I am forever harping on the virtues of communication, the necessity of teaching your kids to talk out their problems rather than act them out. But there’s one kind of child that this just plain doesn’t work with: The struggles of an anxious child are often silent.
The anxious child is the most confusing child to parent because we too often misinterpret anxiety as non-compliance. Anxious kids look like they’re digging their heels in when they go silent or run away. What they look like is hostile or rebellious. Anxious kids will be our “refuseniks.” The child who hides under furniture to avoid doing his homework. The child who runs away from you (or the teacher or the camp counsellor) when she did something wrong. The child who screams or yells in situations that don’t appear (to you) to warrant such a big reaction. The child who won’t get in the water at swim class or on the ski slopes at ski class. Or maybe even out of the car at a play date. These kids look like they’re uncooperative and sullen. But what they feel like is anxious.
The hardest aspect of this confusion of ours is that they can’t talk about it. Anxiety is a silent affliction that dares not speak its name. And most especially for children, for whom it is both humiliating and confusing — they don’t know what they feel, so they either hide or lash out. And if they do have a glimmer of awareness about what they feel, they will do everything in their power to camouflage their anxiety because they’re so embarrassed.
So what’s a parent to do? If you suspect your child is struggling with anxiety, look for the times when he goes silent. If he clams up at a difficult time, in a situation that needs talking through, step one is: Don’t pressure him to talk. That will make him more anxious. Instead, seek his permission to speak for him.
Let's say he’s in a fight with his sister and he’s refusing to talk about it. So say: “I’m guessing that you could use some assistance here. Will you let me help you? Just nod if it’s okay and shake your head if it’s not.”
Once he assents (and they usually do) say: “Am I right that you didn’t mean to hurt your sister and you wish that hadn’t happened? Nod or shake your head.” Having gotten that answer (usually a nod) go tell that to your daughter and come back to your son, saying to him: “She was really glad to hear that and she appreciates it.”
You might go back and forth in the same manner a couple of more rounds, asking him to nod or shake his head if you’re right or wrong about wanting to say he’s sorry for hitting her.
But the endgame of this conversation is crucial. You say to your son: “I’m so proud of you for how well you communicated with your sister, and thank you so much for letting me help you.” What you’re telegraphing here is that he made a step towards competence as a communicator, and that it was a good thing that he accepted help. It’s important to say those two things because anxious kids tend to fear and shrink from communication in any situation of conflict, and they are hyper vulnerable to humiliation, which makes them lousy at asking for and accepting help.
The more we can teach them to do those two things, and then celebrate them for taking those steps, the more they’ll feel safe taking on those challenges. Every time the anxious child feels understood and supported, that’s data he uses — anxious kids tend to be smart data crunchers. They don’t forget. Your accurate and appropriate support is like a crutch that helps him walk, where before he could only crawl. That’s a great leap forward for him — the first, we hope, of many — and a great gift of understanding from you.
There’s nothing wrong with a crutch to help someone get moving.
Parenting columnist Joanne Kates is an expert educator in the areas of conflict mediation, self-esteem and anti-bullying, and she is the director of Camp Arowhon in Algonquin Park.