When you notice…
…your kids pulling out their hair, see bald spots on your kid’s head, see their finger nails or skin red and raw, it can stir up strong feelings.
Panic, confusion, shame or guilt kick in.
Hair pulling, skin picking, lip biting, nail biting, thumb sucking, and knuckle cracking are common behaviors in young children.
Believe it or not! These behaviors typically serve as a way to manage anxious feelings and can range from occasional occurrences to daily habits. When they are frequent and cause problems (e.g., hair loss, chapped skin, raw nails, etc.), parents get worried.
And understandably so!
You might wonder…
…“What is wrong with my child?” or blame yourself, thinking, “What am I doing wrong?”
Not all kids are aware of their anxious behaviors.
Hard to believe, right? For you, it’s super obvious and is probably worrisome, annoying or frustration.
Kids who are aware of their behaviors sometimes feel embarrassed or ashamed.
Many parents experience a sense of shame and anxiety themselves when they take their kid to social activities like a family get together, school event, playground or daycare.
There’s a constant anxious feeling in the pit of your stomach as you hope no one asks about your kid’s hair or stares at their nails and you wonder if other kids will stay away from yours because of the scabs on your kid’s arms and legs.
You’re not alone.
If you have a kid with any of these anxious behaviors, here are few ideas to remember:
- Take a big, deep breath, stop and find meaning.
These anxious behaviors feel troublesome when they become more regular and intense, but they represent something for your child or teen. Pause and ask yourself, “What could this mean?” or “What purpose is this serving for my child?” Many times, these anxious behaviors are a symptom of something – not feeling in control, feeling insecure, worried, scared or overwhelmed. These behaviors are how a kid tries to manage their feelings.
- This is not your fault.
When you witness your child or teen’s anxious behavior, you might feel guilty or responsible. However, the actual underlying causes of these behaviors are much more complex. They could be a combination of your kid’s physiology, temperament, stage of their development, their environment and many other factors.
Start by reassuring yourself and finding some support (spouse, a close friend, another parent friend) so that you can talk about your worries and, thus, lessen any sense of stigma or shame you feel from your kid’s behaviors.
Remember, your child or teen may use these anxious behaviors to self-soothe or to handle difficult feelings that would otherwise overwhelm them inside. Their behavior serves a purpose and it’s important to be patient and calmly help them work through their anxieties and change these behaviors over time.
Reducing any lingering feelings of shame will help you as the parent stay calm and grounded when working with your child or teen. Reconciling these feelings that get stirred up within you rather than beating yourself up allows you to take the pressure off both yourself and your kid. It’s important not to rush into a “fix it as fast as I can” mentality.
- Put your kid before their anxious behavior.
It’s so easy for parents to react to their kids. Kids push parents’ buttons pretty much everyday. They don’t do it purposely but there is a purpose behind it. Make sense? They need some attention, help, support, whatever. They tell you this with their actions.
It’s a natural instinct to react whether out of fear, worry, sadness, or frustration. Kids are very sensitive to their parent’s reaction and can experience them as critical. So parents need to be careful. It’s important to catch yourself and think first about what these anxious behaviors might mean and try to empathize with your child or teen before trying to “fix” the behavior.
If you find yourself regularly focused on your kid’s anxious behaviors, instead focus on your relationship with your child first, above everything else. Even if these behaviors stir up difficult feelings internally for you, make sure that the behavior does not consume your attention and distract you from seeing your kid as an individual.
- Cultivate patience.
Anxious behaviors don’t develop overnight. If you really stop to think about it, you can probably remember other times in your child or teen’s life, even from when they were very young, when they were anxious. Sometimes it was more obvious and prolonged and other times it was more discrete, but it was likely there.
No one likes to see their child or teen struggle with anxiety or anxious behaviors. All parents want to make it go away and make it go away fast. But, since its taken some time for this anxiety and these behaviors to develop, it also takes some time to work through them.
Staying calm and patient, working hard to avoid being reactive when these anxious behaviors arise, thinking about what these behaviors might mean, and focusing on empathizing with your child or teen is the first and most important step to dealing with these issues.
Kids are much better able to look at and try to work on their anxious behaviors when they feel like their parents understand them, are there to help and support them, aren’t mad at them or constantly giving them advice and aren’t hurrying them to “just stop” what they’re doing. When kids are surrounded by patience, warmth, love, and understanding and they trust that their parents can help hold their feelings, they feel safe enough to work on their issues.
When do anxious behaviors require the help of a therapist?
As warm, supportive, caring and empathic as you are, sometimes kids just need a little extra help. Remember, kids instinctively try to protect their parents from worry. Because of this, they can’t always fully use the support their parents try to give. This is where therapy can be helpful.
If you’re doing all you can to help your child or teen work through their anxious behaviors and they don’t seem to be getting better or something still just feels off, that’s a good sign that some outside support might be the answer. Trust your instincts.
Seeking help for your child or teen is a sign of strength, not one of failure.
In therapy, kids get help working through the feelings that are bringing out anxious behaviors and they learn new, healthier coping skills.
As the parent, you will also work closely with the psychotherapist to talk through strategies and skills that you can implement at home with your child or teen. At the same time, your child or teen is working with the therapist to continue to develop their sense of identity and sense of self as they work on developing different habits.
The course and length of treatment varies for each family but often is a gradual process. Some behaviors may change right away while others take a little more work. Developing a process oriented mindset and settling in for the journey allows you to support your child or teen with patience, calm, and understanding.
Before a seedling can sprout out of the ground, it must take time for its roots to gain their bearings underneath the soil.
Keeping the above principles in mind will set your family up for a smoother trajectory toward nurturing your kid’s development and growth while treating their anxious behaviors.