Saturday, January 14, 2006

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.

(Click on the picture to take you to the source of the picture, taken by Geoff Scheer/Pioneer Press.)


Blogger Queen Bee said...

There is a pair of siblings that I know (in their early 30s now) who are having problems with inability to help themselves out of situations. Their parents have been protecting them all these while. Now that they are adults, and rightly should be independent, they are only beginning to discover how ill-equipped they are with a lot of things in daily life. By then, they have to deal with more practical problems in life: work, marriage, parenthood, etc

I suppose if parents don't see the picture, they do more harm to their children.

1/14/2006 04:39:00 a.m.  
Blogger Juggling Mother said...

It is a natural response. When told your child is not the same as "everybody" else, you immediately look for what you've done wrong. Over time, most parents conclude that there might me something else causing the problem, but the legnth of time varies between parents (and behaviours!).

One of the sure-fire things to make that acceptance happen quicker is for professional/knowledgeable people to suggest it is not "normal". The more people who do this, the quicker most parents will believe.

although one person telling you they are normal will outweight half a dozen telling you they aren't, because that's what you want.

So well done Mary for being the first to broach the subject.

1/14/2006 06:59:00 a.m.  
Blogger kimmyk said...

I can't imagine how scared I would be to talk with parents regarding thier childs behavior. I mean, I would yes...but I'd be so worried that they just like these parents would begin to analyze the situation and try to place blame instead of working on the problems at hand.

hmmm...good for you saying something-i'm sure you're with him/her more than they are....good call Miss Mary.

1/14/2006 07:03:00 a.m.  
Anonymous BeckaJo said...

Great approach, Mary P.! I wish that more caregivers were as caring and educated as you are. (I've had some very bitter expriences.) I see the same sort of thing happening in my family with my nephews - my eldest nephew has severe ADD. Treating it as part of who he is is a much more effective approach than trying to remove him from the situations that cause him distress. Eventually, like you said, he's be left with no skills for dealing with the world, no tools for interacting with it. It's funny that some of the family are so resistant to treating his ADD, given that his younger brother is autistic and we all spend a lot of time trying to teach him how to deal with the world!

While it's understandable that parents and other caregivers might feel guilty that they made the child 'this way,' sometimes they just do come 'that way'!

1/14/2006 11:16:00 a.m.  
Blogger Jenorama said...

Thank you for the follow-up!

I remember trying to find causes for my son's not talking-- that I had become pregnant with his brother too soon, had been too tired to read with him as much as I should have, etc. etc. etc.

Well, he has Asperger's! He is who he is. But, of course, I couldn't know that at the time. My heart goes out to the Mom. I suspect that she feels great empathy for the boy because of her own anxieties-- and yet, perhaps her own anxieties are making it difficult for her to see past her own perspectives and how this affects her.

But I do think you are correct that other concerned individuals will provide help. The fact that Dad was grasping it will help, too.

1/14/2006 12:44:00 p.m.  
Anonymous Anne said...

Just coming in late on delurking week. I enjoy your blog. I teach middle school, but kids are kids and I like reading about them.

1/14/2006 08:32:00 p.m.  
Blogger Mary P. said...

QueenBee: There's a saying I heard not too long ago that should help keep our role as parents in perspective: "We're not raising children, we're raising adults." The point being, of course, that the goal is independent, fully-functional adults, not permanent children. Not all parents see this clearly.

MrsA: It is a natural response, absolutely, and what you said about one person saying they're normal is exactly true: mom was able to tell me the tale of the child of a friend who was just the same. Of course, she doesn't see that this means they each have an odd child, but that they're both "normal". Even though, as I pointed out to her, her friend has three children, and only one of them has these issues... But for now it's comforting her. I think she'll adjust eventually, but it's not going to happen overnight.

Kimmyk: I think I would have been much more frightened ten years ago. It helps that I tend to be about ten years older than "my parents" now, and I admit I play on the age gap to increase my authority and credibility. I mother the mothers a bit - they love it!

Beckajo: An ADD and an autistic kid in one family. Those must be some tiiiiired parents! Phew. I wonder why the resistance to one diagnosis and not the other? How curious. (A plug: they might be interested in the In The Trenches blog: the link is in the sidebar.)

Jen: Mom has too much empathy, I fear, and not sufficient objectivity. She knows how crippling anxiety can be, and wants only to protect him from its ravages, when what he needs is to learn to cope with it. As I say, I think she'll get there, particularly, as you say, since dad seems to understand, but it will take time.

Anne: Hello, and thanks for de-lurking!

Anonymous: If you want to chat about "the d-man", my email address is in my profile. See the "about me" bit of the sidebar, below my Canada goose picture on the left there? At the bottom of that paragraph is a link to my profile. Click on it, and you'll find my email address.

1/14/2006 09:28:00 p.m.  
Blogger mo-wo said...

I really feel parenthood has been a transformation for me. Except for one thing.. Before I had me daughter I had the distinct idea that a child is not some kind of blank slate. Unlike every other half-baked idea I had of parenthood this is the one I hold on to.. I don't know if the Mom you describe would agree with me. Not that it's always easy to avoid the trap of 'cause-&-effect' child raisin' in a world filled with Baby Einstein and racks full of childrearin' instruction books.

Good luck to the little man.

I'm trying to decide between 3 new caregivers for my daughter right now. Your post here has cut the running to 2 by reminding me the great value of sharing your child's days with someone you can expect to speak to and hear from freely. Your parents are lucky folks.

1/15/2006 12:06:00 a.m.  
Anonymous MIM said...

I would just say that while this child definitely has a genetic predisposition to anxiety, his life experience is not only triggering the anxiety, but his parents (perhaps the mother in particular) are helping to perpetuate it. The good news is, as you say, that he can be helped. This is where emotion coaching comes in. That's why it is nearly always okay for the child to feel negative emotions -- these experiences are opportunities to learn how to deal with such emotions effectively. That's where we, the parents and our very astute caregivers, come in.

Thank goodness those parents have such an intelligent and experieced caregiver.

1/15/2006 01:03:00 a.m.  
Blogger Mary P. said...

Mo-wo: Unlike you, when I started this parenting gig, I did have a presupposition (a completely unexamined and mostly unconscious one) that children were blank slates. Everything they were and could be would arise out of my parenting (if that's not pressure, I don't know what is). Sure, genetics played a factor, but only peripheral. It was all about nurture, baby!

Life with children, my own and lots of others, has taught me differently, and I am now at the opposite end of that discussion: nature gives us children who are what they are - and our nurture teaches them to manage the cards they've been dealt with the most skill and efficacy. It's a joint project, as it were.

Good luck in your caregiver search!

mim: My perspective is that his life experiences are triggering his excessive anxiety because he's predisposed to be anxious. Everyone worries from time to time when provoked by a specific trigger; this child worries all the time - events that would provoke curiosity or excitment in another child provoke only anxiety in this one.

Yes indeed, his parents are inadvertanly fostering it; no one at home is doing any emotion coaching with him at all - instead their response is to try to protect him from the emotion altogether, a counter-productive response.

They had a lot to absorb this first conversation, and so we didn't get as far as coaching. That'll be for the next conversation, I hope!

1/15/2006 11:04:00 a.m.  
Blogger Queen Bee said...

Very wise (!!!) on the point "We're not raising children, we're raising adults"!!!!! (More exclamation marks for full agreement!)

1/16/2006 12:41:00 a.m.  

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