But where does it come from?
You recall that I met with some parents before Christmas to discuss their child's excessive anxiety, and how we might deal with it. The conversation went reasonably well, all in all. At the beginning of the conversation, I gave them examples of this trait, so they could understand what was causing me concern. With only the one child, they have little basis of comparison that would give them some level of objectivity. They have no larger perspective on their child. To them, their child is normal. He has his little idiosyncracies - who doesn't? - but he's what little boys are like, right? Well, not entirely, no. So I gave them examples. When this happens, I said, he responds thus and so, whereas a more standard response would be this or that. The parents liked the examples, started providing some of their own. They seemed to accept my suggestion that their child is overly anxious, but the focus of the examples they provided, while entirely predictable, was misguided: rather than seeking to develop responses to the anxiety, they were seeking causes for it. "I think it started back when we were doing renovations on the house," mom told me. "I was leaving the house with our son, and he looked up and saw the workmen tearing up the roof. He was only two, and he was certain that the men were taking his house apart so they could steal his toys. No matter what I said, he just couldn't shake that idea, and ever since then, it's been a total downhill slope." So mom attributes his current anxiety levels to that pivotal event, which took place a year and a half ago. Dad had other ideas, and threw out another possibility. "When [this other scenario] happened, he was so worried. He fretted and fretted and fretted over it." Dad described how they'd responded. If they'd responded a different way, he said, their son would have turned out differently. This is very common thinking. My child is a certain way. It must have to do with me. It must have to do with an event. It has to be attributable to something! No, it doesn't. In cases of great trauma, yes, but in the average run-of-the-mill this and that of life, it doesn't have to be attibutable to anything at all. Think about it: Their two-year-old saw some workmen on their roof. For just about any other child, that would be a positive event. How interesting! How exciting! Can I hammer, too, mom?? For their child, however, it was a source of anxiety. Why? "Your boy is anxious," I said to these kind and concerned folks, "because he is anxious. A different child would have seen those men on the roof and responded in a different way. Your boy responded with anxiety because he is that kind of kid. He is who he is." The issue, of course, is not how did he get this way, but what do we do with the boy that he is? How do we help him cope with his issues? I firmly believe the kids we get are the luck of the genetic draw. You can modify a negative trait, you can encourage a positive one, you can give tools to strengthen weaknesses and tools to foster strengths, but in the normal range of family events, you do not cause a child to be anything other than what he is. (This does not excuse all those parents whose children's horrific manners and gross social misdemeanors are caused by weak parental guidance. Those children are fairly easy to pick out, though, because when with another, firmly authoritative adult, they can and do behave appropriately. If a child is a screaming, manipulative terror only with a specific person, the problem probably does lie with something that person is, or is not, doing.) An anxious child does not need to be taught or provoked into anxiety: that is their innate way of responding. Anxiety is their default response to the events and people around them. I think dad had caught this concept by the end of our evening, and was seeking with me ways to help their son. Mom, an anxious person herself, had not yet made this mental leap. Her desire, naturally enough, is to prevent her son from feeling bad. Thus, she wants to protect him from worrisome stimuli - except, for this child, the whole word is worrisome! I have a little concern for the boy. If mom continues to try to structure his entire world so that he need never worry, she is only exacerbating the problem. Instead of teaching him to deal with the anxiety that is innate to him, she tries to eliminate external triggers for it. Ironically, her conviction that his anxiety has an external source will inevitably make him even more a prisoner to his fears than he already is. My comfort comes in my conviction that I am only the first in what will eventually be a long line of concerned people. I hope that, in time, she will realize she must, for her son's sake, develop other ways of helping him, ways that will strengthen him to help himself. Because it's part of who he is.