Since I got several questions about Mushroom’s “positive thought cards” that I mentioned in our day in the life post, I thought I’d post a little about those cards, some other things we’ve done for anxiety that has worked, and generally how things are going with a kid who has some anxiety issues.
Before I get any further, I feel like I have to say this. There are a lot of good books, good blog posts, and good tips out there for helping kids deal with anxiety. If you have a child who suffers from anxiety, it’s good to try those things, but if they’re not working, please, please seek professional help. There’s no substitute for a good therapist. Anxiety can really hold kids back and the sooner you resolve those issues, the better.
Okay, with that out of the way… I’ve posted before about how Mushroom suffers from some anxiety issues. They have really waxed and waned throughout his life. The peak was really more than a year ago when he was experiencing anxiety about a huge range of things, including dogs, going outdoors, public bathrooms, and schoolwork. After working through an anxiety workbook and trying several things, we decided it was time to see a therapist, which we did off and on for several months. That helped solidify the strategies we were using and gave us some new ones as well. I think we were mostly on the right path with him, but without the outside voice saying to us all, keep it up, you’re doing it right, it’s easy to question your strategies and jump around more. Mushroom worked through the worst of his fears and things have been mostly pretty calm.
Here are the things that are the go to tools in our box for helping him stay on the calm and capable path:
Positive Thought Cards
This suggestion came from the therapist. These are homemade index cards with specific thoughts to counterbalance Mushroom’s negative “bad brain” thoughts. He has written some and I’ve written others. They’ve changed over time as some fears have almost completely faded and others have arisen. When he first started them, he had to read them all several times every day to memorize them. Now, I pull them out when he’s feeling generally anxious. Part of the goal is for him to be able to pull those thoughts up himself when he is anxious. However, the concrete cards are so useful. When I hear him saying something negative, such as, “I can’t do this,” or, “I don’t have enough time!” then I have him go find a card that will speak to that fear from the pile, such as, “Farrar makes sure I have plenty of time to do my work.” or, “Nothing bad will happen if I don’t finish my school work.” There are a lot of general positive thoughts in there like, “Most people are good,” as well as specific things for him. This has been one of the most enduring things we have used from therapy.
This one is a no brainer. Taking deep breaths helps when you’re getting anxious. I began teaching both the boys this when they were pretty little. We’re not masters of this technique by any stretch. But it does work to head off budding anxiety sometimes. More importantly, when he gets really upset, it helps him calm down. It’s important to practice taking a deep breath when everyone is calm. We try to do this before bed most nights, just doing a few deep breaths before tucking in.
This suggestion came from the book What to Do When You Worry Too Much, which is a book with exercises written to the child. It’s a good first stop if you have an anxious kid. The text is simple but doesn’t talk down to the child at all. I highly recommend it. The idea behind worry time is that some kids want to discuss their worries endlessly. Instead, they get one short worry time every day in which to really let out every negative thought. But at all other times, parents have to refuse to engage with them or let them talk about the worries. This was a tough thing to implement with Mushroom at the start of trying to help him with his anxiety. However, once he had other strategies in place, it became a good routine. He rarely has as much need to talk through the worries, but when he does, he knows that he can. This is another thing we have pegged to bedtime and tuck in. When he needs to, he’ll simply say, “I sort of have a worry thing…” and we open up worry time again.
This was a trick that came out of therapy for us and while it initially seemed a little cheesy to me, it has been one of the things that has helped most. Mushroom named his anxiety “the bad brain” and we talk about it in those terms, as an almost separate thing from him. When he’s struggling with a negative thought, I’ll call him on it by saying, “That’s a bad brain thought. That’s not what you think.” When he makes a poor decision based on anxiety, we’ll talk about how he’s letting bad brain control him. Externalizing it has helped him a lot.
Not Shying Away from the Worries
One of the nice things about homeschooling a kid with anxiety is that you can take time to do things at their pace and be by their side supporting them at every step. I think most of us would agree that especially in the early grades, the focus on testing and academics is one of the things that’s leading to a whole generation of anxious kids. We can back off when things are tough and give kids time to grow and mature so they can be ready to tackle difficult things, be they academic, social, or otherwise. On the other hand, homeschooling also makes it perhaps too easy to let kids avoid their worries every single time. We’re always there with them. We know how they feel. It’s easy to let them get out of having to really face up to the worries and that doesn’t do them any favors in the long run. The way to overcome a fear is not to avoid it, it’s slow and consistent exposure with plenty of positive support. It’s a tricky balance sometimes. Sometimes it’s good to give kids a break and regroup or tackle something in a new way, especially with scaled down expectations. But overall, I’ve learned that it’s important to not shelter kids from their worries. I know that with Mushroom, he has mostly conquered his fear of dogs. However, if he somehow goes several weeks without seeing a dog, the fear starts to build up again. We have to be sure to stop and say hello to a dog routinely to make sure that the worry doesn’t begin to build again.
Three Good Things and a Joke
This is the strategy that I use most often with BalletBoy when he’s stuck in a sad or anxious day, though I use it with Mushroom as well sometimes. He doesn’t have anxiety like his brother, but every kid can have a bad day and need a little help. The jist of this is just that we name three good things from the day (or maybe the week, or three things he’s looking forward to, or three things he’s proud of recently – it can be anything along those lines). Then I tell a joke or show him a silly video on my phone. When someone is feeling anxious or upset, the tendency is to want to talk about the anxieties. However, talking about the worries isn’t really good for moving on from the worries. This is really about changing the focus to something positive instead and then distracting the kid with something else to think about other than themselves. And after telling a few jokes and laughing, you can shift the conversation or the activity to something else.
Keeping at It
The final and maybe the most important thing is keeping up the strategies. At least for Mushroom, anxiety is cyclical. It comes and goes with high and low points. If we don’t keep some level of practice with the positive thought cards, the deep breathing, the relaxation exercises, and so forth, then it’s much harder when the anxiety inevitably comes back. It’s hard when a kid is having a great day to say, okay, and now before bed let’s check in about worries. It feels unnecessary and I know I have a tendency to want to drop all of the things we usually do when times are good. However, having it as a consistent practice is important.
Overall, I have to say, Mushroom is doing really well with his anxiety issues. However, as we head into a notoriously difficult age, I know that there will be a lot of new challenges. Hopefully we’ve laid enough groundwork to meet them.