How to Deal With Explosive Temper Tantrums

How to deal with explosive behavior

Josh* was seven-years-old when his mom reached out to me. I will never forget the phone call. Two minutes into her description of her son’s temper tantrums that occurred frequently and seemed to last “forever”, she broke down into tears. Feeling alone in the situation, the family quietly dealt with Josh’s tantrums behind closed doors and didn’t seek advice from anyone. They were exhausted, embarrassed and frustrated. The tantrums, which I later discovered lasted approximately 45 minutes in duration and occurred about three times per week, were negatively impacting the family.

Mom and dad were out of energy and out of ideas. They fought constantly and lost their patience with Josh regularly. His sisters, both older, began to shut down. They avoided him and pulled away from their parents. Nothing seemed to work.

This family felt very alone in their struggle to help a child with explosive tantrums, but the truth is that tantrums aren’t just for toddlers and many families face very similar situations.

Tantrums can and do occur in the school age years. As parents, we tend to reframe big kid tantrums as “meltdowns”. Many school age children have difficulty coping with their emotions and lack the ability to verbalize their feelings. Meltdowns occur when emotions build up and kids need to release their feelings. It’s common for kids to direct these pent up emotions toward their parents or care givers. The good news, if you choose to see it, is that this expression of misdirected frustration is actually a sign of trust.

What makes a tantrum “explosive”?

Tantrums shift from average to explosive based on a number of factors.

  • Length: Explosive tantrums tend to be long in duration
  • Aggressive behavior: Can include hitting, biting, throwing things
  • Excessive screaming (can include cursing and verbal threats)
  • Behavior that can be considered dangerous for the child or the bystanders (ex: jumping from a moving car)
  • Can occur across multiple domains (ex: home, school, baseball practice, etc.)

Note: All children are different and you should always evaluate your child’s behavior against his own baseline (his average daily behavior).

Why do children engage in explosive behavior?

It’s important to remember that behavior is a form of communication. A child who is so overwhelmed that he lashes out is distressed. There is no one reason that triggers explosive tantrums, but there are a few things that explosive children tend to have in common:

  • Difficulty managing emotions
  • Poor (or no) coping skills
  • Lack effective communication skills
  • Poor impulse control
  • Lack problem-solving skills

There is a tendency to view explosive behavior as “manipulative”. Children who experience explosive tantrums tend to run high on emotion and low on coping skills. They aren’t trying o manipulate – they are trying to communicate.

What can parents do?

Remain calm.

When parents yell, command and/or criticize kids during explosive tantrums, the aggressive and explosive behavior increases. These tantrums are very difficult for parents to manage. Practice deep breathing techniques when you’re calm so that you can calm your senses when your child engages in explosive behavior.

Use calming phrases (on repeat) and don’t give in.

It’s tempting to give in the moment an explosive tantrum begins, but giving in won’t necessarily stop the behavior and it certainly won’t help long term. Giving in reinforces the behavior.

When your child is calm, talk through some calming phrases that you can use when he’s upset. “I know you’re upset; I will help you calm down” works for some kids, but many kids are specific in what words actually calm them (versus inflame them).

THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK is packed with great strategies to deal with big feelings!

Log it.

Keeping a tantrum log helps. I know that writing down the event is probably the last thing you want to do once it’s over, but keeping a log helps you establish patterns and find the triggers. When you know what sets your child off, you can make a plan.

You don’t have to fill a page. Start with this:

  • Time of day
  • Length of tantrum
  • Behaviors that occurred (screaming, hitting, breaking things, etc.)
  • Possible triggers
  • Interventions that worked
  • Interventions that didn’t work
  • Baseline status: Where it occurred, last time child ate and what, how much sleep the night before, what was coming next

Create a daily discharge plan.

Kids need to vent or discharge their emotions. In addition to the fact that kids are sitting for longer periods and expected to learn and even play (sports) at an accelerated pace, many kids spend the day in survival mode. They stuff their emotions to avoid a meltdown in front of peers and save it for home.

Create a safe space for venting emotions. Some kids respond well to venting while drawing, some need to yell it out and some like to write it down then tear it up. Find a strategy that works for your child.

Set clear limits and expectations.

As parents, we have a tendency to provide stern reminders of our expectations and limits when we’re under pressure, but many kids fail to internalize those limits and expectations and need reminders. Make your behavioral expectations and limits clear when kids are calm. You don’t need 100 house rules, you simply need to talk about your expectations and provide frequent reminders.

Structure is essential for kids who tend to have explosive tantrums. Keep to a consistent bedtime, have consistent meals and snacks and factor in downtime.

Increase 1:1 time.

Sometimes explosive kids struggle to relate to or bond with their parents. They often feel sorry after their tantrums and carry around feelings of guilt. Plan regular 1:1 time with your child to spend time bonding with him and getting to know him better.

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Deal with your feelings.

Many parents experience frustration and resentment as a result of their children’s behavior. Some also feel sad and anxious. Work through your own feelings about your child’s behavior so that you don’t bring those feelings into the mix when your child experiences a meltdown.

Many parents benefit from their own therapy or parent education to work through these feelings.

Be aware of possible underlying issues.

Explosive tantrums can stem from other underlying issues. A few to consider:

  • ADD/ADHD
  • Anxiety
  • Learning differences
  • Sensory processing disorder
  • Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD)
  • Intermittent Explosive Disorder
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder

If your child experiences explosive tantrums more than twice a week (on average) into the school age years and fails to improve, seek an evaluation. If your child displays any suicidal behavior (thoughts, actions, plans) or is a danger to others, seek immediate help.

This article does not replace an evaluation from a licensed mental health professional.

*Names, genders, ages and other identifying features changed.

 

10 Strategies to Help Your Anxious Child in the Moment

10 Strategies to Help Your Anxious Child in the Moment

 

Childhood anxiety is tricky business. There are a lot of misconceptions, and often times it either goes unchecked or becomes a blame game. Parents get blamed. Kids get blamed. Even teachers and schools get blamed.

Here’s the deal: Anxiety has a genetic component. Some kids are more anxious than others, but they don’t necessarily have an anxiety disorder. Others do. “Bad parenting” doesn’t cause anxiety. Kids don’t create their own anxiety. Circumstances can trigger anxious feelings, but they don’t cause anxiety. Blaming holds little value when it comes to helping kids with anxiety.

Uncovering the worries and unpacking the feelings are different than blaming. In helping kids understand their triggers, we empower them to use adaptive coping strategies when they confront those triggers.

But here’s the thing: Sometimes kids (of all ages) have huge, anxiety-based meltdowns and it’s really difficult to know what to do in the moment. Sometimes they yell and scream and tell you to go away, even though they secretly want you to stay. This isn’t a test. Anxiety is overwhelming and kids have a tendency to say the opposite of what they mean when they’re overwhelmed with emotion.

So what can parents do when kids are in meltdown mode and talking doesn’t even feel like a possibility? The strategies below are some favorites as identified by many kids in my office over the years. Note: All kids are different and not every strategy will appeal to every kid. Try a few to figure out how to help calm your child when she needs you the most.

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Bear hug.

Sounds simple, right? The problem is that sometimes kids scream things like, “go away!” or “leave me alone!” or “I’m FINE!” when they’re overwhelmed by anxiety, and this causes parents to back away.

I’ve had many kids sit on my couch and say that what they really want (even when they say otherwise) is a big bear hug from mom or dad. The combination of pressure and loving embrace helps release some of the tension contributing to the anxious feelings and provides a safe space to release those emotions.

Read old favorites.

Think twice before you start donating old picture books. Just because your child can read chapter books doesn’t mean she’s ready to move away from the old favorites that brought her joy in her earlier days.

Reading old favorite stories helps kids tap into memories of early childhood – this feels calming and soothing for many. Reading to your child can help your child focus on breathing and listening and staying present in the moment – all good ways to reduce anxious feelings.

Whisper talk.

When kids experience overwhelming anxiety, all of their senses are heightened. Everything seems loud, bright and just too much. If they run away and slam the door or cover their ears and yell it’s because they want to block it all out.

Whispering, not necessarily about the triggers, can help soothe your child. Remember back when your whispered to your baby? Big kids also feel soothed by a calming voice. Whisper about the clouds in the sky or the butterfly out the window. Whisper about ice cream cones on a summer day. Whispering a favorites list can be a great calming strategy.

Blow bubbles!

Blowing bubbles isn’t just for little kids. The combination of getting outside into nature, fresh air and deep breathing (required for bubble blowing) are known antidotes to anxious feelings. Get outside an blow bubbles when you’re anxious – no matter your age!

Color together.

Kids tell me over and over again that what they really want when they’re feeling intense anxiety is for parents to stay with them while they calm down. Coloring together is a great way to soothe those intense emotions while spending time together. Those adult coloring books are popular for a reason – get some!

Bubble bath.

Pour your child a nice warm bath with plenty of bubbles, turn on some relaxing music in the background and let the stress and anxiety melt away.

Create a cozy spot.

I always encourage parents of anxious kids to have a designated stress free zone in the house. Stock it with favorite books, coloring books and other supplies, stress balls, soft pillows and blankets, journals and any other relaxing activities that appeal to your child.

Take a mindful walk.

Mindfulness + nature + exercise = decreased anxiety. It’s a simple equation. Don’t spend the time talking about anxiety and stress. Notice the green grass, the fluffy white clouds and the flowers just in bloom. Trust me.

Walk down memory lane.

Sometimes big kids need to be reminded that they’re still those little kids who always sat on your lap and asked for one more story…just taller and more knowledgable. Get out the family photos and walk down memory lane together. Talk about favorite days, favorite trips and favorite memories.

Check out.

I can’t say this enough: We need to work together to take back childhood. If kids are under more stress today, we all have to own our role in it. Skip the soccer practice (the team will survive). Take a season off (your kid will still be an athlete). Take a break from the community musical (he can go back to it next time). You get the point.

Childhood is in crisis because kids are expected to do too much every single day. Check out. Bring back free play and downtime and family time. Take back childhood.

For more on helping kids cope with stress and anxiety, get your copy of THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK.

 

Image: Pexels

How to Help Your Quiet Child Connect

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Ask my son about his day at school and you will get a play-by-play of his two recess periods. You’ll find out what they played, who said something funny, who scored a goal (or a run or something else) and who got frustrated with the game. If anyone cheated, you’ll hear all about it.

In first grade, playing with his friends is everything. Sure, he’s a math enthusiast and loves science and history, but recess is by far his favorite part of the day. When the day is done, however, so is he. No need for play dates. No filling the spaces with extra curricular activities. No busy social calendar. Recess has him covered.

I get a lot of questions from parents concerned about their “quiet” or “shy” kids. They worry that their kids struggle to make friends. They wonder if their kids are lonely or sad at school. They don’t know how to help them “fit in” with the other kids.

This is a natural worry among parents of kids with all kinds of personalities. Somewhere deep down in the recesses of our emotional memory banks, we all remember that time when we didn’t fit in or felt left out. We don’t want our children to experience that kind of hurt. We want to fix it before it happens.

Here’s the thing: More often than not, the so-called “shy” and “quiet” kids in question are actually perfectly content. It’s their loud, talkative and highly social parents who worry.

Here’s the other thing: There is a difference between a child who struggles with mild social anxiety or has difficulty engaging with peers and introverted children.

One more thing: Try to avoid the labels. “Shy” can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Identify formation starts early and takes time. A kid who is always called “shy” will eventually act the part.

Introverted children enjoy downtime. They like to be alone and draw energy from doing various quiet activities on their own. For introverted kids, school is a real energy zapper. They need after school time and weekends to recharge. They aren’t avoiding other kids, they’ve just had their fill.

As for the kids with mild social anxiety or the kids who tend to be quiet in groups, you can help them practice a few skills to make the process of connecting easier (and less anxiety producing).

Respect their preferences.

Not every kid wants to play every sport and join every group. Some kids genuinely prefer 1:1 play. I was that kid. I loved afternoons with my best friend but dreaded birthday parties and group play. I wasn’t anxious about fitting in, I just preferred a smaller environment.

Understanding and respecting your child’s preferences is crucial. Forcing your child to fit some mold won’t help your child connect with others. In fact, it will have the opposite effect. Instead of forcing your kid to attend every party or meet large groups of kids at the park, ask your child who she wants to play with and start there. Also? Step back and let the kids play. Quiet kids need time to develop relationships. Micromanaging the play date or planning big outings are counterproductive.

Don’t push.

You can’t force your child to want to have play dates and make new friends. If you do, your child will likely feel anxious about the whole process of making friends.

Put your needs (and feelings about it) aside for the time being and provide support. Ask about friends here and there, but resist the urge to pepper your child with questions about the lunch table, recess and the latest activities the kids are doing.

Teach a few “meet and greet” skills.

When children end up on my couch for “difficulty making and maintaining friends”, I find that many of them need help with social interaction skills. They either steamroll conversations in and effort to be heard or they stare at their feet and wait for the moment to end.

Try these tips to help your kids meet new people:

  • Notice the eyes: Instead of hissing, “look up” every time your child meets someone new, prepare your child in advance by teaching her to focus on the color of the person’s eyes. Zooming in on this detail can make the meeting feel more manageable.
  • Loud and proud: Quiet kids tend to have quiet voices. Practice speaking in a hour voice at home by pretending to use a microphone to give a speech about Lego building. Instead of saying “speak up” when your child talks to others, get low and whisper, “loud and proud” as a reminder.
  • Be curious: Sometimes kids worry about how they will answer questions when they meet new people. Teach your kids to be curious about others by asking questions to start a conversation. This decreases some of the anticipatory anxiety that can crop up in social situations.

Practice conversational skills at home.

Ever been stuck in a group at a party where one group member talks on and on and always finds a way to circle the conversation back to his own interests? Many adults lack basic conversational skills. Excessive chatter is simply a coverup.

Teach your child the art of sliding in and out of conversations. This is best done at the dinner (or breakfast) table. If your quiet one tends to watch without comment, stop and point out times to slide in with a comment or question and slide back out.

Practice ice breakers.

Sometimes the hardest part is finding something to say. I often encourage my kids to follow these two tips when meeting new kids:

  • Find out one interesting thing about the other child. Your child can practice simple questions like “do you have a pet?”, “do you play a sport?” or “what’s your favorite thing to do after school?”
  • Share one interesting thing. When the other child answers a question, your child should practice responding with his own interesting fact (“I have a dog, too!)

While these ice breakers might sound simple, many kids freeze up in large groups or new social situations. Practicing at home helps.

Friends make school more fun and actually help kids feel more confident in the classroom. But social interaction skills don’t come naturally to every child. Some kids need a little extra help at home!

For more great tips on helping kids connect with others, pick up a copy of THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK!

 

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10 Things Your Anxious Child Wants You to Know

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I work with a lot of kids with anxiety. Not all of them meet the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder (some do, some don’t), but they do have anxiety that is no longer manageable without help. To that end, I teach coping strategies to both children and their parents and listen to the worries that keep kids up at night.

While all children are different and have different sources of stress, I have found a common theme among my anxious kids: They worry about worrying others. Imagine worrying all day about a wide variety of things and then adding worrying about how you might make others worry to that very long list of worries? It happens. A lot.

As I tell the kids I work with, anxious kids often have a tendency to be highly empathic kids. Not only do they have their own emotions to to process, but they also take on the emotions of those around them. Sounds unfair, doesn’t it?

At some point in treatment I ask all of my worriers the following question: What is one thing you wish your parents understood about your anxiety? While the wording of their answers varies, there are some common themes that emerge in response to this question.

I’m paraphrasing, of course, but below are ten of the responses I hear most often.

It’s really hard to stop worrying.

Your kids don’t want to feel anxious. In fact, when I follow up with, “If you could make one change right now, what would it be?”, they almost always respond, “I would stop worrying.” You can’t just hit a button (or take a magic pill) and make anxiety disappear. It takes time and work. There will be peaks and valleys. Your children need you to understand this.

My worries are real to me.

Adults have time and wisdom on their side, and sometimes this causes parents to minimize the worries of their anxious kids. That’s a mistake. Regardless of what you think, your child’s worries are real to her. Meet her where she is and listen.

I don’t want to make you sad or upset.

How you respond to your anxious child is important. When you get frustrated with your child’s anxiety, your child feels responsible. When you tell your child that his anxiety makes you sad or overwhelmed, your child feels responsible. Your child doesn’t want to upset you. He just wants to tell you how he feels.

I don’t mean to be annoying.

Anxious kids tend to ask a lot of questions. Often, they ask the same question repeatedly. This is because they feel a complete lack of control and knowing the plan helps. They aren’t trying to annoy you by peppering you with questions, they just want the information. Visuals help.

I really can’t fall asleep alone.

When the lights go down, the worry brain grows in size. Kids are active little beings and even the most anxious ones can push their worries down by day, but the worries will emerge at night. They aren’t trying to power struggle at night – they really do struggle. Mindfulness and guided imagery help. Push the bedtime up to allow for extra time to settle down.

Holding your hand helps.

Your kids know that you can’t fix it for them or make the anxiety go away. You can’t save them from it. When I ask what they want from their parents when they’re anxious, they often cite holding hands, snuggling, reading together, drawing together or taking a walk together as helpful strategies. In short, they want you.

You can’t fix it for me.

You might feel like you have the answers because you’ve been through something similar or you view the problem through a different lens. They don’t want your quick fix strategies, though. More often than not, your anxious kids simply want you to listen and empathize.

I need extra time with transitions.

Change is really hard for anxious kids. They can’t move from teacher to teacher or place to place as easily as their non-anxious peers. When their schedules are overhauled without warning, they panic. Take the time to help your anxious child adjust to change. Talk details and be honest.

Asking “How can I help?” is better than telling me what to do.

Anxious kids don’t always have the solutions or know exactly what they need, but barking out orders tends to cause a spike in anxious feelings. Ask; don’t tell.

When you tell me not to worry, I feel like a failure.

Telling an anxious kid not to worry isn’t fair. Learning to cope with worry takes time and patience. They can’t stop their anxiety overnight and they feel pressured when parents say things like, “Don’t worry so much!” Try something like, “What do you think is causing you the most worries today?”, instead.

For information and strategies to help your anxious child, pick up a copy of THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK.

Raise Assertive Kids in 8 Easy Steps

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In the past two days, two wonderful small moments occurred. The first happened during a chemistry lesson in my daughter’s classroom yesterday morning. When the teacher asked for volunteers to read the conclusion of the experiment out loud, my daughter raised her hand high in the air. Sounds like no big deal, right? The thing is that my daughter is never the first to raise her hand. She prefers to blend in and though she often knows the answers and yearns to show her teachers that, she doesn’t always speak up. To volunteer before the others and read in front of the class in a clear, strong voice is a big deal.

The second wonderful small moment occurred during her classroom Valentine’s Day celebration this afternoon. When another student offered to share extra balloons (he brought more than he needed), she jumped at the chance to get one. Again, this probably seems like the day in the life of a nine-year-old, except that my daughter typically thinks of others first and never reacts so quickly in such situations. She was beaming with pride when she recounted her ability to really speak up and use her voice this week. It’s something she thinks about often, and I see her working through her ambivalence about assertive communication as she grows.

Some kids are naturally more assertive than others. It can be hard to find the line between assertive communication and aggressive communication, and some kids hang out in the land of passive in an effort to be polite and respectful (like my daughter). The problem, of course, is that assertive communication is essential to building healthy working and personal relationships. Kids need to learn how to communicate their feelings, thoughts and needs in an assertive manner.

What does it mean to be “assertive”?

Being assertive means speaking up in an honest and respectful way. Assertive people stand tall, make good eye contact and speak clearly. They don’t talk over others, but they don’t let others talk over them. Assertive kids use their communication skills to do the following:

  • Give opinions
  • Ask for help
  • Express their needs
  • Disagree in a respectful manner
  • Offer suggestions
  • Speak up for others

What should I do if my child isn’t assertive?

Remain calm. You can’t force a child to become more assertive simply by saying it. Learning to assert yourself takes time and practice.

The truth is that one of the most frequently asked questions in my inbox is this: How can I teach my child to be more assertive with her/his friends (or teachers…or coaches)? If your child hasn’t found her voice yet, she’s not alone. You can practice these skills in the (emotional) safety of your home, and that will help your child find her voice.

8 Steps to more assertive kids:

Review communication styles.

Role play is always the best way to practice social skills. More often than not, kids aren’t aware of their own communication styles. They might think they speak assertively, when really they tend to have a more passive or aggressive style.

Using real life scenarios (provided by your child), act out the three communications styles. How would a passive (quiet voice, looks to the floor, has difficulty finding the words) person handle talking to a teacher about a grade? How would an aggressive (loud voice, has trouble listening, talks over the teacher) communicator cope? How can your child use assertive (practice first, maintain eye contact, ask questions, speak clearly) communication to resolve the problem?

Practice eye contact.

It can be really hard to look someone in the eye when you’re trying your best to hide in plain sight. I would know. I was one of those kids. Work hard and keep your head down – the rest will fall into place. Yeah, eventually I had to learn to speak up.

I always practice conversations that I know will be difficult or presentations in the mirror. Looking in the mirror helps you practice making eye contact in a safe place. After a few rounds in the mirror, try the same conversation with a family member. Another fun strategy? Make videos and replay them to see check for eye contact and voice tone.

Teach “I” statements.

A big part of assertive communication involves expressing your needs without blaming others or ignoring the needs of others. The key to doing this is learning the art of “I” statements.

When my kids struggle to assert their feelings, I always ask them three questions: What are you feeling? What are you thinking? What do you need? This cues them to tap into “I” statements.

Practice the art of debate.

Kids who struggle to assert themselves tend to avoid conversations that involve personal opinions. Sometimes they worry about what others will think. Other times they worry about hurting someone else’s feelings. Respectful communication does include healthy debates and disagreeing in a respectful manner, however, and kids do need to learn this skill.

Host a kitchen table debate over the weekend! Pick a topic (gummy worms versus jelly beans), have all family members (even you!) come up with their own opinions on the matter and debate the issue.

Create a word wall.

Okay, maybe it’s more like a phrase wall. Kids internalize the messages we send verbally, but nonverbal messages also go a long way toward helping kids learn to speak up.

One day, on a whim, I covered my daughter’s closet door with positive phrases like, “I can make a difference” and “I am kind and caring”. She loved it. I see her reading it often and she repeats some of the phrases when she needs them.

Have a personal motto.

Sometimes a calming, confident phrase helps kids remember to use their strong voices. I often encourage kids to come up with their own personal motto to use when they need to be strong and assertive.

Your kids should come up with their own phrases to inspire confidence, but something like, “When I use my strong voice, I solve my own problems” helps inspire assertive behavior.

Remain calm.

One of the hallmarks of assertive communication is staying calm when asserting your thoughts or needs. To that end, it helps to practice some calming behaviors:

  • Count to 10 before you respond
  • Take 3 deep breaths
  • Relax your facial muscles
  • Repeat your motto

Replace “I don’t know” and “I don’t care”.

Kids who rely on passive communication often answer questions with “I don’t know” or “I don’t care”. They do this to avoid debate, hurting someone else’s feelings or causing additional stress to another. These phrases create bad habits, though. It becomes second nature and they miss out on getting their needs met.

When you hear “I don’t know” or “I don’t care”, cue your child to start again with “I prefer”. They might not get their needs met every time they ask, but they do need to learn to express their wants and needs.

The Happy Kid Handbook includes a chapter dedicated to teaching assertiveness skills – grab your copy today!

How to Help Your Anxious Kid Avoid Avoidance Behaviors

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Avoid avoidance? I know, sounds like I missed something there, but stay with me. In the past few weeks, my inbox has been overflowing with questions about helping anxious kids who have a tendency to avoid all possible anxiety triggers. Should parents push kids to “face their fears”? Should they encourage the avoidance because the anxiety seems to “disappear” as long as the child avoids the triggers? What’s a parent to do?

Parenting an anxious child is hard work. Just when you think you have the problem solved (nine night lights to clear up the fear of the dark later), a new trigger emerges. That’s because anxiety isn’t just about the triggers. Irrational fears and intrusive thoughts have a way of snowballing, and kids confront a lot of new information on a daily basis. For a non-anxious child, new information is fun and exciting. For an anxious child, however, new information can lead to new fears.

Add the new fears to the old fears (you can install all the night lights you want, until kids learn to cope with anxiety those Band Aids can come off at any moment!) and you have a big mess of fears.

Avoidance is a common strategy used by anxious kids. Honestly, it’s easy for parents to fall into the trap (been there). When kids avoid their triggers, they tend to appear calm and happy again. The problem is that it won’t last.

What are avoidance behaviors?

Avoidance behaviors are things kids (and by kids I do mean all ages – even the tweens and teens!) do or don’t do to reduce their feelings of anxiety. There are different levels of avoidance. For example, true avoidance behaviors occur when a child goes to great lengths to completely stay away from a trigger. If a child is afraid of reading in front of his classmates, for example, he might either try to stay home “sick” when he has to give a book report or invent reasons to leave the classroom during book report time (I need to see the nurse).

Partial avoidance, sometimes referred to as safety behaviors, are things kids do to try to hide their anxiety. Ever notice a kid who always seems to drop his pencil and disappear from sight the moment the teacher starts calling on kids for answers? That’s avoidance. Safety behaviors help kids feel in control in the moment or help limit exposure to the trigger. Other examples include avoiding eye contact when talking to people, leaving the room frequently, daydreaming to check out and even drinking and drugs in older kids.

While avoidance behaviors might give kids some immediate symptom relief, they don’t help them learn to cope with their triggers. In fact, the fears actually have a tendency to snowball when kids engage in avoidance behaviors.

Take, for example, a child who refuses to go to school due to separation anxiety. It feels good and safe to stay home, so the child engages in negative behaviors to avoid going to school. Over time, as the days add up, the child starts to internalize the message that she can’t go to school. School is scary, overwhelming and just too hard. The more she stays home, the more she believes that she’s can’t possibly cope at school.

Avoidance can actually increase the risk of engaging in negative safety behaviors down the line. Drugs and alcohol are used to dull the feelings of anxiety, particularly for those facing social anxiety.

How can you teach kids to avoid avoidance?

Like all things anxiety related, avoiding avoidance requires time, practice and patience. There will be good days and not-so-good days along the way. Try not to view setbacks as failures when your kids are learning to cope with anxiety. Setbacks are simply a call to review what is and isn’t working so that your child can continue to practice adaptive coping strategies.

***If anxiety impacts your child’s ability to go to school or participate in normal daily activities, call your family doctor for a referral to a mental health professional specializing in children and adolescents. 

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With that in mind, try these five steps to help your child learn to avoid avoidance:

Unpack the triggers.

More often than not, what begins as an intentional avoidance becomes a habit over time. The kid who hides every time a dog is near no longer has to think about avoiding the dog. she just does it. It’s how she copes.

It can take time to help kids unpack their anxiety triggers and identify their avoidance behaviors. When your child is calm, talk about what it means to feel anxious (your heart races, your brain warns you to avoid something, your palms sweat, etc) and what kids of things might cause those feelings. Share your observations of your child. Ask your child if she ever tries to avoid things that make her feel scared or worried.

I always recommend having the child make a “trigger tracker” list. This helps the child gain some control over the feelings of anxiety.

Challenge exaggerations.

Anxiety is fueled by irrational thinking. What might begin as a small worry (did I leave the stove on?) can quickly snowball when intrusive thoughts take over (my house is burning down!) Experiencing a complete lack of control over the trigger can increase those intrusive thoughts. This sends kids into fight or flight mode, and flight is often the easiest option.

Teach your child to challenge exaggerations by using self-talk. Help your child make a list of the intrusive thoughts that tend to snowball, then practice making logical statements instead. When kids learn to pick apart their worries and ground themselves in logical thinking, the intrusive thoughts shrink.

Start small.

It can be tempting to tell a kid to just get back in there and face his fears, but that kind of statement feels paralyzing to a child struggling with anxiety. Anxious kids often feel overwhelmed on a good day – they can’t just “shake it off”.  What they can do is start small and go from there.

If dogs are a huge source of anxiety, for example, start by reading books about dogs. Next, find a pet grooming place that will let your child watch a dog being groomed from behind the glass. After that, find a friend with a very calm and kid friendly dog and pay that dog a visit. You get the drill.

If social anxiety is the problem, start by attending a gathering for 15 minutes then work up to 25 and 35 and so on until larger gatherings no longer feel overwhelming.

Focus on manageable tasks.

One of the most difficult challenges for anxious kids is that once their anxiety is triggered, everything feels huge and overwhelming. Teach your child to break things down into manageable parts. If test anxiety is a problem, help your child learn to study in specific blocks of time with plenty of relaxation breaks and break down the test material to one focus area per study block. When he actually takes the test, have him use a plain piece of paper to block out the section he’s not working on in the moment.

Learning to break things down helps kids feel in control of their triggers.

Practice. Practice. Practice.

All kids are different and no one strategy works for all kids (except deep breathing to calm the feeling of panic – that always works when done correctly), but there are tons of ways to practice confronting triggers.

Mirror, mirror: Have your child role play anxiety producing situations while facing a mirror. The more kids practice confronting their triggers, the more mastery they gain. Join your child to help him work though difficult situations.

Put on a social play: Writing, directing and starring in a play about your own worries can be quite empowering! Encourage the whole family to get in on the action, as directed by the anxious child. Play truly does help children gain mastery over the fears, and this is a great way to get started.

Sing a silly song: As silly as it sounds, rewriting the lyrics to a favorite tune to reflect how you can face your fears really does help. I do this to show my kids that we all have worries and sources of stress, but casting them in a new light can make us feel better.

The Happy Kid Handbook is full of great strategies to help children and families learn to cope with stress and anxiety. Grab your copy today!

Image credit: Pexels

Drop Everything and Play!

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The stuffed animals went to school today. They went to stuffed animal school, anyway. The bad news is that my kids are home sick (tis the season). The good news is that they’re home sick together so they can play in between coughs and sneezes.

They spent the better part of the morning setting up the school. They started with the physical space. After much thoughtful consideration, they settled on the hallway space between their bedrooms as the ideal place to build a school. They gathered school supplies, determined a schedule (including extra time for snacks, recess and lunch – you can draw your own conclusions on that one), made important decisions about who would teach what and raided the toy kitchen for food items to keep in the cafeteria. They even discussed the ideal teaching style and agreed on a strict NO HOMEWORK policy.

After what amounted to at least two hours of set up, they took a much needed break for lunch and rest. We read together, watched a show together and played a board game. Then they got back to business. By the afternoon, they began the playing part of the play.

This kind of “high level play”, play that contains sustained play themes and involves multiple roles and symbolic use of props, requires time. Today my kids had the time because they were home sick, but most days they find the time because we refuse to over schedule in this house. Childhood is short – we choose to play.

As both a psychotherapist and a mother, I have seen firsthand the clear benefits of making time for unstructured play.

The best news is that you don’t need a bunch of props and fancy toys to encourage this kind of play. In fact, most kids prefer to create their own props. In doing so, the prop becomes exactly what they want it to be and they can manipulate it to meet their needs. This is why cardboard boxes are such a huge hit for kids. They like to take control and create their own fun.

In fact, Eastern Connecticut State University’s Child Development Center just named the wooden cash register by Hape Toys the 2015 Toys that Inspire Mindful Play and Nurture Imagination selection. After studying preschoolers at play in their classrooms with a selection of toys for one year, they found that the kids were drawn to the wooden cash register over toys with more bells and whistles.

It makes sense. With the wooden cash register, kids can manipulate it as needed. It can be used for a store or to check out books for a library. The possibilities are endless when the children use the toy on their own terms.

What’s the big deal about high level play?

We know that play is the language of children and that kids learn, communicate and grow through play. But we have a tendency to push structured activities the moment kids enter elementary school.

When I speak to groups of parents I hear the same question over and over again: What is so different? Why are kids more stressed today than they were twenty years ago. While there are multiple reasons for increased levels of stress and anxiety in children and each child has their own triggers and circumstances, I can tell you this: Kids today are play deprived.

Kids are doing a lot of things from preschool on, but what they aren’t doing enough of is the very thing that will help them thrive. We simply aren’t making enough time for play in this busy, go go go world.

Benefits of high level play:

  • Stress relief – kids work through their emotions by playing.
  • Emotional regulation – kids learn to identify and regulate their emotions through play.
  • Exploration of passions – they figure out what makes them tick.
  • Increased social skills.
  • Improved communication skills.
  • Increased creativity and creative thinking.
  • Improved problem solving skills.
  • They connect with friends, siblings and caregivers on a deeper level.
  • Try on new roles and make sense of the world around them.
  • Cope with and overcome fears and worries.

I could go on and on and on…the benefits of play are many. Stand back and watch your kids play for an hour and you’ll see your own benefits – unique to your own child. That’s the wonderful thing about play. When kids tap into high level imaginative play, they work through their own unique needs at the moment.

When is my child too old for unstructured play?

Never! I see eleven-year-old kids working through difficult emotions and stressful situations through play. I see teens let go of their insecurities simply by getting down on the floor and playing! I’ve seen adults learn to let go of their own stress by engaging in unstructured play with their kids. Truly, the power of play knows no age restrictions.

I know that it’s tempting to try every sport and enroll in every enrichment program that comes your way, but the truth is that kids don’t need constant adult direction. They time to figure things out on their own. If we don’t give them the opportunity to work through various situations independently and in a way that makes sense to them, how can we expect them to act as problem solvers out in the world? How can we expect them to gain independence?

Drop everything and play this holiday season. Your kids need it. The truth is…you probably do, too.

For more information on the healing power of play and how to encourage a playful environment, pick up your copy of The Happy Kid Handbook today.

How to Inspire Your Kids to Spread Happiness

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Today is the International Day of Happiness!  While it might seem a bit much to dedicate a day to celebrating happiness, I think a day like this is exactly what we need in this world.  Research shows us that connecting to others increases overall happiness, so it makes good sense that theme of today is making more connections.

Sure, you probably feel connected 24/7 thanks to your super smart phone, but how deep do those connections go?  How often do you carve out time to actually engage with others in a meaningful way?  We are a generation of quick wit and instant gratification, and we need to learn to slow down and consider the messages we send our children.

In this busy, go-go-go time of parenting, we need to learn to step back and find time to strengthen our existing relationships and establish new ones.

Just yesterday and elderly woman stopped me on my way into Rite Aid.  I was in a hurry, but the smile on her face told me that she needed to have a conversation.  Sure enough, she wanted to talk about polarized sunglasses.  It was a new concept to her and she wanted to know if I had any thoughts about them.  For fifteen minutes we stood in the entryway of the store, chatting about the glare, eye strain and saving money with coupons.  Then she patted me on the back and walked into the sunshine with her new polarized glasses.

Did that small connection make her day?  I don’t know, but it sure made mine!  I told my kids about it over dinner.  We talked about grandparents and getting older and loneliness…and then they talked about little things that might make other people happy.

Adults tend to be over-thinkers.  We know too much about the great big world, and that causes us to think big.  We think in grand gestures, and that can stop us from actually taking the time to connect with others.  When spreading happiness feels like another thing on the list, it’s easy to push it down. If we look to our children, however, we find that spreading happiness and establishing connections is actually quite simple.  The key is to think smaller.

My daughter always reminds me that smaller is happier by way of picking wildflowers for me along our walks.  She puts them in glasses with water and places them on the kitchen table for all to enjoy.  And we really do enjoy them. My son shows his small acts of kindness with his words.  He whispers kind words and leaves me sweet love notes almost every day.  And it works.  His child-sized expressions of love bring me great happiness – and that melts the stress away.

So how can we inspire our kids to spread kindness and happiness?

Point out acts of kindness:

This brings us back to thinking small, especially when it comes to very young children.  You know that bird nest your child created out of twigs and leaves?  That’s kindness in action.  You know that flower your child just had to pick for Grandma?  That’s kindness in action.

Talk about the acts of kindness that you see each day.  Discuss how those acts might make other people feel.  Connect the dots so that your children learn that they have the ability to help others feel happy.

Praise thoughtful behavior:

Kids do kind things because they want to show others that they care.  It’s how they express their love and gratitude.  While you probably thank them for those little pictures drawn on tiny scraps of paper, you might not be as inclined to label that action as “thoughtful”.  You should.

You want to know eight words that will build your child up and inspire further acts of kindness?  Here goes:  “I love that you are a thoughtful person.”  Go ahead, try it.  Your child will smile, that much I know.

Teach positive thinking:

Life can be frustrating, even for little kids.  Negative thinking can get in the way of kind behavior and overall happiness.  When kids have an “I can’t” approach to the hard stuff, they have a hard time seeing a positive end result.

Teach them to reframe their thoughts.  Stop a negative thought cycle with these steps:

  • I can see that your frustrated.  This feels really hard.
  • Take three deep breaths with me to take a break for a minute.
  • Let’s think of some positive words we can use while we work on this problem.
  • I’ll stay with you, and you can let me know if you need any help.

Model kindness:

Take the time to make connections and engage in small acts of kindness in the presence of your children.  Bring in the neighbor’s trash cans, help someone carry groceries, hold the door wide open (even if you have to slow down and wait)…

Kids learn a lot by watching us.  Do we all have great days every day?  No.  But we can model kindness, talk about our mistakes, and teach our kids to spread happiness…all we have to do is slow down and stay connected.

Have a happy day!

Want Happy Kids? Teach Forgiveness.

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Forgiveness.

Chances are you’ve talked to your kids about forgiveness at some point. You’ve probably asked one child to forgive the other child for an unkind gesture or unfair treatment of some kind. You’ve probably talked about moving on, letting go, and getting over it. But have you actually taught your kids how to practice forgiveness?

Forgiveness is an essential life skill. It doesn’t get the attention it deserves, if you ask me. There are plenty of adults in this world who don’t practice the art of forgiveness in their lives. They might say they do. They might rely on clichés and phrases that speak to forgiveness, but do they actually take the time to forgive? Do they actually work through the feelings that serve as roadblocks to forgiveness and get to the other side?

Have you ever found yourself on the receiving end of a heated discussion when suddenly past issues enter the conversation? What begins as something seemingly minor can morph into an emotionally exhausting conversation filled with repressed anger and resentment that creeps out when tension spikes. These are the moments that speak to lack of forgiveness skills. These are the moments that cause hurt and sometimes irreparable damage to otherwise close relationships.

I’ve mediated these conversations in my office, and I’ve seen them in my own life at times. When people are unable to practice forgiveness, they carry with them feelings of anger, hurt, and resentment so strong that they struggle to maintain perspective. They have difficulty truly relating to and building close relationships with others when they struggle to forgive.

The benefits of learning to forgive are many. According the Mayo Clinic, forgiving people enjoy healthier relationships, less stress and anxiety, higher self-esteem, better immune functioning, and fewer symptoms of depression (to name a few). People who struggle to forgive, however, are more likely to become depressed or anxious, bring bitterness and anger to new relationships, and struggle to enjoy the present (among other things).

When it comes to raising happy kids, we need to consider the importance of teaching kids how to practice forgiveness. It isn’t just about a simple apology followed by acceptance. Forgiveness takes time and work.

Happiness is not the complete absence of stress; happiness is being able to work through stress, obstacles, and negative emotions and come out with a feeling of inner peace and a positive outlook. That’s a powerful lesson for little kids, and one that will help them for years to come.

So how do we teach kids to practice forgiveness? The obvious answer, of course, is that we practice forgiveness in our own lives. That is important. We need to use the words, talk about our feelings, and share our stories of forgiveness. When our children apologize to us, we need to forgive them out loud. When we’ve made a mistake, we need to own it and apologize and talk about forgiveness within the family. But it doesn’t stop there. Kids need to learn how to get from “I’m sorry” to “I forgive you” without glossing over the hard part in the middle.

Unpack feelings:

Kids are often put in the position of forgiving others without much discussion about what happened. Repressed feelings are a significant roadblock to true forgiveness. When we stuff our feelings, we give those feelings time to grow in size before they finally explode. They will explode at some point. They always do.

Kids need to understand that it’s perfectly normal to experience feelings of anger, frustration, disappointment, jealousy, and sadness when someone hurts our feelings. They need to express those feelings in a healthy manner. They need a trusted adult who can listen (not fix) and empathize. Kids need to work through their feelings before they can forgive.

Recognize their role:

I always tell my clients, particularly the ones with endless stories about being wronged, that even if you’re pretty sure that something is 99% the fault of someone else, there’s always that 1% out there waiting to be claimed. I have this same conversation with my kids, as well. Yes, your brother got frustrated and stormed off because you didn’t agree on a game to play, but what did your voice sound like when you shot down all of his ideas? Could his feelings have been hurt by criticism and voice tone?

When people argue or do things that hurt those close to them, big feelings are at play. Chances are, things are said and done on both ends. We all need to learn how to take responsibility for our roles in relationship issues if we want to be able to forgive and move forward.

Let go of anger:

This can be a hard one for kids (and adults). Anger is a powerful emotion, and it does snowball fairly quickly. One minute you’re fuming over a sarcastic comment that left you feeling hurt and the next you’re thinking about every moment ever that resulted in that same feeling. I see this a lot with young children in my office. One hurt opens the door to past hurts, and it’s very difficult to move forward when overwhelmed by a lifetime of hurt feelings.

Kids need to learn how to let go of angry feelings. A simple exercise in replacing negative thoughts with positive ones (rewriting the script as we refer to it in my office) teaches kids to verbalize their angry thoughts and replace them with positive adaptive statements.

You can’t force others to forgive:

There are those who choose to be forgiving, and there are those who choose to live with anger and resentment. A hard but necessary lesson for kids is that we can’t force others to forgive us and enjoy a positive relationship just because that’s the choice we want to make.

Forgiveness is a skill and it’s also a journey. It doesn’t happen overnight, and sometimes the choices of others will leave us feeling sad and disappointed. Opening the door to forgiveness, even if another one closes in your face, gives kids an opportunity to live a happier, healthier life full of deep and meaningful relationships. That’s a choice worth making, even if someone else makes a different choice.

Tips for Talking to Kids About Predators

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There are some parenting topics that are very difficult to address.  Melissa is back this week with some startling information and helpful tips about talking to kids about predators.  I hope you will take the time to read and digest this very important information.  Thanks, Melissa.

This week in my town there was an incident that scared the daylights out of parents of school-aged children.  Police alerted the community to what was believed to be an attempted abduction of a seven-year-old girl who was riding her bike home from school.  It was the type of scenario we all dread and fear:  man grabs the girl and tells her to put her bike in the trunk of his car.  Thankfully, she sped away and told the parent at home, who called the police.  A day later, it was reported that it was actually a case of mistaken identity, not attempted abduction.  An older grandfather whose eyesight is failing thought he was addressing his granddaughter, whom he was supposed to pick up on that particular day.

While parents across our district breathed a sigh of relief and the police department shook off their embarrassment for sounding the high alarm, others, like my husband and I, took it as an opportunity to refresh our family’s protection plan and talk to our kids—again—about “stranger danger” and safe touching.

You may wonder, won’t that just scare my kids?  Isn’t it my job to protect them and not alarm them about dangers that are not likely to happen, if I keep close watch?  Wrong.  While this was a case—albeit, a mistaken one—of abduction, which is less common, sexual abuse of children is a very frightening and common reality with serious consequences.  Like stranger danger, it should be discussed with children even before they attend grade school and reviewed on a regular basis.

If you think the possibility of a man trying to grab your child on her way home from school is alarming, listen to these facts about sexual abuse:

 

  • Child sexual abuse is the use of a child for sexual purposes by an adult or older, more powerful person, including an older child. It is a crime in all 50 states (Committee for Children).
  • Studies suggest that about 1 out of every 5 American women and 1 out of every 10–20 American men experienced some form of sexual abuse when they were young (Committee for Children).
  • An estimated 180,500 children in the United States were sexually abused in 2005-2006 (Sedlak et al., 2010).
  • Most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows and trusts. Snyder (2000) found that nine out of ten children who have been sexually assaulted know their attacker.
  • The offender often uses a position of power to take advantage of a child, usually developing a relationship before any sexual abuse takes place as part of a process known as “victim grooming.”
  • Young children are at the greatest risk.  Studies show that one third to one half of victims are under age 7 when the abuse begins.
  • Sexual abuse occurs in children from every culture, walk of life, and socioeconomic status.  Boy or girl, no one is exempt from the risk.
  • Children are not likely to reveal that abuse is taking place.  Studies show that only 2-4 of every 10 victims will tell an adult at the time of the incident, and even fewer will tell the authorities.

 

Scared?  You should be.  Our children are vulnerable, but there are ways for parents to prevent possible victimization.

 

  • From an early age, allow your child to say no to hugs or other affection, even from family members.  Children should be encouraged to maintain physical boundaries that feel comfortable to them.
  • Talk to your child about safe touching versus unsafe and unwanted touching.
  • Be sure your child understands proper names for their private parts, and that no one other than a parent (for a young child, for cleaning purposes), or a physician may ever touch them there.
  • Teach your child that while it is important to obey adults, particularly parents and teachers, they do not have to obey adults if an adult attempts to break safe touching rules, or otherwise entice the child to act outside of family rules or expectations.
  • Be open to answering questions your child may have, and do not hesitate to review the topic from time to time, particularly surrounding events such as the one which took place in our community.

 

For more information about how to talk to your child about safe touching, visit the website of the Committee for Children, at http://www.cfchildren.org/advocacy/child-safety.aspx

 

 

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