How to Empower Your Child to Deal With School Anxiety

How to Deal With School Anxiety: Powerful Ways to Make Goodbyes Happy Ones

School anxiety is awful for children and heartwrenching for parents. It’s so common, but it doesn’t always look the same. Sometimes it will dress itself up as illness (headaches, tummy aches), sometimes as a tantrum or fierce defiance, and sometimes it looks exactly as you would expect.

School Anxiety. What it’s not.

If I could write this across the sky, I would:

Separation anxiety and school anxiety have absolutely nothing to do with behaviour, defiance or poor parenting. Nothing at all.

Anyone who is tempted to tutt, judge, or suggest a toughening up of parents or children, don’t. Hush and hold it in. The assumptions on which you’ve built your high ground are leading you astray. It’s likely, anyway, that parents dealing with school anxiety have already tried the tough love thing, even if only out of desperation. It’s understandable that they would. They’d try anything – parents are pretty amazing like that. 

They are great parents, with great kids. If only being tougher was all it took they all would have done it yesterday and we’d be talking about something easier, like how to catch a unicorn – or something.

Why getting tough won’t work.

School anxiety isn’t a case of ‘won’t’, it’s a case of ‘can’t’. It’s anxiety. It’s a physiological response from a brain that thinks there’s danger. Sometimes the anxiety is driven by the fear that something will happen to the absent parent. Sometimes it’s not driven by anything in particular. Whether the danger is real or not is irrelevant. Many kids with anxiety would know somewhere inside them that there is nothing to worry about, but they’re being driven by a brain that thinks there’s a threat and acts as though it’s true. 

When this happens, the fight or flight response is triggered and the body is automatically surged with neurochemicals to deal with the threat. That’s why anxiety can look like a tantrum (fight) or resistance (flight). It’s the physiological, neurochemical response of a brain on high alert. It’s hard enough to control your own brain when it’s on high alert, let alone someone else’s, however much that someone else wants to do the ‘right’ thing.

We humans are wired towards keeping ourselves safe above everything else. It’s instinctive, automatic, and powerful. This is why tough love, punishment or negotiation just won’t work. If you were in quicksand, no amount of any of that would keep you there while you got sucked under. You’d fight for your life at any cost. School is less dramatic than quicksand but to a brain and a body in fight or flight, it feels the same.

When you’re dealing with an anxious child, you’re dealing with a brain that will fight with warrior daring to keep him or her safe. It’s not going to back down because of some tough words or tough consequences. 

The good news is that there are powerful ways to turn this around. Let’s talk about those.

But first …

Before we go further, it’s important to make sure that the anxiety isn’t from bullying, friendship problems or problems with schoolwork that might need their own response. Teachers generally know what’s going on so it’s always worth having a chat to get a clearer idea of what you’re dealing with. In many cases, there are no other issues at all. On paper, everything looks absolutely fine. That’s anxiety for you.

Empower them.

Anxiety has a way of making people feel like they have no control. It’s inexplicable and feels as though it comes from nowhere. Explaining to your kids how anxiety works will demystify what they’re going through and take away some of the punch. It’s powerful. Here are some ideas for how to explain it in a way they can understand: 

Why does anxiety happen? The words.

Anxiety has a really good reason for being there. Your brain is great at protecting you. It’s been practicing for millions of years and is brilliant at it. If it thinks there’s something to worry about, it will instantly surge your body with fuel – oxygen, adrenaline, hormones – to make you strong, fast and powerful, kind of like a superhero. This is the fight or flight response and it comes from a part at the back of your brain called the amygdala. This part of your brain is small and shaped like an almond. It’s like a fierce (but very kind) warrior and it’s there to protect you. 

Sometimes your brain gets a little overprotective. That’s kind of understandable. You’re pretty brilliant at a lot of things and the world needs you. Your brain is in charge of keeping you safe and it takes its job very seriously. It’s a relief to know the ‘keep me safe’ switch in your brain is working. (Phew!)

When it thinks there’s a threat, it doesn’t stop to think about whether or not the threat is real – it’s all action and not a lot of thought. In fact, the part of your brain that is able to think clearly, calm things down and make great decisions about what to do next, is sent ‘offline’ if the brain senses a threat. That can actually be really handy and is another clever way to keep you safe. If there’s a real danger, like an out of control bus screaming towards you, you don’t want your brain to keep you in the path while it figures out whether or not to get out of there. 

When it comes to school, your brain can sometimes read it as a threat, even though it isn’t. That’s because school is a bit different to home – there are new people, different things and routines, you’re away from your parents, sometimes it’s noisy, and sometimes you don’t really know what to expect. To a brain whose job it is to protect you, that can feel like a really big deal.

This is why the bad feelings you feel when you think about going to school can be so powerful. It’s your brain telling your body to stay away from school because there could be something dangerous there. It might also be telling you that something could happen to the people you love if you aren’t near them. Brains can be very convincing, but they’re not always accurate.

Even if you know there’s nothing to worry about, your brain won’t always listen to that, and it will get your body ready to run for your life or fight for it. We’re going to talk about how to deal with this, but first let’s talk about what’s happening up in that powerpack in your head.

Your brain and anxiety – what you need to know.

When your brain feels really strongly that it has to protect you (and remember, your brain doesn’t care if the danger is real or not) the fight or flight part of your brain forces the thinking part of your brain to be quiet so that it can get on and deal with the danger. If your brain had a conversation, it would probably sound something like this:

The Thinking Part: Oh, we have school today. Cool. Let’s do it. 

The ‘Fight or Flight’ Part (the Amygdala): Yeah, no. That’s not going to happen. You’re going to be away from home and you don’t really know what’s happening today. It could be dangerous, so ‘Thinking Part’, you need to sit out while I check it out. 

Thinking Part: Dude. It’s school. There’s not going to be anything dangerous. Maybe new or unfamiliar, but not dangerous. You need to calm down, okay? Chill.

Amygdala: Whoa! You seriously don’t get it. If there’s something bad – and I’m pretty sure there’s a chance of that – then we’re going to have to run for it or fight – but fighting can bring its own bag of trouble – so maybe run. Or maybe just stay away. Yep. Let’s stay away. I’m trying to save a life here and you’re kinda getting in my way.

Thinking Part: For a brain, you’re not being very sensible. Think about it. It’s school. It’s teachers and other kid-sized humans and playgrounds and lunch and things. Nothing at all to worry about.

Amygdala:  Gosh, you seriously don’t get it. This could be deadly. You’re getting my way man. I’m sending you offline for a bit while I check it out. Here have this – some oxygen, some adrenalin, some hormones. It’s superhero fuel, but for you it will keep you quiet. Now, go to sleep. I’ve got this. I’m saving your life. You’re welcome.

By now, the amygdala has surged your body with fuel to make you strong, fast and powerful in case you have to fight or flee. Of course, when it comes to school there’s nothing to fight or flee but the thinking, good decision-making part of your brain is offline remember.

Why does anxiety feel the way it does?

When there’s no need to fight or flee, there’s nothing to burn off the superhero fuel that’s racing through you, so it builds up. That fuel is perfectly safe, and in the right circumstances can be really helpful, but it can feel bad when it builds up. The feelings and emotions you have when you’re anxious, or when it’s time to say goodbye are all because of this buildup.

Here are some of the things you’ll probably feel and why you’ll feel them.

You might feel puffed or breathless. You might also feel the blood rush to your face and it might feel warm.

That’s because your brain has told your body to stop using up oxygen on strong deep breaths, and to send it to your muscles so they can use it for energy to fight or run. To make this happen, your brain organises for your breathing to change from normal, strong breaths to fast little breaths. When you think about it, it’s a pretty good way to save oxygen, even though it might not feel that great.

Your heart might feel like it’s beating out of your chest. It might feel like you’re having a heart attack.

This is because your heart is working hard to pump the fuel around your body so it can fight or flee. It’s doing a great job, but it can feel a bit scary. It’s nothing to worry about. It’s just your heart doing exactly what a healthy heart does. You are definitely not having a heart attack. If you were, there would be other symptoms, including  a pain in your chest that would be unbearable, not just uncomfortable.

You might feel dizzy or a bit confused.

This happens because there’s nothing to fight or flee, so there’s nothing to burn the fuel that’s surging through your body. As the oxygen builds up, the carbon dioxide drops, making you feel dizzy and confused.

Your arms and legs might feel tense or wobbly.

Your brain is sending fuel to your arms (so they can fight) and to your legs (so they can run away).

You might feel a bit sweaty.

Your body does this to cool itself down. It doesn’t want to overheat if it has to fight or flee.

You might feel like bursting into tears or your might feel really angry

This is the handy work of the amygdala – the part of the brain that triggers the fight or flight. It’s also involved in emotions. It’s in full control and it’s working super hard. When it’s highly active, you might get emotional or angry at all sorts of things or nothing at all. It’s a really normal part of anxiety.

You might feel like you’re going to vomit or you might actually vomit. You might get tummy aches or feel as though you have butterflies in your belly. Your mouth might also feel a little bit dry.

Everything that’s happening in your body that isn’t necessary in that moment for survival will shut down. One of these is your digestive system, which is the part of the body that gets the nutrients from  food. That can wait, so it shuts down until the crisis (or what your brain thinks is a crisis – nobody said brains were always sensible!) is over. It’s a great way to save energy, but it can make you feel sick. It’s feels awful, but it definitely won’t hurt you and it’s definitely not a sign of anything worse going on inside you.

As you can see, there’s a really good reason for every physical symptom. It’s your brain doing a great job of what brains are meant to do – keep you alive.

This is why you might feel so strongly you that you can’t go to school – because that’s what your brain is telling you. It’s why it might upset you when people tell you there’s nothing to worry about. You kind of already know this, but your brain and your body aren’t so convinced – your body is being driven by a brain that thinks it’s under threat. This can feel scary, which is totally understandable. 

Here’s the thing though: Even though your brain is telling you there’s danger, sometimes it might misread the situation. It happens to everyone from time to time but some brains will be a lot quicker to sense threat than others. There’s nothing wrong with that. An anxious brain is just as healthy and strong and capable as a non-anxious brain. In fact, it’s often even more capable, more creative and more sensitive to what’s happening around it. 

When your brain is reacting to things that aren’t really a threat, what it actually needs is for you to come in and be the boss. Let’s talk about how to do that.

1.   Your anxiety isn’t the enemy, so try not to fight it.

Remember that the amygdala that sets your anxiety in motion is like a fierce warrior that’s trying to protect you. Even though it might be causing you trouble, it really doesn’t mean to. If it could, it would hug you and walk one step in front of you to keep you safe. It can’t do that, so instead it surges you with fuel to keep you strong, fast and powerful whenever it thinks you need it, and sometimes just in case. If you can put the thinking part of your brain (the pre-frontal cortex) back in control, it will stop the fuel surging through you and this will help you to feel better and braver. It really needs your help though because the only way it’s going to be let back in control is if the amygdala thinks you’re safe. That message needs to come from you.

2.   Let your brain know, ‘I’ve got this. You can stop worrying now.’

Luckily, there is a very cool thing your brain can do and it’s called the relaxation response. You don’t have to believe it works because it’s programmed into your brain, like breathing, so it just does. But – it won’t work until you flick the switch. The best way to do that is to breathe. Not just any breathing though – strong, deep breaths that come from your belly.

°  in through your nose for three,

°  pause,

°  out through your mouth for three.

(Imagine that you have a hot cocoa in your hands and you’re breathing in the delicious smell through your nose for three seconds, then blowing it cool for three seconds.)

When you do this, it’s like a gorgeous massage for your amygdala. It totally relaxes it. It tells it that you’re okay and that it can chill for a bit. When your amygdala is relaxed, something kind of wonderful happens. Your prefrontal cortex (the ‘let’s think about this’ part of your brain) can take back control. The first thing that it does is to neutralise (get rid of) the fuel (oxygen, hormones, adrenalin). When that happens, the intense physical and emotional things you’re feeling all start to settle down. You’re back in control. Back to being the boss of your brain. It might not feel completely comfortable straight away, but it will be to a level that you can handle. Very soon after that, you’ll feel as strong, brave and as awesome as ever.

3.   Get really active for a couple of minutes or go for a walk. 

Remember that the fuel surging through you is there to make you strong, fast and powerful. If you don’t burn it up, it will build up, and that’s when it feels bad. Walking or exercise will burn the fuel and stop the awful physical things you’re feeling. If you can get sweaty for five minutes by running, skipping, jumping – anything – that will really help. Otherwise going for a brisk walk will also be a great thing to do.

4.   Feel what’s happening outside of yourself.

When you feel anxious, you become really aware of what’s happening inside your body. Your brain also continues to worry itself silly by living in the future with a truck load of ‘what if’s’. Bring your brain back to the present by turning your attention to what’s happening around you. Feel the ground beneath your feet. Touch your arms and feel the touch of your fingers against your sin. Feel your breath coming into you, and then going out. Feel the temperature. Hear the noises around you. You’ve got the idea.

5.   Dear Me, This is what you need to know …

When you’re calm, and the thinking part of your brain is back in control, make a list of things you would like your amygdala to know. Then, use this as a reminder when you’re feeling anxious about school. What would you say to someone if you saw them feeling the way you feel when it’s time to go to school or say goodbye? These are the things that the thinking part of your brain would say to your amygdala if it was online when you were feeling anxious. Write it down and use it to remind your brain of what it needs to know when it starts to get you into fight or flight mode. Remember, you’re the boss. Maybe it will look something like this:

Dear Me,

This is what you need to know … you are completely okay. You’re feeling like this because your brain thinks there’s something to be scared of. It’s trying to look after you, but it needs you need to be the boss.

You’re brave. You’re strong. And you’re okay. Here’s why:

♥  Your friend(s) are at school and they care about you.

♥  Your teacher is on your side and would never ever let anything happen to you.

♥  School is strengthening your brain, so it can be even more amazing. 

♥  Today you’re doing these fun things at school … (even if it’s just playing at lunch or eating something delicious – it all counts!).

♥   You’re brave and you can handle school no matter what.

♥   In fact, you’re probably one of the bravest ones there today because you feel really anxious – and you’re doing it anyway.

♥   You only have to get through the next five minutes.

Go me. You’re pretty awesome.

Love, Me.

6.   Get organised.

Make a list of the things you need to do before you leave home to make your day goes smoothly. That way, you can remind yourself that things are under control, even if they feel like they aren’t.

Breakfast eaten. (Gotta be strong).

Teeth brushed.

Uniform on.

Homework done.

Lunch packed.

Shoes on.

Bag packed.

Parents (or important adult) hugged.

‘See ya later,’ to pets – done.

‘See ya later,’ to sibling/s – done.

Hair – done. Lookin’ fine.

Good to go.

7.   Get some sleep.

When you sleep, your brain gets stronger and sorts out it’s emotional worries. The more sleep you get, the better.

8.   Have something lavender nearby.

Lavender oil calms a stressed out, hectic brain. Spray it around your room or have some ready when you need it by putting lavender oil on a tissue. Have a little smell when you need to feel calmer.

9.   Anxiety and courage always exist together.

Anxiety means that you’re doing something brave. It doesn’t matter whether it’s easy for other people or not. We all find different things hard or easy. If you’re anxious, it’s because your brain thinks there’s something to worry about. It responds the same whether you’re about to give a presentation or about to skydive. It doesn’t matter what the thing is that’s making you nervous, an anxious brain is a brave brain, an anxious body is a brave body, and an anxious person is always a brave person.

And finally …

School anxiety never just swipes at one person. It’s affects kids, parents, siblings and the teachers who also invest in the children in their care. One of the worst things about anxiety is the way it tends to show up without notice or a good reason. For kids (or anyone) who struggle with anxiety, it can feel like a barrelling – it comes from nowhere, makes no sense and has a mind of its own. The truth is, the mind that anxiety has is theirs, and when they can understand their own power, they can start to establish themselves firmly as the ‘boss of their brain’. Understanding this will empower them, and will help them to draw on the strength, wisdom and courage that has been in them all along.

You might also like …

‘Hey Warrior’ is the book I’ve written for children to help them understand anxiety and to find their ‘brave’. It explains why anxiety feels the way it does, and it will teach them how they can ‘be the boss of their brains’ during anxiety, to feel calm. It’s not always enough to tell kids what to do – they need to understand why it works. Hey Warrior does this, giving explanations in a fun, simple, way that helps things make sense in a, ‘Oh so that’s how that works!’ kind of way, alongside gorgeous illustrations.

 

 


 

114 Comments

Kym B

My grandson is nearly 13 – first year of Grade 7. He has always had a little anxiety, but this year it has escalated. He will not go into the classroom, he has managed to get into the school grounds, but he cannot walk into the classroom with children there. He gets so angry with himself, he feels a failure because he wants to go. Now he has the added pressure of a deputy principal who told him that it was his fault his mother gets upset and stressed. Not something he needed to hear and now he worries that he will see her again. Anxiety is so real. Jayden is medicated, and that has helped a little, but we just cannot get him into the classroom.

He is a beautiful young man, so loveable and loves to help anyone. He has a heart of gold. He worries about his weight – and he has put on weight because he has been doing nothing – he has gotten very lazy. Its just so sad to see this young boy going through so much and not being able to help him.

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Jemma

Hi Tara, my son who is also 9yrs has just started anxiety medication after 5 years of trying everything else. I agree breathing techniques etc don’t work at that age. I have for the past 5yrs stayed everyday at school with him trying various techniques to help him stay at school without me. We are into our 5th week of medication and it’s been a game changer. He is loving life and just happier and calmer. I’m still at school with him but Ive started to leave at lunchtime and have been increasing the time that I leave. Another thing that has been brilliant is we got a Spacetalk watch for him. He knows that he can text me so just having that comfort alone that I’m just a txt away has eased his anxiety too. His teacher is aware of the watch and he only txts me during his break times so far. I also send txt messages saying how proud I am of him and just encouragement txts. I highly recommend. Our paediatrician also mentioned that sometimes the body will get used to the medication and we may have to increase it or tweak it a little. Maybe have a chat to them also. It’s a hard journey I know, so I send you my understanding and wish you all the best. Kind regards, Jemma

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Roza

I hear you. My daughter is 10 now and never liked school. The key is to understand what makes your child react that way. Is he in regular class or in class with Special Ed teacher.?Also does he get any kind of services in school? Speech is very important for children with anxiety as it helps them to speak out worries and etc. Also he needs Counseling .Schools now are very stressful environment , lots of kids , yelling and messed up Common Core .Teachers rush kids through topics and etc. For my daughter the worst year was 4 grade( 9 years-10) , last year because that’s when they push children into being independent and put a lot of pressure in them.
My daughter has Sensory issues , she has very keen eyesight and hearing. And she is emotionally sensitive . She was doing somehow OK because teachers would go to her level , she was in class with Special Ed teacher and she had Speech and counseling. They were telling me she was doing great etc. So in 4 th grade they said she does not need speech only counseling.
4th grade began and lo and behold…it put me into panic. For the first time in 6 years of school my child would not go in school , crying hysterically…it was pure nightmare to just walk her past school door…. that how I found this website and it helped to unravel things.
First of all she had a teacher with anxiety who would yell and specific my daughter could not handle and start crying. I get to hear it once…it has this fire alarm undertone.But what is the most important most of the times anxiety triggered by negative thoughts floating around in child head. The thoughts need to be addressed. You have to help your child to understand how anxiety works …overthinking and negative thoughts.It takes time a lot of time and a lot of patience to get into your child’s head. And yes deep breathing does work but you need to help your child to do it properly and do it with child until he sees its working and etc. I did with my daughter ..it helped immensely to calm her down before the bed. I can tell you in the beginning of 4th grade she could not even go to bed with whole panic attack, shaking etc.I have never seen her like that. It was scary! For my daughter I explain that her sensory cup is half way full so she has to be careful with excitement…also negative thoughts or even question have to be spoken up and asked ..because they can get twisted when they stay in head creating a vicious worry cycle . In the beginning of the year she set herself wrong way :too many children, too noisy, too much work , teacher is mean..etc.
Did you try cognitive behavioral therapy for your son? The thing with children with anxiety is their emotional part more developed then thinking part(logical). I did this with my daughter , like she tells what thought worries her and what she feels and then we do logical explanation. Also I teach her mindfulness not to focus on inside but look outside and etc. IMHO anxiety medication will not help because they just sedates the key is being able to stop negative thoughts.If child has disabling anxiety like can not sleep , crying and etc…first you need to make sure child is back to normal himself..for my daughter it took a couple of months , with deep breathing and relaxation at home, sleep gummies , psychologist visit once a month and couple of special professional massages.Also lockdown worked for us perfectly so she got back to normal herself and is able to work on herself.

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Tara

I have a 9yr old son. It started when he was seven and refusing to go to school, like running in the yard to hide, crying the night before and morning of. when he finally got to school, he panicked even more that we would have to sit with the guidance counselor for hours. Eventually he would settle and be able to go Into class. He has been on anxiety medication for 2 yrs now and just recently has started back with not wanting to go to school. He says “it’s too long” and cries all the way to school, even throwing up some days. Teaching him breathing techniques & self soothing tricks simply do not work for him. Anyone else have experience with this? It’s upsetting for everyone around, even his twin sister.

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Rachelle

My daughter struggles with anxiety and has for a few years now. She is now 14 and it is getting worse. At first she was so afraid she wouldn’t get enough sleep that she made herself sick worrying about it. Then she couldn’t go on field trips, then she couldn’t go into restaurants and now she doesn’t want to go back to school. It is frustrating and has such a big impact on our lives. This article is good but my daughter has tried a lot of these things and her fear still wins and prevents her from enjoying a lot of things. Next step is medication.

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Karen Young

Rachelle I hear you – anxiety can be brutal. If you decide to try medication, it is also important to make sure your daughter is learning the skills and strategies that will help to strengthen her against anxiety. A counsellor will be able to help with this, but don’t underestimate how important you are to the process. I wish you and your gorgeous girl all the very best. She has what it takes to get through this. She really does.

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Jessica

My 6 yr old son is in first grade and has always said from VPK, to K, and now, that he always feels sick at school, hates Sundays because that means school tomorrow, he feels dizzy when the teacher walks around and teaches. He wears noise muffling ear phones in the cafeteria (which I don’t blame him!) But also during free time/centers and during aftercare karate wken they aren’t actually in the do jo. He says he can’t swallow, and he always asks how old I’ll be when he’s a certain age. Or he will notice my veins in my hands and say he’s sad bc they look old. He wants to know what time I’m going to bed. If I’m going anywhere, relentlessly asks when I’ll be back. He does see a psychiatrist and started on Focalin 2 weeks ago and that helped tremendously with focus but his anxiety is so sad and I will be addressing that more with the dr. This article was the best I’ve read and hits the nail perfectly. Thank you for writing it. I’ll be ordering the book, too. I wish I could take this worry away from him. He is the boy that every person who meets him falls in love with his old soul. Thanks again for the awesome conversation tips I’ll be using.

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Nicole

My daughter is ten and has been twisting her hair since she was around 5 or 6. I didn’t think much about it until her hair wasn’t growing on the sides, just in the back. I realized this is from her twisting her hair. Most of the time she is unaware of this. Yesterday the nurse sent her home from school because she was dizzy, pale, and nauseated. When she got home she seemed fine the rest of the day, but at bedtime she was saying her belly hurt. She did not want to go to school today. She had no fever and had not thrown up, but she was complaining of her stomach hurting. I tested her and told her she would just have to come to work with me today. Well, she immediately perked up and smiled and asked if I would allow her to play on my phone. I knew then, she just didn’t want to go. I explained that I felt better about her first trying to go to school and just see how she felt later. She said she was scared because of how she felt at lunchtime the day before. She also mentioned the principal coming to watch them do their presentations today. I immediately thought this was the issue and discussed her nervousness. She denied that this had anything to do with her physical condition and that she was really sick and we didn’t believe her. I sent her on to school although she was very upset at me. She has frequent days where she doesn’t want to go to school but she will either have a runny or stuffy nose as her excuse, not a stomacheache. I told her she could either go to school or we could go to the dr. She told me she didn’t like the doctor. I’m pretty sure this is anxiety but I don’t want to ignore a physical issue either. This article really has helped and I’m going to talk with her tonight and read it with her! Thank you! Any suggestions on the hair twirling?

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Andi

Hi Nicole,

I am 99.99% sure that what your child has is Trichotillomania (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/trichotillomania/symptoms-causes/syc-20355188). It is an anxiety disorder, related to OCD and others.

I had it when I was little, it started very young for me, I was about 4 or 5. My parents did not notice my own hair pulling for months, years, they thought I had some strange, exotic disease… They took me to countless doctors until my GP pointed at me doing just that in front of their very eyes and said: “Can’t y’all see that???”

My parents never sought help, they just shaved my head. There you go, problem solved.

Of course the problem did not go away, it went somewhere else. I developed Tourette’s briefly and then OCD in my 20’s. I still have it. OCD is not fun, and it is not funny, it is a potentially impairing condition.

Your daughter’s hair pulling is her way to cope with anxiety that is too much for her to handle. Trichotillomania offers her some relief, just like OCD rituals do for people affected by OCD.

I am not Greta Thunberg, so it is not like I want you to panic, but, nonetheless, please do seek help for your daughter, put a lot of effort into this, now. These types of conditions usually do not go away on their own.

A hug and best of luck to you and your daughter.

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Sarah J

Hey Nicole, just to follow up on Andi’s point it might be useful to read this article:

https://nomorehairpulling.com/trichotillomania-children/

It can be difficult as a parent to understand why a child pulls (or if your case, twists) out her hair and why they can’t just stop, but as Andi pointed out these things rarely go away on their own. Hopefully this article for parents of children with trichotillomania will help you steer things in the right direction.

Good luck, sending hugs to both of you.

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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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