Nico loved having the same routine every day of the week. When his routine changed, he would get upset. His emotional meltdowns and rigidity were trying on him and his family. When changes occurred and he was tired, hungry or stressed, his ability to cope was absent. Nico’s parents began to notice that his behavior was also affecting his younger sister. She had begun to show rigidity and unwillingness to try new things as well.
All parents do their best to help their children feel happy, learn about life, and cope with change. However, there are some children who may show less flexibility because of anxiety or other mental and emotional difficulties. Some children are not able to self-soothe and they need extra help to do so. This can be challenging and distressing for parents as they see their younger children mimicking their older sibling’s behavior.
What is a parent to do? Teaching anxious children to become flexible may feel like an ambitious undertaking for an overwhelmed parent. Parents can learn to take small steps to help the whole family learn to adapt to change — an inevitable part of life. As you do, keep in mind the following:
The Fight or Flight Response
This is our natural body’s response when danger is present or perceived. Some children’s safety alarm (the amygdala in the limbic system) is highly sensitive when they struggle with anxiety. When the flight response kicks in, children may experience body sensations that feel uncomfortable or intolerable such as trembling, shakiness, tingling, wobbliness, sweating, restlessness, fatigue, heart pounding, or fear of losing control. These are sensations created by their own protective system within their body. However, because they don’t understand them, they don’t know how to handle them. When the fight response is underway, children may also have similar symptoms that are confusing to them. Their response may be aggression, which is manifested in different ways such as hitting, throwing, screaming, etc. Those body responses may also feel distressing, and children don’t know how to regulate them.
As parents are able to understand this innate response, they can help their children understand it as well. Sometimes children’s behavior may appear manipulative. This behavior indicates that something is amiss, and they also need extra help.
Whether children’s rigidity is due to a genetic predisposition, mental or physiological disorder, or a learned behavior, they need validation. They also need connection, and limit setting. Children can also learn to adapt to opportunities parents provide each day.
When individuals struggle with anxiety, the treatment calls for exposures. This means children can learn to approach new situations even when their anxious mind tells them to avoid them. Like all adults, children will try to stay away from anything that may bring up stress, discomfort or anxiety. It is a natural response to avoid anything they perceive to be challenging.
Parents are the best resource in helping children adapt to new and difficult situations. They can look for opportunities to expose them to new circumstances or revisit unpleasant ones.
With your example and support, your kids can learn to soothe themselves and help their body and mind adapt to change. Keep in mind that it is a process. Success consists in them trying, and you consistently encouraging their efforts. Here are some ideas that may be helpful in that process:
- Encourage your children to be curious when they try something new or hard. Children are naturally inquisitive. However, when anxiety is present, they may not be interested in new adventures. They may not be willing to explore the world that may feel scary at times. Validate their feelings and acknowledge that changes are hard. Suggest that when they give themselves a chance to try something new, they may find out that it is not as scary as it seems. As they try, celebrate and validate them.
- Praise their Effort. Even if they only tried something for a few minutes or even seconds, acknowledge their effort. You can say, “Ella, I noticed you worked really hard to … (whatever they were trying to do). This was hard, and you didn’t give up. I can see you are proud of yourself for trying.”
- Brave Journal: As children discover that they were not as scared as their mind (the mind coach) told them they would be, invite them to draw or write about their brave moment. Ask them how they feel about their adventure. Invite them to share their brave journal with loved ones to celebrate their efforts.
You can be creative and have fun as you help your child experience the world. Encourage them to try something new every day and see what happens!