Lawrence Cohen’s new book, The Opposite of Worry, is a riveting read. That is quite a feat for a book that deals with children’s anxieties. Sure, his pleasant narrative style takes the reader along in a comfortable pace. You never feel rushed by his writing, nor do you feel like your drudging through a bone dry text. He talks to you and you can just feel it coming. When you want to deal with your children’s anxiety, deal with your own first.
Of course, Cohen gives it away in the introduction. He talks about an experiment he did as a child. He noticed that frightened chickens look to other chickens to see if the environment is safe. And that is precisely what our children do.
They look to us, their parents, to see if they are safe. But he doesn’t leave us hanging there, obviously, but has instead written a wonderful book full of ideas about the ways in which you can overcome your child’s anxiety and your own.
The first and most obvious way to start dealing with your own anxiety he learned from Patty Wipfler: listening partnerships. If the books stopped there, this would be good advice, but we are only on chapter 2 so far. He just reviewed that fear and anxiety are part of life. That your children are scared or anxious from time to time is in some way good news. They are in the world and are interacting appropriately.
The first response he suggests that parents cultivate towards their children when they get scared or anxious is one of empathy. It sounds so basic, doesn’t it? I thought so too, but I have to admit that the thoughts of a non-empathetic parent have swirled through my mind more times than I care to admit, and I probably expressed them more often than I would like to divulge. A response to a child’s anxiety that is not empathetic often has a tone of exasperation to it. “Don’t be a baby.” “You are just imagining things.” “Just do it!”
You know, Larry, she’ll recover better from a broken arm than from being timid and unsure of herself.
These responses have the disadvantage of sounding true to the parent. But even if that is the case they fall in the category of true but useless. As response they don’t work, as Cohen explains, because they don’t convey to your child that all is clear. The all clear signal, is something that they are looking for in their parents, most of all, but in all adults who have responsibility for them.
The real trouble begins when the children can no longer feel the all clear signal. No matter how much empathy you display in the moment, how much your calm presence exudes that they are safe, a really anxious child simply cannot receive the message that they can stop worrying now. Great! Now what?
Engaging the body is a critical way to help your children learn to develop and trust their own Security System. Fear and anxiety shut bodily functions down (no need for digestion when you need to run). But how to re-engage your child’s body depends on how anxious he is. When a child is in full panic mode, physical comfort is really the best you can offer. Cuddling, humming, gently massaging. Your children may, at this point, not express their fear. When they do, you cannot miss it. They will be shaking, trembling, sweating, screaming, crying. If they don’t, asking them to shake on purpose can be very helpful. When they do, well, thank goodness. What they are showing you is disconcerting for you as a parent, but it is the expression of their fear. Cohen calls this, “Getting Unscared.” At this point it is not necessary, nor helpful, to ask them to “use their words.” They are healing.
When they are anxious but not at the level of a full blown panic attack, there are various ways to engage your child’s body. This is where it is necessary to read the book, because you must tailor the approach to your child. Quiet mindfulness techniques or more expressive physical modes, it depends very much on your child, but they can all work to lower your child’s anxiety and help them return to a relaxed state.
Of course, a big question is how to help your child overcome their fears and anxieties. Cohen describes his approach as finding the edge. The edge lies between avoidance and full frontal attack, which typically floods your child with more feelings than he can handle. It is very understandable for a parent to help your child avoid the fearful moments.
It is an unpleasant time for your child and why put her through that. However, “supporting avoidance abandons children to their anxiety and fear.” And Cohen speaks from personal, not just professional experience. At the same time, shoving children over the edge doesn’t bring children and parents closer together. Pushing at this point is most often an expression of frustration and anger. This is not helpful in supporting internal strength and confidence in your child.
When you hold your children on that edge they may pour their hearts out with tears, trembles, cries, or tantrums. That is all part of the healing process, a healthy reaction, even when it looks so hard and difficult for you as a parent. Really, recognizing that your child is healing when they are expressing deep fear (instead of avoiding it) is the hardest thing you may have to do as a parent. To stay close at that time, be a comforting presence, calm and reassuring. That is tough.
Play helps. When you are dealing with anxiety, physical play is often much more effective than words. The point of these games always is to keep children at this edge and be a comforting presence for them there. They may tremble and sweat, talk fast or try to escape. Your job is to keep them at this edge, offer eye contact, keep showing them that you are confident and present with them. And trust that your child is healing. It is not pleasant, for anybody, but it works.
More Play, Less Talk
These ways help your children to reach an internal sense of safety. You comfort children when they are flooded, gently push them when they are avoiding, and guide away from white-knuckle fear toward the edge of facing and feeling.
There are several chapters in the book that deal with much more specific scenarios than I can discuss here. And then Cohen ends his book in such a lovely way.
To parent is to worry, he writes. Let’s not deny this and demand that we are serene and calm in all situations. Rather, Cohen suggests, trust. Trust that your children have an amazing resilience, wisdom and capacity to heal. Trust them, and play!
Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D.
The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears. 2013. Balantine Books