible and have a healthier sense of self.
Because many parents were raised with punishment, they have a misunderstanding about how to get cooperation and teach respect without yelling, spanking or using time out. Positive parents understand the difference between discipline and punishment. Discipline engages children’s thinking brains and helps children make important choices about what is right and wrong. Punishment uses aggression, isolation and shame to coerce right behavior. Discipline models self-control and respect. Punishment creates fear.
‘Positive discipline’ parents encourage children to find their own solutions to problems while acting as a coach or emotional tutor. These parents act as a model of what they want their own children to be. They avoid “do it because I told you so” or “do what I say, not what I do,” because they know that children who hear this will behave when parents are around but do what they want when they’re alone or with peers.
Positive Parenting Tips
One of the simplest ways to be a positive parent is to offer children choices: “Do you want milk or juice with breakfast?” Two choices are enough! If your child says she wants soda, repeat the choices again. After going a couple of rounds without a choice, step in and make the decision for her. Don’t back down at this point; stand your ground and offer firm limits. Your child will be more ready to make a choice about drinks tomorrow. You can offer a lot of choices to your child throughout the day, so that making decisions becomes natural. After a while, your child will feel empowered about her ability to choose, so that the need for a power struggle decreases. This will help you as a parent to feel more competent about your skills as well.
Another positive parenting tip is to show lots of empathy for a problem your child brings up, such as a teacher who gave him a low test score. Quizzing your child about why he got such a low grade or pointing out that he didn’t study like he had been told to can turn into a fight rather than the chance to problem solve together. Instead, you can say, “You’re very upset about this score. You felt you should have gotten a better one.” Follow this empathetic response up with a positive brainstorming comment such as, “What could you do next time to get a better score?” At first children who hear these responses will defend themselves, but over time they will offer some ideas about the need to study more, prepare better, or perhaps get a tutor. Engaging in problem-solving conversations can help a child learn how to do better in school and life.
Making these positive parenting changes is not easy. Parents will fall back into old, negative patterns. That is just one more opportunity to model change. Be honest about the mistakes. Talk about how you will correct them next time, and let your child witness your transformation.
from Winter 2013 Adoptalk
Used with permission by Mary Boo.
By Katja Rowell, M.D. © 2013 Dr. Katja Rowell is a family doctor turned childhood feeding specialist. Her mission is to bring peace and joy to the family table. She consults with parents, is a blogger, mom, family cook, and sought-after speaker. Her book Love Me, Feed Me: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Ending the Worry About Weight, Picky Eating, Power Struggles and More distills the support she provides clients. (Published in 2012 and available on Amazon.com.)
The information in this article is educational. It is not meant to replace careful evaluation and treatment by medical, nutritional, or mental health professionals.
Whether a child is 15 days or 15 years old, feeding and nurturing through shared meals is a critical way to deepen attachment. Dr. Bruce Perry, of the Child Trauma Academy, refers to ideal bonding opportunities as repetitive, relationship-building, patternbased, and involving the senses— which describes the family meal experience perfectly. But the family table is not always an easy place for adopted and foster children. Indeed, one mom said that her fantasies of pleasant family meals were met “with a slap in the face” when her two children, adopted from Russia, struggled with food anxieties and sensory issues. Unfortunately, conflict around food and eating habits are more common for foster and adopted children due to their past experiences. When conflict defines interactions around food, those bonding opportunities are lost, and trust and attachment can suffer as well.
“We had a 15-year-old boy in foster care with a history of runaway episodes,” Amy recalls. “He was gone for about 30 hours. When he came back, I decided there was no point being upset, so just told him we’d been scared, made sure he was safe and healthy, and quickly threw a box of mac-n-cheese on the stove to get him some comfort food. That floored him, because it turns out that he’d been denied food in his home after his running. I think it ended up bonding him to us much more than anything else could have.”
Parents want to raise children who are healthy and happy. Many try to instill healthy eating habits by enforcing nutrition rules or portion control. But when raising children who have experienced food insecurity, healing the anxiety around food is key to helping children grow up to be competent eaters who can self-regulate and learn to eat a variety of foods.
Food Insecurity Leads to Survival Behaviors
When children are not fed reliably, do not get enough food, or have to compete for enough, they become anxious. When food-insecure children do have access to food, they often don’t understand or trust that it is coming again in adequate amounts. Food insecurity and unsupportive feeding deeply color the initial relationship a child has with food. It can take weeks, months, and even years of reliable feeding for that trust to build and for children to believe they will be fed.
Some children who have been food insecure demonstrate hoarding behaviors. These survival strategies may manifest themselves in the following:
Healing Food Anxieties
Deciding whether to stash or not to stash. Many resources on hoarding advise allowing the child to have snacks in his backpack or carry food in a pocket, or even have containers of food in the bedroom. Anneliese, mother of two boys, one adopted, one biological, recalls that the main feeding advice she got from her social worker was to let her son carry around baggies of carrots all day: “I just didn’t think that was going to help.” Other experts advise parents to avoid the stash and serve regular meals and snacks. The reality is, it is not an either-or or one-size-fits-all answer.
Parents may decide to offer a stash, or not, and see how things go. The stash may help at first, and the child simply loses interest with time. Consider 18- month-old Marcus, who did not want to let go of his biscuit. He certainly can be allowed to hang on to the biscuit for a while, and maybe even have one in his pocket. Follow his lead. If he throws a tantrum when it’s taken away, allow him to carry it. But the parent also has to be absolutely reliable about regularly providing food. Parents may need to offer food more frequently at first, perhaps every hour or so.
Three-year-old Arielle, adopted at 11 months, was on calorie restriction and was experiencing intense food anxiety and preoccupation. Mom let her carry food in an attempt to address her anxiety, but Arielle gobbled it up and begged for more. In this scenario, Arielle’s actions were not the hoarding behaviors seen when a child first arrives from a place of food insecurity, but were actually symptoms of a feeding relationship disruption due to her food restriction (more below). Letting her have her own stash of food to carry around didn’t work in this situation.
To facilitate bonding and food security, food should come from the parents whenever possible. When a child is allowed to get food whenever he wants, he may still feel responsible for getting his own food. It is a missed opportunity to nurture and deepen the attachment with the child. Feeding a child directly shows him that he will be taken care of and builds trust. Meeting his needs, over and over again, is the basis for attachment.
Reassuring the child with words and actions. One foster mom had a little boy she couldn’t keep out of the fridge. He would occasionally eat to the point of making himself sick. Mom didn’t want to lock the fridge to restrict his food access. Instead, she assigned him a refrigerator drawer. She stocked it with familiar food and told him that the drawer would always be full, and while he could not take food at random, this drawer was his. He checked the drawer often, with Mom’s reassurance that it was his food, and he could help choose from it for meals and snack times. Mom made certain it was never empty, and gradually he forgot about it, mostly because Mom reassured him with regularly scheduled meals and snacks.
Another preschool boy, adopted from Eastern Europe, loved cereal. He would frantically gobble as much as he could and cry when limited. His parents finally realized that when he saw an empty box, he thought there would be no more cereal, ever. They were able to reassure him, and for a while overstocked the pantry with his favorite cereals. At breakfast, he was allowed to eat as much as he wanted, but simple reassurances and a trip to look at the pantry helped him realize he would get enough. Soon he was eating about the same as his brother and was no longer anxious at meals.
Being reliable about feeding. While parents can allow a stash if it works for their child, the best way to lessen hoarding behaviors is to lessen anxiety around food.
“Sam had some hoarding issues, but it didn’t last long. We let it run its course. We chose not to have food available to the boys all day and night. I didn’t think it would reassure them. I fed them regularly and sat and ate with them. They pretty quickly learned to trust they would get fed.” — Mia, mother of two boys adopted at age five and seven
Deborah Gray, in Attaching and Adoption, wrote about “high nurture, high structure” parenting. This dovetails nicely with feeding in the Trust Model, pioneered by therapist and nutritionist Ellyn Satter. Parents provide regular meals and snacks with balanced and tasty foods, and the child decides how much to eat from what is provided.
Keeping initial hoarding from becoming entrenched food obsession.Even if a child is labeled as obese or overweight, she can still feel food insecure, and attempts to limit her intake will make her more anxious and prone to overeat. Many children who experienced food insecurity have initial behaviors that scare parents, especially if the child is bigger than average. A foster child may be obese and not regulating food intake due to food insecurity or other factors.
Research tells us that restrictive feeding tends to lead to higher weight and increased eating in the absence of hunger. I believe food restriction and efforts to control weight lead to more entrenched food obsession, with food-seeking behaviors worsening, not improving.
It is critical to address a child’s initial food anxiety with nurturing, reliable feeding, and allow the child to “overeat” while she learns to trust her cues of hunger and fullness. I believe these children’s food regulation skills are simply buried, and they can learn to tune in to hunger and fullness cues.What it boils down to is this: with reliable, pleasant, and satisfying meals and snacks, even the food insecure child will learn over time that he doesn’t have to worry about when or how much he will get to eat. Parents get to worry or think about the food, so the child doesn’t have to.
Tips to Reduce Food Anxiety
It Happened to Me: I Have a Severely Disabled Child -
We thought once we got the all-clear on the amniocentesis tests, we were assured of healthy babies.
Jill remembers the very first time Ben got called to the principal’s office. The kindergarteners were standing in line waiting for the bus home when Ben pushed a classmate to the ground. Then he encouraged a few of the other kids to start kicking. The boy wasn’t down for long before a teacher, who had witnessed the whole thing, came over to intervene. Ben, the teacher later told Jill, seemed to think it was funny. Jill was horrified.
Ben and his collaborators were sentenced to five hours each of community service around the school during recess: cleaning dry erase boards, packing up balls in the gym. At home, Jill talked to Ben about what it means to act appropriately at school and to be kind to others, and continued to talk to him in the months following. He was a smart boy; he understood, she thought. After all, at home, he was generally well behaved.
And yet, three years later, Ben remains the undisputed class troublemaker. Teachers almost seem to assume that he’ll act out. Often, Jill suspects, this is precisely the reason he does. He knows what’s expected of him.
During the elementary school years, boys tend to misbehave more than girls, though girls catch up later during adolescence, in other ways. We used to say that boys were more “active,” as if to excuse, or at least explain, misbehavior. But the truth is that the line between “active” and “disruptive” is thin, kids aren’t particularly skilled at walking it, and disruptive is a problem. Parents of kids like Ben know that once a boy has been labeled a troublemaker at school, it can be very difficult for him to shake the label. Often, that’s because he becomes the label; he, like Ben, lives up to the expectations other have laid out for him.
It’s not easy for parents to admit their son is the one causing trouble, and can be even harder to reconcile when the child is well behaved at home. It’s a natural impulse to defend kids, especially when you didn’t actually see what happened, and want to help them argue their way out of trouble — whether that’s after-school detention or a speeding ticket. It’s also natural for parents to want to intervene when their troublemaker finds himself an outcast among friends, as many often do. “Many of the boys stopped wanting to play with Ben at recess because it often meant they’d get into trouble, too,” remembers Jill. “It was heartbreaking, but in a way I couldn’t really blame them. It wasn’t untrue.”
If your child is the troublemaker, it’s important to help set him straight sooner rather than later — ideally before he gets labeled and before he finds himself losing friends. A few ideas to keep in mind:
Practice tough love (on yourself, too). Be honest with yourself about your son’s behavior. Your job is to be his champion, but not his defender when he’s behaved inappropriately. If he’s the class clown, even if he’s not “hurting anyone,” you need to acknowledge that, and respect the consequences. Learning to develop the skills needed to be part of a group is a critical part of growing up, and something your son needs to learn. Maybe even the hard way.
Cooperate. The best results come when parents can work with, and not against, teachers. When you argue with the school, his coach, or the staff at the daycare, you’re letting your son off the hook. You can support him without letting him avoid the consequences of his actions. The more you help him skirt the issue, the less likely he is to change. And if you do disagree with the way a teacher is handling your child, never discuss it in front of him. That will only further undermine her authority in his eyes. Take your concern directly to the teacher, way out of earshot of your son.
Be specific. When your son acts out at home or in school, don’t just tell him what he did wrong. Have him tell you — and then talk together about why that behavior was unacceptable. Teach him strategies to act better. One way to do this is to present specific scenarios. Set up micro-scenes and have him act out responses: What to do when he’s bored in class, angry with a friend, feeling the urge to tell a joke during quiet time. Then remind him of all his positive qualities and point out when he does something right, like helping a friend or making his bed without being asked. Being labeled a troublemaker can be difficult on a child’s self-esteem, so remember to give it a gentle boost now and again. If he thinks he only does wrong, he’ll continue to do wrong.
Let things go… If your son is losing friends because of his behavior, don’t try to intervene, no matter how difficult it is to watch. Children have the right to decide if they’re not comfortable playing with other children. Respect their decision and know that it will be a learning tool for your son, then talk to him about why his friends may be turning away. Learning how to get along with others is an important part of becoming independent, and while you can help him understand what it means to be a good friend, you can’t force other children to overlook your son’s problematic behavior. In fact, the less you help, the quicker he’ll figure it out himself.
… But don’t give up. If the pattern continues or gets worse, you may want to consider enlisting the help of your pediatrician or a counselor. Some kids have trouble adjusting to change, at school or at home. But if his behavior has been consistent over months or even years, something may be bothering him that he’s unable to articulate.
1. Mothers will compete with you. At some point in motherhood during a playgroup for your child, potluck, playdate or on the playground, you will learn that other moms are evaluating how you parent, the type of snacks that you pack for your children, whether or not you are a good enough mother because of the tantrums your child has or the types of activities that you expose your child to, like music lessons. Over the years, I have chosen to create my community with mothers that do not have something to prove by pointing out what I should or should not be doing.
2. Setting boundaries is essential to having any chance at personal peace. I’ve learned that the word “no” is my best friend, and my comfort level with speaking it has prevented me from overcommitting at PTA events and other activities. This two-letter word has also allowed my children and spouse to understand that I don’t have additional hours in my day to do more than my share. I’ve realized that the clearer I am about what makes my household and life move smoother, the better I am at asking for what I need.
3. Motherhood is stressful and beautiful. At many points on this journey you will experience stress trying to do it all — when “all” was never expected to begin with. One of the ways that I’ve practiced reducing my stress is to repeat daily that “less is more.” When I have less stuff that I am committed too and fewer things to fill every corner of my home, I find it easier to live and see the beauty that is around me.
4. Your car will be messy. As much as I would like to say that my minivan, affectionately known as the “Mom-Me Porsche,” is always spotless, it isn’t. Well, maybe it is spotless for the few hours after a car wash before I pick up the children and their friends, but it doesn’t stay that way for long. We live in our car and it has every type of sporting equipment, backup outfits, a first aid kit and snacks just in case mom realizes that someone forgot the “whatever.”
5. If you’re married, you must date your spouse without your children. My husband and I try to date one another every other week at least. We might meet for lunch or go out for dinner. Sometimes, we visit our favorite bookstore and just have coffee and make time to talk without interruption. Occasionally, we arrange to do something more interesting that requires us to dress up and impress one another. We truly cherish our time together.
6. At times you will question if you are making the right choices for your children. It happens to us all with every child and at every stage of motherhood. It might begin with a simple decision that you made during your child’s routine doctor appointment or whether or not to choose a particular school or teacher, or to switch a child’s class. It could even be a decision that you made to allow your children to watch certain television programs, or to view the latest blockbuster movie, and the list goes on and on. I have learned over the years that if 80 percent of my decisions are great and 20 percent of them are fair-to- average, then my children will fare well in their lives. I also frequently remind myself that perfection is never the goal and that striving for it will drive me insane. Really.
7. Taking care of yourself is the best gift that you can give your family. Never feel guilty for making time for yourself, because your self-care will make you a better mother. Women struggle tremendously with finding time for themselves as mothers and justifying time away from their families. There’s a reason that flight attendants tell passengers to secure their own oxygen mask first and then the masks of children traveling with them. After all, how can you take care of those around you if are unconscious? Being your best will allow you to give your best to everyone in your family.
An excellent resource for both children and parents!
Like so much of the nation, we are caught in “Downton Abbey’s” thrall. Sunday evenings have been transformed from the dreaded night when preparation for the following week begins to Downton Night, a blissful evening of mindless, Edwardian fun. But is it mindless? Layered into Julian Fellowes’ crackling dialogue are some of the best parenting lessons of the last 90 years. Looking on from our American 21st-century vantage point we feel that Lord and Lady Grantham and their brood have taught us a few things. [Watch out — spoilers below!]
1. Grandparents have a crucial role to play in any family as dispensers of wisdom and healers of souls. No one can put a situation into perspective better than someone who has seen seven decades pass. In times of pain and panic, it is the Dowager who is needed most.
2. If we do not change with the times and listen to those much younger than ourselves — our children in particular, even when they seem callow and naive — we will soon become obsolete. The world is spinning on and we must listen to the young or risk forever being a prisoner of 1923 or 2013. Even without a sneak peak of Episode Six, it is clear that Robert better start listening to Matthew.
3. We mustn’t wait until caught in the grips of grieving to tell our siblings how much they mean to us. The sibling relationship is life’s longest, and we would be fools take it for granted.
4. A home is truly only a building, even if it is Downton Abbey. Losing it or any other possessions matters little compared to losing those we love. We did not shed a tear when we thought the family would lose their beloved Downton; the same cannot be said of Sybil’s passing.
5. If our child finds true love (or friendship), whether or not the object of that love is someone we would have selected, we must rejoice for them. A seeming gentleman might jilt our daughter at the altar, but a good man will love her until her last breath. One need only look at the sad episode of Edith and Anthony versus the true love shared by Sybil and Tom.
6. Our children need and deserve our understanding and forgiveness — true forgiveness, even when they have done wrong. We love them and that love must transcend their mistakes. Mary’s painful transgression with Kemal Pamuk did not deprive her of her father’s love.
7. Never underestimate the power of a well-chosen few words. Speaking softly but strongly can have amazing results. The Dowager and Dr. Clarkson chose their words judiciously so that even though Cora’s heart was breaking, she was not alone.
8. People can reinvent themselves — just give them a chance to prove that they’ve changed, and avoid being judgmental and closed-minded, as the family was with Ethel.
9. When our deepest gut feeling tells us that there is something wrong with our child, even when experts may not agree, we need to follow our gut. Watching our child for a lifetime, through all of its up and downs, makes us an expert. No one knew Sybil better than her own mother.
10. Turning on those we love at life’s worst moments — although perhaps understandable in our rage — will only magnify our grief. True consolation and understanding come from those we love the most, as Robert and Cora learn.
11. If someone truly cares for us, we should give them the chance to show how much. It is amazing what good things happen when we let love into our lives, as Daisy did with Mr. Mason.
12. When things are difficult, it helps to have someone to talk to honestly. True friendships are one of life’s greatest gifts. We must not keep our problems bottled up inside. Where would Mrs. Hughes be without the loyal Mrs. Patmore?
13. We should teach our children to have faith in the people they love, even at the worst of times, like Anna and Mr. Bates.
14. If we have different rules and standards for our sons and daughters, things will not go well. If Mary could have inherited Downton Abbey, the show might have ended after the first season.
15. We must teach our children to be careful with their trust and alliances. Some who appear to be their friends will betray them. It is hard to know if someone is an O’Brien or a Thomas.
16. The loyalty and love of our children is one of life’s greatest blessings, never to be taken lightly. Mary’s loyalty to her father, when he is right and even when he is wrong, is a source of comfort and strength.
17. We don’t need to like or even approve of everything our children do, but we can still offer encouragement. When our children’s passions emerge and they show real enterprise, they need us as their supporters. It is hard not to imagine that someday Robert will be proud of a daughter who is a successful journalist.
This is actually some good advice, LOL.
Is your child a warrior, or a worrier?
That cute — and memorable — phrasing comes from “Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (famous for “Nurture Shock” and now the authors of “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing”) in The Times Magazine. It’s shorthand for a problem most of us are familiar with: some people seem born to take tests or compete. For others, the whisper of pressure can trigger the seeming disappearance of everything we ever learned.
In their magazine piece, the authors look at what lies under that difference: “how we were raised, our skills and experience, the hormones that we marinated in as fetuses.”
But while understanding the causes may help promote eventual changes in standardized testing, there’s no way to entirely avoid the need to perform under pressure — and no way to avoid it on behalf of our children.
For the parents of worriers, one question hovers over the topic: how can we help our children learn to both perform better, and feel that stress just a little less? I asked the magazine piece’s authors to help me pull out what they learned in researching their article, and to share some other ideas and background that might help.
Embrace the anxiety. Students who read a statement declaring that recent research suggests “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better” did, in fact, do better on tests, in the lab and outside.
Find competition that’s fun. Spelling bees, chess teams, sports, science fairs: when the pressure is predictable and comes with friends and excitement, even worriers build up their tolerance for the stress that doesn’t include those benefits (like the SAT exams). These competitions “give kids the chance to make that connection between feeling a little anxious and performing at their best,” Mr. Bronson said.
Emphasize success. Even when competition is fun, getting through it is a victory for a “worrier.” Help your child focus on the ebbs and flows of the competitive anxiety, and then remind him to celebrate the accomplishment — and think back to it the next time that anxiety rears its head. Parents comfort children when they feel insecure, but we also need to foster exploratory behavior. “By destabilizing children, pushing them, we help children be brave in unfamiliar situations, stand up for themselves, and learn to take risks.”
Watch for when “stress” turns into “distress.” For many children, short-term stress can be energizing. But when it goes beyond the short term into a larger problem, “parents need to try to find the triggers that change test taking from a challenge state to a threat state.” The child who lost sleep for a month over standardized testing (described in the article) had heard from teachers that school funding and teacher pay is partly tied to these tests now, so he felt an enormous burden to score super high on the standardized tests, to help buoy the school’s averages.
Change the story. “Right now, the story is that college spots are really hard to get,” Mr. Bronson wrote in an e-mail. “Cary Roseth, assistant professor of education at Michigan State University, classifies the race to college as a ‘scramble competition,’ like a huge game of musical chairs – except with too few chairs. This is somewhat of an illusion. Every year, U.C.L.A. runs a national survey of incoming college freshmen; last year, they collected data from over 204,000 frosh who attend 270 different bachelor’s colleges. 83 percent of them were attending their first or second choice college. U.C.L.A., all by itself, admitted almost 16,000 applicants. Over 10,000 of them turned U.C.L.A. down. Nationally, 59 percent of all admittances are turned down by the students. So who is rejecting who here? Maybe we all need to hold our tongues when we’re tempted to scare the kids, ‘You know, you have to study harder if you want to get into a U.C.’ And maybe when we say, reassuringly, ‘There’s a good college for everyone,’ we have to convince ourselves first.”
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"Dad’s an addict." "Mom’s going to rehab." These are not easy conversations to have with a child, even one that has long been aware that there’s a problem.
More than 28 million Americans are children of alcoholics, yet addiction isn’t being talked about in most homes. Instead, children grow up facing a lifetime of issues other kids don’t have to manage. They tend to have more emotional, behavioral and academic problems than other kids, and are four times more likely to become addicts themselves. They are also at greater risk of abuse and neglect, witnessing domestic violence, and marrying an addict later in life.
As children learn to fend for themselves to survive, unpredictability and chaos become the norm in addicted homes. Lack of consistent discipline can produce deficits in self-control and personal responsibility, or conversely, over-control or hyper-vigilance. Children may even feel that their parent’s drug problem — and the subsequent breakup of the family or removal of the child from the home that sometimes ensues — is their fault.
Their emotions run a confusing gamut. At once resentful of and loyal to their addicted parent, children are reluctant to open up and share long-held family secrets, even if they desperately want the support. They may have a strong self-preservation instinct, but at the same time, they’re not sure if they deserve to take care of their own needs when their parent is spiraling out of control. The conflicting feelings continue as children get a glimmer of hope when their parent promises to quit even though they’ve been disappointed repeatedly.
In this impossible situation, what can parents, caretakers or other adults say to their children? How do they explain the wreckage of addiction to someone who, at a young age, has already been overexposed to some of the darkest potentialities of life?
Time the Conversation. A conversation about a parent’s addiction is best had when there are no distractions and the situation is relatively calm. If possible, bring it up when there is a plan in place to get help for the addicted parent. Explain that there’s a problem and you’re taking steps to improve the situation. Talk about what will change (e.g., Mom or Dad will go to rehab, or one parent may move out if separating or divorcing). Repeat the conversation as often as needed so that the child feels comfortable having an ongoing dialogue.
Keep It Age-Appropriate. The language you use and the level of detail you provide depend on the age and maturity of the child. Break the issues down as simply and directly as possible, and finish with a message of hope.
Tell the Truth. Although you’ll need to use different terms depending on the age of the child, you should always be honest about the problem. Children have an innate ability to read when adults are lying. Explain that addiction is a disease caused by a number of factors, including genetics, environment and past trauma. Similar to people with diabetes and heart disease, their parent is sick and needs treatment to feel better.
Get Educated. Educate yourself about the disease of addiction so you are in a position to answer any questions the child may have. If you don’t know the answer, work on finding one together.
Acknowledge the Impact. Rather than skirt around the impact a parent’s addiction has had, validate the child’s experience. Apologize for the pain inflicted on the child and ask open-ended questions about how they’ve been feeling.
Release the Shame. One of the most important things for children to understand is that addiction is not their fault. They didn’t cause their parent to abuse drugs or alcohol and they cannot cure or control it. This can be hard for children to understand, especially if the addicted parent blamed their drug abuse on a child’s behavior (e.g., “I wouldn’t need to drink if you’d do your chores.”). Children need help to understand that what the addict says and does under the influence isn’t really who they are or how they feel. Addiction hijacks the brain and just as the child is powerless to stop it, the parent is out of control as well.
Put Things Into Perspective. Children from addicted homes tend to idealize other families without realizing they have struggles of their own. Help them understand that they are not alone; in fact, millions of children are in the same situation. They are normal kids thrust into an unhealthy home environment who are doing their best to cope with an extremely stressful situation.
Invite Dialogue. After being disconnected from themselves and others, it may take practice for the child of an addict to be able to identify and process their emotions. To combat the secretiveness, fear and loneliness addiction brings, encourage them to talk about their feelings without criticism or judgment.
Teach the Seven Cs. According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, children need to know the “Seven Cs of Addiction”:
- I didn’t Cause it.
I can’t Cure it. I can’t Control it. I can Care for myself By Communicating my feelings, Making healthy Choices, and By Celebrating myself.
Find Additional Sources of Support. Just as the addicted parent needs treatment and support to get well, children need to know there are resources available to help them process their emotions. If they don’t feel comfortable talking with a parent or relative, they can reach out to a teacher, counselor, child or family therapist, religious leader or support group such as Alateen.
The toughest topics are often the most important to broach with children. For each day that a child lives with an addict, damage is being done. And while not every child will fall prey to addiction or other emotional or behavioral disorders, they need honest discussion and support in order to beat the odds.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of mental health and addiction treatment centers that includes the Promises Malibu rehab centers, The Ranch, Right Step, and Spirit Lodge.
For more by David Sack, M.D., click here.
For more on addiction and recovery, click here.
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