Anxiety is a topic that I deal with on a daily basis in my job (and life!), and it never ceases to fascinate me. I find myself searching, not just as a professional, but also as a mother, for new ways of approaching worry in a way that can be consistent across developmental stages. As I deal with my own daughter's worry about bedtime, the dark, and waking up in the dark in the middle of the night after a dream, I find this topic to be relevant on a daily basis--in my world, anyway.
This fall I became aware of Lynn Lyons' work (she spoke here at BB&N a few years back and to a group of us local counselors this fall) and I have been using her strategies for working with students (and my daughter!) ever since. She is an expert on anxiety and works largely with children. I find that her approach is one that is so simple and yet almost revolutionary, and the best part is that it's useful for all kids, whether they struggle with anxiety daily or just periodic bouts of worry.
Lyons is coauthor, along with Reid Wilson, of a book that you may already be familiar with called, Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents. I find this book to be fabulously helpful and refer to it often. One of their main messages is that anxiety craves two things: certainty and comfort. The "unknown" is one of the things anxiety hates most. In other words, anxiety pushes people to seek comfort and certainty instead of opening themselves up to what are perceived as risky situations. For example, when an anxious child is faced with having to go to a birthday party, there is no way he can know for sure what that party will be like or who will be there, so anxiety might create in that child the thoughts, "this is scary, it's going to be awful, you aren't going to be able to handle it." The child will then seek comfort and certainty--like choosing to stay home!
Lyons argues that ultimately, one of the best ways to help our children who struggle with worry is to help them (and ourselves) accept a new message: that discomfort and uncertainty are good feelings that signal to us that we are in an experience that will help us grow. Once we accept that message, we can offer and build on cognitive strategies for coping with worry when it arises. Through this process, we are owning that it is through struggle that we develop and expand. Lyons and Reid write, "It is not possible for kids to always feel secure. They will grow as they tolerate an uncertain outcome and step forward anyway."
Another helpful recommendation the Lyons and Reid make is to avoid a commonly used CBT technique of establishing "worry time" for your child, where you let your child talk for 10 minutes or so a day about everything she is worrying about as a way to let it all out and then put it aside. (This is a technique lots of us in the counseling field were taught as being really helpful!) Lyons and Reid argue that focusing on the content of the worry puts us into what they call "the content trap," and that it's really not helpful, especially since we then tend to start trying to rationalize why "it's not so bad, you have nothing to worry about!"
Instead, they argue we should shift the focus onto the fact that worry, as an experience, happens. We should expect it to. Sometimes worry is even helpful, like when you need to catch up on studying for a test. Other times, it's not helpful, like when you've studied for a test thoroughly and are still endlessly panicked. It's in the latter scenario that you might help your child notice that worry is at play, and instead of going down the path or rationalizing why your child is so prepared for the test that they have nothing to worry about--don't worry if you've taken this approach! It's every parent's natural, caring instinct to want to reassure!--help your child identify that worry is happening, and then go on to use some strategies for coping with that worry.
I recommend checking out the book to learn more about these strategies if you're curious. Lyons and Reid offer in their book a framework of "7 Keys to Solving the Worry Puzzle." I won't overwhelm you with text here by outlining all seven, but here are the first three, and they are powerful:
1. Expect to worry;
2. Talk to worry;
3. Be unsure and uncomfortable on purpose.
This is late notice--but for those who are interested in becoming more familiar with this work, Lynn Lyons will be speaking at an event open to all parents from PIN-member (Parents Independent School Network) schools, at The Rivers School on January 17 from 7-9 PM. Click here for more information:
Finally, on a related topic, a reminder that the upcoming BB&N Head's Speaker Series event on January 25th will feature two speakers on the subject of Stress & Gender. Professor Belle Liang of Boston College, and Dr. William Pollack, the author of Real Boys, will discuss the differences by which boys and girls experience and cope with stress. They will also offer advice about what parents can do to help. Click here for more info about that event, which will be held at the BB&N Upper School Theater.
See you all around!