It’s the rallying cry of anxious children: What if…?
What if you aren’t there after school? What if that noise was a bad guy? What if I miss you? I strike out? Feel scared? Get sick? Terrible outcomes cascade through the minds of anxious children, some so awful, so utterly catastrophic that the mere mention of going to school, going upstairs, going to a friend’s house causes panic.
Parents spend a great deal of time reassuring their anxious children (which, as you’ve probably noticed, doesn’t help), while anxious children spend an equal amount of time avoiding whatever has the slightest chance of causing harm. It’s a vicious cycle. One that will not end on its own. If you child isn’t reassured the first or second time you tell him that going near the blanket his sister threw up on last week (which of course you’ve thoroughly sanitized) isn’t going to make him sick, he isn’t going to be reassured the 20th time you tell him, either. And if your child is afraid of bees, continuing to avoid them isn’t going to make it any easier to go outside.
There are lots of things kids (and parents) can do to break free from anxiety. Previous and future articles cover an array of strategies. Here’s another: picturing success.
Picturing success is a visualization technique combining exposure (known to reduce anxiety) and relaxation (ditto). Your child will need some help with this, especially at the start. Let’s say your child is going to the orthodontist, where a mold of her mouth will be made. She has a sensitive gag reflex and is terrified of the procedure, sure that she will gag and throw up, which of course is her worst nightmare. Every time you mention the appointment, your child tears up. So you stop mentioning it, hoping for the best while bracing yourself for the major scene you know will unfold at the doctor’s office (assuming you are able to manhandle her into the car to get there). Your child is only too happy to wipe the appointment out of her mind, too – except it keeps popping back up, reducing her to tears.
Rather than trying to avoid thinking about the appointment, help your child imagine it in as much detail as possible. That’s right: picture it. Imagine the beginning, the middle, the end. In detail. Even the scary parts. And also the parts that show your child coping. Create a story to review with your child every day (children ages 6 and up can participate in creating and telling the story). Your story might sound something like this:
It’s the day of your appointment and you wake up feeling a little sick but then you remember you are getting your braces off, and that part’s really great.
You have some breakfast, only a little, raisin toast with cream cheese and it tastes good going down.
I tell you it’s time to go and you really don’t want to because you keep thinking about that mouth-mold and it seems so scary.
But then you remember what the orthodontist said, It only takes a few seconds to get the mold in place, and you know you can put up with a few seconds, even if you do gag. You remember that you’ve gagged lots of times and it was unpleasant but it ended pretty quickly and you were okay.
So we get in the car and crank up the music, singing along to keep ourselves busy.
We pull up at the office and they call you in right away and your stomach starts to feel sick but you tell yourself, I can do this, and you follow the nurse in. And then it’s time to open your mouth, and even though you feel scared, you do it. You remind yourself to keep breathing, nice and slow, just in and out through your nose, and you take yourself on a mental vacation to Grammy’s cottage.
You are sitting in the orthodontist’s chair, tilted back, and your mouth is wide open and you are breathing, breathing, and you are picturing yourself at Grammy’s the way it looks first thing in the morning when you and Grammy go out looking for blueberries. And you feel like you might gag but you relax your throat and you’re okay. You just need to breathe and think about Grammy’s house and then, all of a sudden, the mold is in place and you’re doing it! You’re mouth is open and the mold is back there and it feels weird but you are okay. And you breathe and see Grammy’s house and you can smell the lake, that earthy, watery smell, a little like fish only better.
You’re still in the chair and the nurse tells you to open just a little wider and you don’t see how you can, but you do it, and she takes out the mold and you’re done.
You did it!
Clearly, your child’s story will reflect her own experience. Make it detailed enough for her to picture. Include the hard parts, and the parts that show how she copes. Underline that coping, again and again. Tell the story (or some version of it) every day in the days leading up to The Event. Coach your child to imagine the scene in her mind, breathing slowly and deeply while she listens. Repeating this exercise over and over provides a model for coping while easing your child’s anticipatory anxiety. When it comes time for the actual experience, she’s practiced it (in her mind) and desensitized herself to the scarier parts. Picturing success enables success.