Annie Simpson Ph.D.

Anxiety Is Not the Boss

Anxiety

Making Bravery a Family Lifestyle

Practical strategies for bossing back anxiety.

Posted Jan 25, 2020

It was a beautiful day in July. My husband and I decided to take our then 6-year-old daughter to our local amusement park, Playland. As we approached the gates, she excitedly listed all the rides she was going to go on: the Ferris wheel, the carousal, the teacups, the Superslide.

When we got up to the gate, where the height measurement was, she realized that this summer she was tall enough to go on the Wooden Roller Coaster which she had heard so much about from her older brother. (The Wooden Rollercoaster was built in 1958 and is the oldest roller coaster in Canada, and you can tell! How a 6-year-old is tall enough for one of Canada’s scariest roller coasters, I’ll never understand.)

We walked in, saw the roller coaster, and the questions started flying at rapid speed.

Daughter: “Mom is it scary?”

Me: “I have no idea. I have never been on it.” (Inner voice: “YES!!!”)

Daughter: “Is it safe?”

Me: “I guess so – seems to be?” (Inner voice: “I don’t know how that possibly could be safe!)

Daughter: “Should I go on it?”

Me: “If you want to. But you’re still young there will be other years” (Inner voice: “NO!”)

Daughter: “I’m scared – I don’t want to” (Inner voice: “Thank goodness! Dodged that bullet!”)

And that was the end of the questions about the roller coaster. We rode the rides, ate donuts and cotton candy, and after a long day, got ready to go home.

But as we were leaving my daughter said, “I want to go on the big roller coaster!”

So, I said, “ok, if you want to. You are tall enough.  I’ll wait right here while your dad and you go on it and I’ll see you when you get off.”

Daughter: “No mom I want you to come too!”

Now, I’m a child psychologist who treats anxiety disorders. We have many conversations about anxiety in our home and about being brave and facing our fears one step at a time. So, I responded:

“Oh sweetie, I really don’t want to. I’m way too scared to do this. This is like a 10 out of 10 for me! You go. I’m so proud of how brave you are! You and daddy will have so much fun.”

Daughter: “What kind of brave doctor are you. You call yourself a psychologist?”

And that was that. I have given hundreds of lectures where I tell families that rewards have to be proportional to the fear, and that even for 2 million dollars I wouldn’t go on the old wooden roller coaster at Playland. Apparently, having my six-year-old daughter shame me was the motivation I needed!

As the roller coaster began, and I started going up the rickety old wood tracks, higher and higher, I thought to myself, “How did I get here????”

I know exactly how I got here – by creating a family culture where anxiety is not the boss of my family. Anxiety is a normal and important component of life. However, it doesn’t need to be the boss, dictating and controlling what you do and importantly, don’t do. So how does one create a family environment that keeps anxiety where it belongs, with you (or apparently your 6-year-old) in charge?

1.     Teach your kids that although normal and important, anxiety can sometimes be a false alarm

Anxiety and fear are normal and important human emotions. They keep us safe and motivate us to do our very best. When there is a real danger –a bear in caveman times or a speeding car today – fear is our bodies alarm system. It shouts loud and clear, “Danger!” Similarly, anxiety helps us try our best at things — it motivates us to study for that big test, or practice for that piano recital.

When we feel anxious our “fight-flight-freeze” response gets triggered. As a result, we spring into action. Our body is prepared to react – for example our heart beats faster to pump blood to our muscles – so we can run or fight off that big scary bear! It is important to teach your children that anxiety is important, the feeling although uncomfortable, is not dangerous, and it serves a very important purpose. We need anxiety.

However, we also need to make sure it’s not the boss. Some children experience anxiety more easily, and more often – even when there is nothing to be anxious about. Talking about anxiety as sometimes being a false alarm is helpful. Just like how the fire alarm will go off when dad burns the toast, even though there is no fire, so too can our alarm system when there is nothing truly threatening.

My daughter was clearly anxious about going on the roller coaster (as was I for that matter). However, she knew that this was a false alarm. (After all, thousands of people go on the ride each day!)

2.     Identify the anxiety as separate from the child by giving it anxiety a name.

When anxiety becomes really bossy, it becomes easy to mistake your child for their anxiety. By giving anxiety a name, and externalizing it from the family, it becomes easier to show anxiety who really is the boss.

Parents often will say things like “you are so anxious right now,” or why are you so scared of that little dog?” Children often like to name their anxiety something like, “worry dragon,” “the bully,” or even “destroyer.” With older teens even just referring to it as “anxiety” or “the worry” but in the third person is important. Now, instead of saying things like “you are really too anxious to go to that birthday party” we can say the “the worry bully” is really bossing us all around right now and saying we need to miss the fun. Let’s show the worry bully who is really the boss!

Why is externalizing anxiety so important? It sends an important message that you and your child are on the same team against an external third entity. Anxiety in the home tends to create high levels of conflict – when you name the anxiety as a third party – it decreases the conflict with each other and puts it where it belongs. Now everyone can fight back together. It also allows your child to realize that they are not their anxiety, it does not define who they are – instead it is a temporary situation that they can be empowered to cope with.

3.     Teach your family that anxiety goes away on its own. We don’t need to avoid anxious situations to feel better.

This point is key! When anxiety hits, it feels really crappy. Our body alarm is going off loudly and our natural reaction is to do anything and everything to stop that unpleasant feeling by any means possible and as fast as possible. So… we avoid. We stay away from that scary dog, or other kids, or giving that big speech, or being away from our parents, or the roller coaster!

Avoidance works well in that it decreases anxiety in the short term. However, the problem is when your child avoids, they never get the chance to learn they can actually cope and handle the situation.

When kids avoid things that feel scary and frightening, they are even more anxious the next time they encounter that thing and even more likely to avoid the situation. By facing your fears one small step at a time, children learn that the feelings pass, and they can cope.

4.     Model bravery daily by showing anxiety who is the boss with your own fears and worries.

When my daughter said, “what kind of brave doctor are you – you call yourself a psychologist?”, I knew exactly what I had to do – even though I really didn’t want to. When you create a family culture in which anxiety is not the boss, it’s not about hiding your anxieties from your child. Quite the opposite. In fact, actively looking for opportunities when you feel worried and scared and modeling bravery for your children goes a long way. Making bravery a “family lifestyle” means that everyone is sharing in each other’s successes. Anxiety is surely not the boss in that type of home.

There are endless opportunities that come up in everyday life where you can model bravery. It could be that big scary spider in the bathtub, or traffic causing you to be late for an important meeting at work. Maybe it’s that turbulence on the airplane going on a family vacation. In these moments, identifying and acknowledging you are scared is the first step. You could say, “I’m feeling very scared right now with all of this turbulence on this airplane.” And then model coping by saying, “I’m going to take some deep breaths and show anxiety who is boss! Turbulence is just normal bumps in the air, and they will pass soon.”

By using these four strategies, you can start to create a family culture where anxiety is not running the show.

Now, am I glad that my daughter is good at showing anxiety who is the boss? Absolutely. Will I ever go on that roller coaster again? Absolutely not!