We’ve been using the acronym CALM as a guide for how to help kids with anxiety. The C reminds us to catch the anxiety early. The A stands as a guide for acknowledging our kids and taking their experience seriously. The L prompts us to then listen in such a way that our kids feel genuinely heard and understood.
C – Catch (the anxiety early)
A – Acknowledge (their experience)
L – Listen (to understand)
M – Maintain (their dignity)
Now we turn our attention to M – Maintain their dignity.
There are two major aspects to maintaining our kids’ dignity, the first is learning to manage our own reactiveness so we help things go right instead of making things worse. The second is learning to tolerate our discomfort while giving our kids the time and space they need to solve their own problems.
Parents often speak to me about respect. This conversation is rarely about what they can do to better express their respect for their children. Strangely enough, parents who embody respect for others and respect for their kids often do not seem to need to have this conversation with me. For them, their kids’ inevitable disrespect is of no concern to them because they know that they themselves are respectful and therefore deserving of respect. So when their anxious teen gets mouthy, they do not wonder if they deserve respect nor do they waste their energy-demanding it. They simply look beneath the behavior into the deeper fear and pain that their kids with anxiety must obviously be experiencing. I’m not saying that I have never felt disrespected by my kids or that my teenager’s painful comments have never hurt my feeling. Oh, they have! However; it is possible to parent in such a way that we just know that we are worthy of our children’s respect, whether we receive it or not. And, in fact, when we do not receive the respect we are due, the disrespect serves as a sure sign that something is going on with our kids with anxiety.
Maintaining my child’s dignity, first of all, requires that I give up whatever right I think I have to retaliate against my child when I feel hurt, disrespected, disobeyed, lied to, or completely disregarded. As a parent, it is my job to regulate my emotions and manage my behaviors in such a way as to help things go right instead of contributing to making things worse. Maintaining my child’s dignity means maintaining my composure. I only add fuel to an already out of control fire if I respond to anger and irrationality with more anger and irrationality. So I ask myself: “Can I respond to irritability with kindness”? “Can I return respect when disrespected”? “Can I commit to absorbing or deflecting disdain and contempt never returning it blow for blow”? And, perhaps most importantly, “Can I recognize when I am beyond my ability to respond appropriately and disengage until I have a better hold on my emotion”?
It is understandable that our children will, quite often, act like children; however, that does not give us permission to act like children as well. I am the adult in the relationship and I need to take seriously my responsibility to be the non-anxious presence that my child needs in their life. If I lose my cool, I communicate to my child that things are out of control, unpredictable, and even terrifying.
This doesn’t mean that we always have to respond perfectly in every situation, no one does. We do need to model the importance of repairing the relationship by being willing to offer genuine and heartfelt apologies when we do blow it and we need to be aware of how often things are escalating into situations that require this level of repair. Research suggests that for a relationship to be thought of as “good” the individuals need to report at least a 5:1 ratio of positive interactions to difficult ones. This means that half and half doesn’t cut it. If we are regularly experiencing difficult interactions then we need to slow things down and take some time to figure out what is going on. This doesn’t necessarily mean that my kid needs a therapist, it might mean that I need a therapist. Why am I so reactive? Why can my kid push my buttons so easily? What’s the threat that I am trying so hard to control?
Maintaining dignity means we communicate, often nonverbally, that we believe that our kids have got what it takes to solve their own problems. Instead of seeing myself as my child’s rescuer, I see myself as more of an advisor. Our kids who experience anxiety need to understand difficulty so they can grow up into the kinds of adults that can deal with what life throws at them. At the beginning of therapy, the most common thing I hear parents say they want out of therapy is for their kids to “just be happy.” Now, I understand where most parents are coming from when they say this; however, the goal of “happy” is often more a part of the problem than it is any kind of solution. I say this because from my experience the things that make our kids happy also make them miserable. Unrestricted access to technology, social media, video games, and the internet typically make kids happy until that unrestricted access leads to crippling self-image problems, addiction to gaming or porn, chronic sleep deprivation, or a complete disconnection from nature and in-person social interaction. Making our kids “happy” makes them miserable. I suggest that the goals of “safe, healthy, and useful” are often the true foundation of a life well lived which will then result in something far more lasting than happiness; fulfillment. So as a parent I provide the necessary structure and boundaries that help keep my kids safe, healthy, and useful and then I allow them the space they need to wrestle with the difficulties of growing up. The structure and boundaries have to be in place first. I can not expect my kids to navigate the shark-infested waters of drugs and alcohol, sex, technology, pornography, social media, the internet, etc. on their own. They absolutely need my guidance for and modeling of safe, healthy behavior. However; when the problem does not endanger my child’s safety or ability to have a healthy and productive future I can back off; I don’t need to swoop in and save the day. I can simply listen and acknowledge, patiently allowing my children space and time to figure their difficulties out. I can’t really count all the ways over the years that kids have told me that they wished their parents would just listen instead of always giving them advice or telling them what to do but the most memorable was a teenager who told me, “I don’t need advice, I’ve got Google for that, I just want someone to listen to me.” One thing holds true – helping kids with anxiety is possible when following these steps.