Worried or Anxious Tween? How to Tell the Difference and What to Do – Day 27
As a mental health professional, I have been working with families of worriers to protect them from anxiety disorders for 20 years. But this past year anxiety hit a little closer to home. We lost my husband’s twin sister to cancer in January. My son was three when she and her husband, now both in heaven were diagnosed. Not surprisingly, he has struggled with understanding that most parents don’t die.
Around the time of my SIL’s death, he developed what we thought was a stomach bug. We realized after the funeral when it was not clearing up, his morning nausea and non-verified throwing up were more than a viral illness. His “throwing up in his mouth” as he described it to our pediatrician had to do with reflux caused by the anxiety. He was wondering if he would ever see his parents again, every time he left them. We even encountered some mild school refusal because of moderate separation anxiety. He did not want to go to school and leave us.
Anxiety is like a dragon, and the more the worry feeds it the faster it grows and the more difficult it is to fight.
I knew this from equipping hundreds of children for battle at our center and as a previous school counselor. I immediately took up my weapons and empowered my son with what he would need to slay the anxiety dragon attempting to overtake him.
I prayed fervently it would be a temporary battle not developing into a full-blown anxiety disorder. Gratefully for us, we do not have a large family history of severe issues such as panic disorder and OCD (as this might have tipped him over the edge.)
I. Fighting Worried Thinking
We began by helping him with his thoughts. We did this using children’s books that specifically address worry. By teaching him scriptures that teach us not to fear and that God is in charge and going to take great care of us. And helping him learn to stomp out any ANTs trying to invade his brain. (Automatic Negative Thoughts from Daniel Amen’s Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.)
II. Fighting the Body’s Reaction to Worry
Next, we improved his body chemistry. We were intentional about his sleep and his activity level (as he was using Minecraft as a way to escape). Because he had some mild sensory issues that seemed to be escalating, we enrolled him in occupational therapy (see The Out of Sync Child by Carol Kranowitz).
We also saw his pediatrician just because. Even though I’m a professional who has treated kids for 20 years, I wanted another viewpoint on how he was doing and how severe his struggles were.
A final step in addressing his body chemistry is an intervention so simple, most people are surprised at the difference it makes. Belly breathing. I used books, blowing bubbles and an app to teach him a simple skill that allowed his body to relax and brain to work better.
When evaluating kids for transitional worry vs an anxiety disorder, professionals address two main symptom dynamics: frequency and intensity.
His pediatrician and I both agreed that although he was struggling, his symptoms were still most likely transitional and moderate in range. He was young and we had a very specific trigger we could identify.
She did add a prescription for an FFDA-approved food supplement that is an omega-3 capsule (Vayarin) because it works a little better than most vitamins. After doing some further research, I made sure that we were taking his probiotic once again as well.
Finally, because we believed that the anxiety was triggering reflux and the reflux was triggering anxiety we decided to give him a round of Nexium for two weeks. This seemed to stop the “throwing up in his mouth” completely. In our counseling offices, we often deal with kids that do not want to throw up at school. Especially when in a classroom and in front of a lot of others. The fear of throwing up actually increases the anxiety so we have to attack that fear in every direction possible.
III. Fighting with School Support
I also reached out to his teacher, the school nurse, and his counselor. I let the nurse know when he came to the office we needed to make sure we ruled out the possibility that his stomach issues weren’t anxiety related. This was before treating him for illness (or worse sending him home).
The school counselor was AMAZING (as most of them are) and her interventions were right on track. When he was feeling sick to his stomach, she did some play and art therapy with him. Then they talked about what was bothering him.
She also set up a plan because he was struggling with getting to school. He would become her “special assistant” and help her open the doors in the morning for a couple of days. These interventions were almost magical.
It’s very important if you have a tween struggling with getting to school that you involve help as soon as possible. If you allow your child to stay home and give into their anxiety dragon you will feed it. It will then become harder and harder to get them where they need to go.
When they argue back, we use a phrase that doesn’t invalidate their feelings – “I think that’s your anxiety talking not your wise mind.” When a child stays home and avoids everyday activities it can be a sign of a clinical diagnosis called agoraphobia.
IIII. A Parent’s Battle
Next came Mom. I personally engaged in one of my biggest battles as a parent to date. It’s very common when your child struggles with anxiety for you to have your own struggles with worry as well.
I myself was dealing with a heavy load. I was supporting my mental health clients and our center staff. I was dealing with grief, some family issues, and my own bouts with that stomach virus. I ended up having a severe episode where I was transported to the hospital by ambulance in the middle of the night in front of my children. The paramedics could not prevent my dehydration even with an IV already in place.
I since have also diagnosed with reflux (I had had this silent cough for months). I then engaged in reducing my own stress levels with the help of my senior staff to allow my own body heal better. Ask any medical professional how much stress impacts our ability to heal physically.
Finally, I began a spiritual battle both for myself and my son. I begin to dwell on and teach him scriptures that specifically focus on fear and emotions. Psalms is a great place to start. Also, I prayed for, with and over him often using scripture and asking God to fight this battle for, in and through us.
In the month of June, I will be giving away to my email subscriber list a printable of the scriptures we used which can be placed in your home. You can join in by clicking here.
In summary, if your child struggles with worry, I would definitely begin working on any negative or catastrophic (predicting bad things in the future) thinking. Here is a list of resources of books for children that should help you get started.
If the worry continues, I encourage you to get help to evaluate if it has morphed into an anxiety disorder. Neuroscience research supports the sooner we treat children and teens for anxiety and depression, the less likely it will reoccur in adulthood. This is because our body learns patterns no different than us waking up at a certain time each morning.
There is a national grant that offers free counseling but is distributed differently in each state. In Texas, each county has a different way of accessing it. You might begin to ask around about a free counseling service that provides 4 to 6 free sessions for kids. Especially since it’s summertime and school counselors are not available.
I would love to know what questions you have about anxiety. While I cannot enter into a counseling relationship with my readers, I’m happy to point you in the right direction in getting help.
Feel free to comment below or send me an email. Please also be patient as posts such as this often flood my inbox and I will be on vacation not only this weekend, like most of you but also the following week.
If you are interested in gaining more information from a mental health professional, I’d love to be your Facebook friend. You can also follow the Counselor Thoughts Facebook page, subscribe to the blog or join my intentional summer Facebook group.
Michelle Nietert is Licensed Professional Counselor and Clinical Director of Community Counseling Associates with 3 locations in the Dallas, TX area. She has been equipping audiences in the community, church, school and private practice office setting for over twenty years. Michelle has published parenting articles in both Lifeway’s ParentLife magazine and on the MOPS Hello Dearest Blog. She is currently working with a Christian publishing agent on a book possibly titled Uncomfortable Conversations that will equip parents to introduce topics such as anxiety and depression, abuse, sexuality, and other mental health issues to their children before the culture does.
A happily married mom of two children age 6 and 9 with a husband who travels for work, Michelle loves inspiring readers and audiences alike to discover Solutions for Life with Practical Teaching and Biblical Wisdom. Michelle’s favorite fun times include lazy days by the pool, trips to the beach, girls nights out with close friends and date nights with her husband. Her professional counselor bio is available here.
Michelle Nietert, M.A. Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor and Certified School Counselor
This was Day 27 of 30 Days of the Tween Parenting Encouragement Blog Party!
I am so thankful for this amazing post that includes not only what to look for, but some next steps & practical and spiritual tools to fight the battle against worry and anxiety. As we have personally experienced in our family, this can be a very real fight. Make sure to check out the resources and make time to connect with Michelle online!