Helping Your Child Conquer Separation Anxiety

All children have fears. As adults, we can empathize when we see a spider or take an elevator in a very tall building. Children may develop specific fears and phobias of everyday objects, such as insects, dogs, germs, thunderstorms, the doctor, etc. For other kids, their worry is around separating.

Separation anxiety is a normal stage of development for all children, but in some cases, their anxiety may escalate and become so powerful that it begins to disrupt daily life. If your child’s anxiety is intense and persistent, this may require seeking professional treatment, but as a parent there are many things you can do reduce worry, provide comfort, and make your child feel less fearful.

Signs and Symptoms:

  1. Your child is more clingy
  2. After ruling out any medical issue, your child continues to complain of headaches, upset stomach, dizziness, or nausea
  3. Your child is fearful and displays heightened anxiety, so much so that it disrupts routines, such as school refusal or creates issues with sleep
  4. Your child may fear something awful happening to you or other primary caretakers
  5. There is excessive worry that a loved one will become ill or die
  6. Your child fears that they will be kidnapped or lost

 

Understanding the Causes of Separation Anxiety:

Separation anxiety can have many root causes, but is most commonly triggered by:

  1. A change in the environment (a new sibling, a new school, moving to a new home, etc.)
  2. Life cycle events or transitions (divorce, the loss of a family member or pet, switching schools)
  3. Family history of anxiety

Techniques that Help:

Create consistency

It is imperative to create consistency for children with anxiety and fears. There should be predictability in daily routines, so the child can reduce any anticipatory anxiety regarding times in which they will need to separate. This way, your child knows what it expected and can rest easy.

Consistency should also be considered when creating a ‘goodbye ritual’ and bedtime routine. This can include reassurance that they are loved and safe while also continuing to set limits (working to play independently, sleep in their own bed, successfully attend a full day of school, etc).

 Exposure Therapy

Exposure and Response Prevention is the most effective technique in targeting any fear, especially separation anxiety. Exposure Therapy is a type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy aimed to reduce anxiety by creating structured and intentional exposures to the fear. The child is faced with their fear in a safe space in incremental steps. The goal is to ‘unlearn’ the behaviors that reinforce the worry (learning to separate in healthy ways).

Developing a Hierarchy of Fears

This sets the stage and prepares the child to tackle more and more anxiety progressively related to their fear. The situations are minor and tolerable at first, leading up to the most anxiety-producing situation. We engage in asking the child questions such as, “on a scale of 1 to 10, how difficult would it be for you to be in a separate room from Mom… sleep in your own bed… have a playdate on your own… etc.”

As the child rates these fears, we create the Hierarchy of Fears and the child learns there are more manageable situations she can tackle. As the child is exposed to the triggers (with support from trusted adults), she must remain in the situation until she can feel calm. She climbs her fear ladder and feels a sense of accomplishment. Through repeated exposures, the anxiety gradually subsides altogether and the thought of separating no longer induces anxiety.

 Externalizing the Fear

Oftentimes, children need to feel a sense of control when challenging their anxiety. Personifying the fear or creating a character that represents their anxiety can be helpful in doing this. You can encourage your child to consider their fear as a ‘bully’ or that he or she has a ‘worry monster.’ You can also assist your child in creating a superhero with special skills and powers to defeat their worry and help them remain brave.

 Accessing Logic and Reasoning Skills

Children are likely to overestimate the likelihood of their fears, given the ways emotions can take over their bodies and cloud their thoughts. Help your child to defeat their worries by accessing reasoning and logic. You can encourage them to do so by asking ‘what are the chances of that happening to me?’ or ‘how likely is will my worry come true?’ With some coaching, children are able to access their reasoning skills and dispute the anxious thinking.

Create a Safe Space

Talk with your child openly about their worry. If they are not ready to engage in any behavioral interventions, therapy, or begin to climb their fear ladder, you can take steps by modeling healthy emotional expression and creating a safe space for your child to talk about their anxiety and fear.

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How to Keep Prom Events Safe, Simple, and Fun

The flowers are in bloom, we are enjoying more sunshine, and most kids have started their countdown to summer vacation. This can only mean one thing; spring is here! For high school students, this means Prom weekend is approaching.  Parents know that this is an exciting and memorable time for their high school students; however, with the dress shopping and tux rentals come the inevitable stressors. I am sharing a few “prom hacks” concerning how to have fun at prom while keeping events simple and safe.

Safety first

As parents you play a multi-faceted role in your child’s prom experience. In addition to hearing about the creative way that son or daughter asked (or was asked!) part of your role is also to set a few guidelines to ensure their safety.

Start by planning ahead. Once the prom group is formed you can ask your teen to share their date’s and their parent’s contact information. Forming an email chain with the other parents can be a helpful way to discuss pre-and-post prom events, note start and end times, and confirm safe transportation options. Once plans are in place you can make your expectations for the weekend’s events explicit.

Remind your son or daughter that their safety is your first priority.  Discuss prom night rules with your teen; this can include setting a curfew for the evening and asking them to check-in via text or calling once they have arrived to the events safely. Be sure to remind your teen about the dangers of drinking and driving. Consider offering to help them setup a driving service to promote ease and safety. If your teen needs help because of a driver who has been drinking encourage them to call you – no questions asked. It is better to be safe than sorry.

Less stress is best

Think strength in numbers. Once you have your parental email chain in place offer to co-host pre-or-post prom events with the other Moms and Dads. No need to take on full responsibility alone. There are bound to be a few sets of involved parents who are available and willing to help out with weekend events, even in small ways. Divide and conquer the “to-do” list so no single person feels the whole burden. Having extra sets of eyes around is a great way to ensure adequate supervision. If you teen is not keen on the idea of your presence at their party, simply inform them that you are there to help out the hosts. Assure them you want them to have a fun at prom!

Have some fun at prom!

It is prom weekend after all! Coordinating a prom group is no task for the faint of heart. If your teen is stressing about complicated group dynamics, encourage them to put together their own (perhaps smaller) group. This can be a great way to sidestep some of the stress while still making sure they have fun at prom and get to enjoy the company of their good friends all evening long. That is what matters most anyway! Some teens feel overwhelmed by all of the prom-related hype. Remind your teen that the outcome of their evening is all about their perspective. Invite them to notice the small meaningful moments of the night, instead of focusing solely on the things that did not go “as planned.” Take a peek at this this article for suggestions on how to help your teen cope with pre-prom anxiety. Before they head out, let them know that you would love to hear all about their evening and see their pictures once the weekend has ended. Letting your teen know that you care about the things that matter to them builds trust and respect in the parent-child relationship.

 

Prom holds a lot of expectation, which can add pressure to your teen’s experience of the weekend’s events.  By weaving some of these “prom hacks” into the mix, both you and your teen are likely to sidestep some of the unneeded stress so everyone can focus on what matters most; having a fun, memorable, and safe weekend!

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5 Tips to Reduce ACT and SAT Test Anxiety

Are you preparing to apply to college, but first you need to take the ACT or SAT? Does the thought of taking a major test give you anxiety? If so, you are experiencing test anxiety. It’s normal. Taking the ACT or SAT and going to college is a big step in your life and the unknown can make our thoughts race or even make us physically feel stress in our bodies.

ACT and SAT test anxiety will present before, during, and after the exam. Usually, test anxiety will have you deal with it through avoidance. The hope is that if are not confronting the anxiety, it will go away. Of course, it does not go away. You need to confront the anxiety and prepare on how to deal with the anxiety especially with big tests such as the ACT and SAT. Here are helpful tips to prepare the exams and reduce test anxiety.

1. Be Familiar with the Test

ACT and SAT have their similarities and differences. It is important you learn all you can about the ins and outs of tests. Some examples of the ins and outs are what the format of the test is, what subjects are being covered, how much time do you have to take the test, how is the test being scored, and what some of the questions look like. Try your best not to pay attention to the myths or rumors you may hear from friends about tests because in reality they are not always very accurate. The ACT and SAT websites do a fantastic job at getting you familiar with their tests.

Also, these websites help you to know the testing locations. Usually, a testing location is at your school or a school you are familiar with. You can locate a list of what you need to bring with you on test day and what you cannot bring with you. Even though they work to make the environment conducive to taking a test, there may be little distractions that are out of your control. To help with test anxiety, try to avoid arriving too early or too late. Once in the testing room, choose a seat away from high-traffic areas like doors or aisles to help lesson distractions. Lastly, try to sit away from others you may know. They are great supports, yet sometimes test anxiety can be contagious.

2. Be Prepared

The best way to be prepared is to study. It is essential to make an organized study schedule and stick to it at least a month if not longer before you sit for the exam. This schedule should help review each section of the test, learn key terms and concepts of those sections, and practice answering questions in the format they will show up on the exam. This way you are prepared and know what to expect on test day. There are many helpful resources on the testing websites, tutors which focus on preparing you for these exams or books that focus on studying for the ACT or SAT.

3. Learn Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques should be used before, during, and after the exam. These techniques should not focus on using screens or taking naps, but instead, focus on what you can do at the moment when anxiety arises. While preparing for the exam, start to notice when you are blanking-out, freezing or having difficulty concentrating. When you start feeling the test anxiety taking over, take a couple of long, deep breaths through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. Another example could be taking a few seconds during the deep breaths, close your eyes and imagine a peaceful setting or something that brings you joy, such as baby animals or a calm lake. You can also visualize someone you care about cheering you on, telling you “you got this.”

4. Reframe Negative Thoughts

Negative thoughts can increase your test anxiety. They can show up while preparing for the exam or during the exam. While you are studying, write down these thoughts then rewrite them or reframe them with positive thoughts and actions. For example: “I always do poorly on the test” to “I’ve got a better study plan for this exam than I have ever had before.” Another example to change: “If I do not pass this test, I am not going to college” to “I am going to get the score I need, but if I don’t, I can retake it.” Writing the positive reframes down and saving the list can help you come back to the thoughts and remind yourself of all the positive things you have going for you.

5. Take Care of Yourself

If you are taking care of your body, it will help feed your mind. The night before the test is not the time to cram or pull an all-nighter studying. It would be more beneficial to do something calming and relaxing. Try to get a good night’s sleep (8-10 hours) and fuel up in the morning with a nutritious breakfast. Dress in layers, so you are prepared if the testing room is too cold or too hot. Also, it may not hurt to pack a water bottle and a snack or two for breaks during the exam.

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Anxiety and Perfectionism: 3 Ways to Help Your Stressed-Out Teen Cope

Perfectionism: What if I Fail?

Is perfectionism and the pressures of daily life creating anxiety in your teen? Does your teen have difficulties starting or completing a new task for fear that he or she will fail? Is your teen struggling with schoolwork or participating in after-school or athletic activities?

For many teenagers today, aiming for perfection and the overwhelming fear of failure is an unfortunate reality. When these teens are “high-achievers,” they will often set lofty goals and assume complete failure if their goal isn’t met with sheer precision and perfection.

These teens run the risk of constant disappointment, which can lead to the development of anxiety, depression, self-esteem issues, as well as family and peer conflict. In order to mitigate the potential effects of perfectionism and related anxiety, consider the following strategies to help your teen find more balance in their daily life:

1) Promote Hard Work Rather Than Perfectionism

Encourage your teenager to consider goals that feel realistic and manageable, while still aiming for a challenge. It can be helpful to have conversations at the start of the new school year or after finals with your teen about his or her expectations.

This can be a great opportunity to help your teen modify or eliminate goals that may be too overwhelming. Perhaps taking three AP classes may be too much. Instead, encourage your teen to participate in one or two advanced classes, so they are able to dedicate their time to a challenge, while also finding time for self-care, social events, and after-school sports and activities.

2)  Defeat Negative Patterns of Thinking

Perfectionism is often associated with negative and self-defeating thoughts. These irrational thoughts will only exacerbate your teen’s anxiety and make it more challenging to find small successes and the necessary confidence within themselves. Teens will often engage in “all or nothing” thinking, such as complete failure or straight A’s. Teens may also think in catastrophic ways. For instance, “If I get a B on this chemistry test, I’ll blow my chances of getting accepted to my college of choice.”

Encourage your teen to use a basic Cognitive Behavioral Therapy technique called cognitive reframingwhere he or she can challenge the irrational thoughts. Help your teen replace the problematic thought with a more positive thought or fact that is more grounded in reality. Once your teen can change their negative self-talk, they are likely to feel less anxious and experience an increase in mood.

For example, we can change “I failed my math quiz and now I’m going to fail the class” to “I didn’t do my best on this quiz, but I have many opportunities to ask my teacher for help and the remainder of the semester to work hard.”

3)  Cope with Stress and Anxiety in Healthy Ways

Foster a safe space for your teen to express their emotions and talk about their stressors. Often times, having an outlet and using healthy emotional expression skills can drastically reduce the pressures and decrease the anxiety your teen is experiencing.

Encourage your teen to cope in positive and healthy ways, rather than internalizing and shutting down. Avoid negative coping skills, such as immersing themselves in screens and electronics or napping to avoid the stress. Validate your teen’s concerns and anxieties while also challenging him or her to cope in healthy ways. This will look different for each teenager, but can include playing sports or talking with his or her peers, listening to music, going for a run, journaling, drawing, or even downloading a breathing or guided mediation app on their smartphone.

 Talk with your teen about how he or she can view mistakes as opportunities to learn, rather than total failures. Model positive self-talk and encourage your teen to “aim high” without resorting to perfectionism and self-defeating patterns of thinking in their academic and social worlds.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”

– J. K. Rowling

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Combatting School Anxiety: 6 Tips for Parents to Help their Kids

Anxiety as the New School Begins?

School anxiety can be very real for kids as summer wanes and the school-year approaches. Kids are filled with a variety of emotions as they approach the new school year: sadness as they count down the last fun-filled days of summer, coupled by excitement to start the first day of a new class with the potential of new friends and new experiences. For many kids, anxiety is very real and scary.

The “What-Ifs” can fuel anxious thoughts. What if…?

  • …the teacher doesn’t like me?
  • …my friends aren’t in my class?
  • …I don’t get picked for soccer?

The list of what-ifs’ can be daunting, but with a little help from parents, kids can learn to manage their anxiety about school:

1. Recognize anxiety in its different forms

While some kids will be open and verbal about their worries, others may not say much. Some nonverbal cues to look for if you expect your child is experiencing anxiety: somatic complaints that don’t have a medical origin, difficulty concentrating or focusing, restlessness, angry outbursts, withdrawal, and/or sleep difficulties.

2. Open up the conversation

Kids don’t always open up to adults and let them know they are stressed. Use mealtimes, commutes to activities, and even down-time watching TV to check in. “What are you looking forward to this year the most? Is there anything that you aren’t looking forward to or are worried about?”

3. Normalize your child’s worries

Remind your kid that everyone has worries. Help them recognize their positive attributes, as well as noting times that they have conquered similar trials. For younger kids, it may help to use their favorite super hero comparisons, such as “What do you think Spiderman does if he’s nervous before a big day?”

4. Help kids “dissect” their fears

Does you kid love science experiments? Encourage her to do a little experiment on her own school anxiety. Ask your child to name the worry, then help him to break it down:

  • What are the chances of the worry coming true?
  • Is the worrying helping you in any way?
  • Is it making things worse?
  • Have you been in this situation before?
  • If so, what helped you get through it?
  • What didn’t help?

5. Be mindful of over-scheduling

How many adults do you know that have a music lesson, dance class, or sport every day after work? Kids these days are inundated with opportunities and activities. While some amount of extracurricular activity is great for a kid’s growth, too many structured activities can cause unnecessary stress and exhaustion. Children have a difficult time identifying stress, so it’s a good idea to help them plan a manageable schedule that allows enough time for sleep, nutritious meals, and some good-old fashioned DOWN time.

6. Recognize when your child may need help

Anxiety and worries are a normal part of life, especially for kids. Be patient, supportive, and a good listener, and don’t be afraid to be creative with some of the tools above. However, if your child’s anxiety is so pervasive that it inhibits their ability to function, then don’t be afraid to seek help from a licensed mental health professional. Therapy can help a child with anxiety to cope with transitions, gain skills to manage their symptoms and stress, and deal with the ‘what ifs’ that come up through life.

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