That’s Not a Typo – You Might Have a Pantrum on Your Hands
A screaming voice, pounding fists, and stomping feet – sounds like a tantrum, right? But what if it is a pantrum? I recently read a parental mind-stretching book, Parenting Your Anxious Child with Mindfulness and Acceptance, by Christopher McCurry, Ph.D. that describes this cross between a childhood tantrum and a panic attack. The signs of each individually are similar, but how we deal with our children when they are experiencing more than just a tantrum can make all the difference.
Children and Anxiety
Children are not immune from anxious feelings and fear – and in fact these feelings are quite normal for our kids. They worry about the Boogeyman, spiders, and school. However, there are significant differences between experiencing fear or anxiety and being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. According to McCurry, between 6 and 20 percent of children experience anxiety to such a severe degree that they can be diagnosed with a disorder. While these numbers seem quite high, these numbers reflect a wide range and extensive variables that cover “anxiety disorders”. Among those most common for children to be diagnosed with are:
- Separation anxiety – excessive and extensive worry that is inappropriately balanced regarding the separation from a caregiver
- Simple or specific phobia – a disproportionate fear over a specific event that generally results in avoidance behaviors to the degree that it disrupts everyday life
- Social phobia or anxiety – intense anxiety displayed in common and typical social settings (i.e. going to the mall)
- Panic disorder and agoraphobia – much more than shyness, these disorders make children anxious about anxiety, and usually result in physical symptoms such as rapid breathing
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) – chronic worry, usually about things that have very low likelihoods of actually occurring
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – includes two sets of behaviors – one internal and one external – that reflect anxious thoughts that are extremely difficult to manage, and the obsessive thoughts often lead to obsessive and repeated actions
For those children who are already struggling with other issues such as ADHD, Asperger’s, learning disorders, or depression, anxiety disorders can be additional components, known as comorbidity. The symptoms of these various conditions can make diagnoses much more challenging. McCurry strongly urges parents who are concerned that their children might be struggling with an anxiety disorder to seek very thorough assessments with their children, especially when other health issues are parts of the picture.
“Normal” Anxiety in Children
While many parents might feel that their children fit the descriptions of actual anxiety disorders, it is often more common for children to just be experiencing childhood worries and fears. Childhood fears tend to appear their worst between the ages of 7 and 9, but anxiety steadily increases between the ages of 4 and 12.
ABC Technique for Addressing Anxiety
McCurry describes a great tool for us as parents to use when helping our children move through their anxious thoughts (whether diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or not), hopefully equipping them with the skills needed to successfully manage fears and prevent anxious thoughts from interrupting daily life. Known to psychologists as the ABCs, this technique helps us as parents look for patterns in events and behaviors. Once we can see the patterns, we can seek ways to address the activators before we are just left dealing with the consequences.
- A – Activators – the events and circumstances that provoke the feelings of fear and anxiety
- B – Behaviors – public and private behaviors that include your child’s thoughts, feelings, and actions as a result of the anxious feelings
- C – Consequences – the reaction of the child’s world (especially social world) as a result of the anxious actions
If we let the issues control the situations, we then risk doing what McCurry refers to as “the dance” – where we try to minimize the intrusions and uncomfortable feelings that the consequences bring. We threaten, bribe, overly-reassure, and dance around the reactions instead of deal with the activators.
ACT for Anxiety
Are you ready for another acronym? ACT, pronounced liked the word, refers to acceptance and commitment therapy. I am drawn to this approach because it really gets to the heart of parenting. Yesterday I wrote about the value of commitment in a marriage – and really find that it is also direly required for parenting (as is acceptance). The two goals of ACT when it comes to helping your child deal with anxiety are:
- Acceptance (defined here as the opposite of denial and ignorance) – acknowledging the reality of what is happening at the moment, the good, the bad, and the very ugly
- Commitment (defined as declaring a goal and taking ownership of what it takes to get there, even if there are missteps along the way) – taking an action so that you and your child can reach goals to which you have committed, instead of reacting or trying to control the negative thoughts and feelings out of fear and frustration
McCurry gives lengthy and detailed descriptions of how to use ACT within your family to regain positive acceptance of each other, fears and anxieties included. If you’ve read this far, perhaps it means that you or one of your kids deals with anxiety, even if not an actual anxiety order. Perhaps you are like me and you see glimmers of worry and sometimes anxiety (or maybe even a pantrum) in your children’s eyes and you want to do everything you can to help them. Then read Parenting Your Anxious Child with Mindfulness and Acceptance. It is at least a starting point for filling the parental toolbox with positive skills for teaching our kids to interact with, embrace, and love the world in which they live. Boogeyman and all.