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Many parents wonder how to help their anxious child, especially when the child
also becomes demanding, rude and oppositional. On the one hand, parents may understand that their child is frightened and upset. Yet on the other hand, when
a child misbehaves, that behavior can sometimes disrupt the entire family.
Parents need a good plan to help their anxious youngster who’s also out of control. A good plan involves two main parts. The first is that the child needs to learn tools and strategies to manage worry and fear, so anxiety doesn’t skyrocket. Kids can learn to use their thoughts to stop exaggerating fears, reduce the worried What If’s, and think in strong and accurate ways. The Outsmart Your Worry Tool Kit for Kids is a powerful first line of defense against anxious thoughts and feelings.
The second part of the plan involves how the parent handles the out of control situation. Here are a few guidelines:
• It’s easy to say and hard to do, but try to stay in control of your feelings. You are teaching your child how to manage overwhelming feelings by being calm and in control.
• If your child has broken an important family rule by hitting, destroying property or other aggressive actions, set firm and reasonable limits right away.
• A good place to start is to send the child to his or her room. Going to a private space to think about one’s actions is important when emotions are heated. It helps the child learn to stay in control of negative emotions. Some children have not learned to comply when parents send them to their room. Start by sending the child outside of the living room or family room. It’s important for the child to be separate from ongoing family activities, be quiet and think about the mistake.
• After the child has calmed down (depending upon the child’s age and ability to re-group), the child should apologize and accept responsibility for the mistake.
• Sometimes, the child’s behavior requires a consequence. A punishment should not be excessive or unfair. A smaller punishment that can be easily enforced often works better.
• Later, it’s a good to have a brief, calm discussion with the child about what was learned.
You know your child best. Keep in mind that an anxious child who is out of control needs a plan to deal with anxious thoughts and feelings, and also needs parents who set reasonable family rules and helps the child learn to follow them.
Imagine this scene. It’s around 10 pm on a Friday or Saturday night and the phone rings. “Mommy, can you come pick me up? I want to come home.” Many parents have received this phone call from their child who wants to come home from a sleepover.
The decision to allow a child to sleep away from home is a very personal one, one which changes from household to household. Some parents will not consider sleepovers until a child is a teenager, while others may allow a child to sleep out in the early elementary years if the sleepover house is a safe and trusted one. Children have different reactions to sleepovers as well. While some children can’t wait to sleep at a friend’s house, others are too anxious to try to spend the night away from their parents.
Other children may be very excited about a sleepover and do very well for the first, awake, part of the evening, but start to become distressed around bedtime. They no longer want to sleep over. Rather, they insist on getting home as soon as possible.
What happens? What changes occur that make a happy, excited child into an anxious child, unable to be comfortable sleeping at the home of a good friend or relative? Separation anxiety, or the fear of being apart from the security of a loved one is at it’s strongest at night. Often, anxious kids may be fearful of separating from parents at bedtime when they are home. This anxiety is worse when they are away. Although children may not be able to describe what they are feeling, they know they are scared. They feel an intense and urgent need to reconnect with parents, and at that moment, they are convinced they will not feel better until they are home. If they can’t connect with parents, child anxiety can reach the level of child panic.
It’s OK to retrieve your child from a sleepover. He or she may just not be ready. The fear of sleeping out does not predict future adjustment or ability to separate from parents. Try not to treat the return as a failure, and suggest that maybe sometime in the future, a sleepover could be tried again.
Tool Kits for Kids likes to share information about child worry and child anxiety. If you’d like to learn more about separation anxiety, take a look at these earlier postings from Tool Kits for Kids:
Kids Afraid to Leave Home
When Sleepaway Camp Doesn’t Work Out
Emotional Skills Help Children Get Ready for Sleepaway Camp