MAY 1, 2023

Michelle & Emilliano: When Your Kid Struggles With Anxiety

This is part one in a three part series. Michelle and Emiliano have a 10 year old daughter with extreme anxiety and panic attacks in our first full episode.

Leslie sits down with these parents to strategize ways to help Willow with her sleep difficulties, school anxiety and panic attacks when faced with new situations. This session explores the causes that are underlying these behaviors. And Leslie goes over practical skills to help parents manage their children’s anxieties.

In today’s session Michelle and Emiliano shared many stories of how sensitive their daughter Willow has been throughout her life. This is a family of highly sensitive people. Their life choices of sending Willow to a small school, living in the countryside and their human-rights work careers, support this fact. These all too often missed biological family traits should not be ignored when trying to understand your child. The old adage the apple doesn’t fall from the tree is relevant when parenting.

To learn more about these skills:

Three States of Mind
Misbehavior is a Form of Communication

Credits: Is My Child a Monster is produced by Alletta Cooper, Dale Rubury, and Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Theme music is by L-Ray Music. Public relations is handled by Tink Media. Transcriptions by Eric Rubury. A special thanks to everyone who contributes their wisdom and support to make this possible. 


[Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]

Michelle: She had written down, “Sometimes I feel like falling asleep until things change or I feel stronger.” That was a real concern when I saw that.

Leslie Cohen-Rubury: This is: Is My Child A Monster?, a fly on the wall parenting podcast, where you get to listen in as real parents share their trials and tribulations in therapy sessions recorded live. 

I’m your host, Leslie Cohen-Rubury. I’m a therapist with 37 years of experience helping parents navigate this question. I’m also a mother of three who has sat on my kitchen floor asking myself the same question: is my child a monster? Though I’m a therapist, this show is for informational purposes only, and not a substitute for therapeutic intervention. 

Today’s session is with Michelle and Emiliano. Their 10 year old daughter, Willow, has been suffering from debilitating anxiety, especially at bedtime. It’s been disruptive to her family and her own life, keeping her from doing things she would really enjoy doing. This is the first of three episodes with Michelle and Emiliano, where we’re going to explore why these things could be happening and give practical research-based strategies on how to help Willow. 

As with every episode, the names of my guests and the names of their children, along with any other identifying information has been changed. My hope is that you walk away with a greater understanding of your child and practical suggestions to help them. So let’s get started. 

Leslie: I’m going to let you begin and just tell me what’s going on, and what are the issues that you want some help with?

Michelle: Thank you. So I think it’s best to start with the most recent situations that we are concerned about. Our daughter Willow was recently refusing to attend school, she was showing signs of real anxiety and stress. She had the past weeks beforehand indicated that she wasn’t feeling well or didn’t want to go to school and was really hesitant. And then it came to a head one day when we were putting her to bed. And she started to just really get very upset and cry and said that she didn’t want to go. And this is at bedtime, which is always a struggle, she’s very difficult to get to sleep and to sort of settle down. It’s often when things come out that she hasn’t sort of expressed throughout the day, it’s when she needs to sort of let out whatever is bothering her in her mind. And she started to express the fact that she didn’t want to go to school and that she felt really under pressure because she was a little bit behind on an assignment. And she went off onto all sorts of tangents of all the things that happen at school that teachers might say, and at the same time, she expressed some really deep emotions. And she had written down a piece of post-it on her wall that said something along the lines of, “Sometimes I feel like falling asleep until things change, or I feel stronger.” That was a real concern when I saw that, because that seemed to be a shift, that seemed to be something that was indicating that there was something more internally that was going on with her.

Emiliano: So about that post-it. She put that in a place where it was very visible for us. So in a way, you know, I don’t think she was hiding how she was feeling. I think in a way she wanted us to see how she was processing that and a piece of information that around the time that she started showing signs of stress or not wanting to go to school, it was a time also where she goes to a very small school. And within two weeks, three of her best female friends left the school; in some cases just didn’t show up the next week. So it was without expecting it. And I think that that was just really rough for the entire group and I think that’s when we started seeing those signs of not wanting to go to school.

Leslie: You’re picking up on a lot of important information. Your eyes are open. You’re watching your child, you’re observing your child, you’re putting the pieces together. Let’s go back a little bit. Has she always been a child with intense or strong emotions?

Michelle: Yeah, I would definitely say so. She’s always been a very highly sensitive child. From the time she was born, she struggled with sleep. I had envisioned myself sort of writing a book while I was a stay at home mom. [Laughs] And that wasn’t the case at all, it was extremely challenging. From the beginning, we learned through experiment that she seemed very hypersensitive to everything–to sound, to light, to sensation, or heat or cold. And I believe that that disrupted her sleep, or that it was very easy for her to wake and very difficult to stay asleep. We’ve always noticed that she’s like a little antenna. She’s very attuned to the environment around her, as well as people’s emotions and feelings. So she’s always just been hypersensitive in so many ways. 

And — funny example — is we were living overseas when she was just an infant. And I had a favorite cafe that I like to go in and just get a coffee once in a while. And one day, I was holding her in my arms, and I walked in. She was a very happy baby, very content. We walk into the cafe, and suddenly she starts screaming bloody murder and crying. And everyone in the cafe stops and looks at us. And I don’t know what’s wrong with her. So I just quickly walk out. It was like instant, she just shut off the, faucet of emotion shut off, and she was happy and fine. I was like, okay, that’s odd. Let me try this again. And I went in and again, and again, instant screaming and crying, you know, like, just, and then I walked out again. I did this about four times. And finally I gave up; I was like, this is ridiculous. It’s not gonna happen. So I don’t know what was in there, or what she was picking up on. But man, she was pretty clear that this was not an acceptable place to be. 

And so with all of that sensitivity, she’s also been always very good at expressing in some way or another, how she feels or what’s going on. I feel fortunate as a parent, because at least you’re getting some feedback or some information that you can work with. Other parents might struggle with having a child that just goes silent. And I don’t know what I’d do in that case, for her. I mean, it was as bad as I remember, at one point, for about a month straight, she would wake 10 to 12 times a night. And she wasn’t ill or there was no other thing going on that we know of. So I didn’t sleep at all. And I got to the point where I was losing my mind.

Leslie: So, remember that when we had our first phone call, you had said to me, it also seemed like there was a big personality change, as she got a little older, maybe when she went to sixth grade, and there were some changes. And the interesting thing is, you’re also naming all of those changes that make sense for a child who might have difficulty with school refusal, and anxiety and difficulty sleeping at night that come from those early childhood behaviors and indications, and oftentimes as parents, we don’t know what normal behavior is a problem, or what problem behaviors are normal. It’s really confusing.

Michelle: I can’t agree more with that. I mean, I remember feeling like I was crazy asking for advice from so many different people and reading things and, sleep training and nothing worked. And it just made things worse, typically, until I found the book by Dr. Sears about the the fussy baby book that outlined exactly what a highly sensitive child is like. And I finally felt like, Oh, my God, finally, somebody understands. And they break all the rules, in many ways. Until that point, I remember just pulling my hair out and not feeling understood and feeling really alone in the process.

Leslie: Absolutely. Feeling confused, feeling alone, that is what makes it even 10 times harder being the parent, and being a parent is already a really challenging job. So let’s talk a little bit more about that confusion. So, she didn’t have a personality change at ten, at eight years old or 10 years old, or anything else. She is who she is, but what happens is behaviors tend to get louder. I say that they get louder, because they’re forms of communication. So yes, you have a highly verbal child, and that’s a blessing and a little bit of a curse at the same time. You know, the difficulty of having a highly verbal child is you hear them and you think they get it and they can tell you everything that’s wrong. But it’s an illusion, they don’t really understand these intense emotions any better, right? Her beautiful statement that I want to go to sleep until I’m strong enough or I want to go to sleep until I can handle this. 

I often have used the metaphor that children born with intense emotions, or highly sensitive people are like puppies with big feet. Puppies need time to grow into those big feet. And children with intense emotions need time to grow into those big emotions. So she really does have big emotions. And she’s right, she needs time to grow into them. I mean, she couldn’t have been more poetic about understanding it. But we have strategies to teach her that yes, she will eventually grow into those big emotions and into her paws, so to speak. But we have ways to help her now. And I’m going to talk about sleep with you for a little bit. 

And I’m also going to focus on this idea that children’s behaviors can communicate to us what need needs to be met. And when we don’t meet that need, the behaviors tend to get louder. It happens with us with a cold. So, you know, taking COVID out of the picture for a moment, it used to be that if we got a cold, like, if I didn’t sleep, well, for a few nights, I’d go, oh, boy, I’m getting rundown, I’m really tired. But I’m just gonna push through and have an extra cup of coffee in the afternoon. And I ignore those early symptoms. And then a day later, I’m still pushing through it, I haven’t really taken any time to rest. And now the next morning, I wake up, I have a scratchy throat. So as you can see, my symptoms are getting louder. And if I still don’t stop and rest, and listen to what my body’s telling me, then the symptoms often get louder, the cold turns into bronchitis, I end up with an infection, it goes on and on. So we really want to look at these smaller issues and start our intervention as early as possible. 

So looking at who your child is, we see signs of anxiety and sensitivity. I wouldn’t even call it anxiety, I would call it sensitivity and strong, intense emotions. Just out of curiosity, let me ask two of my favorite questions. One is, does she care about what’s fair? And what’s not fair? Yes, yeah,

Michelle: Yes.

Emiliano: Yeah, definitely she does.

Leslie: How did I know that? Right? Someone who’s highly sensitive, they pick up on justice and injustice in the world. And it may be just in your house, “Mommy, that’s not fair. You got to do something, and I didn’t get to do it.” Or it could be bigger, which is, in the classroom or in society should maybe even be tuned in to the larger societal issues of justice and injustice. So fairness can be a really challenging issue for a highly sensitive child. My other question is, does this sensitivity come from either one of you or a family history? Like, it’s not a coincidence? So it usually has some biological history. So, are either of you like this?

Michelle: I definitely have strong and intense emotions. I’ve no doubt. I don’t know. What do you think, Emiliano?

Emiliano: Of myself or of you? Of you? For sure. [Laughter] For sure, I mean, I think we both do in a way. It’s different. But yeah.

Michelle: Injustice is extremely — runs very, it’s a very big trigger for me…

Emiliano:  The injustice piece.

Michelle: …Yeah. Fairness, too. Equity, equality. 

Emiliano: Yeah. I think that’s reflected in what we do for a living as well. We’ve worked for international nonprofit organizations for most of our professional lives. And it’s, it’s really not about the salary, it’s about the costs. And so I think it’s, you know, Michelle’s history is very, very different than mine. You know, I grew up in Mexico. So I have my own flavor of sensitivity, if you want to call it that way.

Michelle: Can I add some thought, because it builds a little bit on what Emiliano said in terms of, you know, we were international workers. So when we had Willow, she spent the first, almost two years of her life overseas, and we traveled quite a bit. She seemed like a very adaptable kid, as long as she was with us. When we ultimately ended up in the United States, in a particular place for a little while, we made new friends, had a new place, everything seemed very fine. And we didn’t, you know, other than the sleep issues, there were no real clear signs of anything, but when things really changed, or certainly that we noticed things, is when we had to make a move when she was six and a half to a different state. That’s when things — we saw some very strong signs that were very worrying. That building of that cold or cough didn’t seem to really increase over time, like you were saying it went from a sniffle [Laughter] or something back then to like full blown typhoid or something. And at that time I reached out for help, but then they seem to settle down. And we never really pursued any additional support. And…

Leslie: It totally feels like it came a little bit out of nowhere. And it doesn’t come out of nowhere, because just hearing that you are both highly sensitive, very caring, and she’s your daughter, and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; and we’re dealing with a highly sensitive child. The funny thing is, our environment shapes a lot of some of how we deal with what’s going on. And right now, there is so much really nervous energy out there, tense energy, you know, animals pick up on it, people pick up on it, children especially, and the highly sensitive child even picks up on it more. And she’s growing up at a different time than the two of you. 

Now, in terms of intervention, or noticing early on, what I would say, and I’ve got this situation going on currently, because I have three children; and my grandson–I saw a very similar thing as soon as he was born. Highly sensitive, had him on my chest and a little snuggly go from walking outside to walking inside a building, and boom, he woke up. And the easygoing child is going to sleep through anything, take them to a concert and sleep through it, but not the highly sensitive child. And then there are times that he’s very aware of what other kids are doing. And if someone’s crying in the playground, he stops what he’s doing and nobody else.

Michelle: Totally, no, that’s so — I remember flying on a plane once. And she heard a baby crying and she was panicked in her seat. And I said, “What’s going on? Do you need to go check on the baby?” And she said, “Yes.” And this is, she’s like, very docile two-ish, right? To walk back to the plane and check on the baby, it was amazing.

Leslie: I’m so glad you’re here with me now. Because we are going to teach her how to understand who she is. That’s your job. As parents, you don’t need to fix her, we’re going to radically accept who she is, which my guess is you’re already doing that in many, many ways, because of what I can hear, and giving her the tools to both understand herself–that’s your job you know her better than she knows herself. So you’re going to help her understand herself. 

And the other thing is, we’re going to give her tools and language to actually have this emotional intelligence around her sensitivity, about what to do when she hears that baby cry. Like, it is so kind and caring. And can she say to herself, I’m okay. Because she gets really uncomfortable when she sees other people not okay. And she started that at three. So we could have been starting that at three, you know, she sees someone crying. And we could say to a three year old, like you did, it was great. Do you want to get up and go check on the baby? And we want to teach her, can you listen to that baby, be uncomfortable and still be okay? 

So my definition of coping is learning to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. Certainly want to teach children to be empathetic and go reach out for that. That’s not something we’re gonna need to teach her. She’s got that, you know, she’s amplified on her empathy. What we do need to teach her, believe it or not, is the opposite–how to separate herself and be okay, when she is that uncomfortable because she hears someone else crying, but teaching her to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. And that’s a line that you can use a thousand times, whenever there’s an opportunity that she’s a little bit uncomfortable. We’re going to say it only in a way that makes her feel supported. We’re not dismissing her with that line. We are wanting her to feel respected and supported saying, “Yes, this is really uncomfortable. And learning to be uncomfortable in an uncomfortable situation is a fabulous skill to have for the rest of your life. You’re not going to get it right away. Don’t worry about it, sweetie, you got your whole life to practice that we’re still practicing it. Mom, dad and I, we’re both practicing it. We’re all practicing it because it’s not always easy to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation.” And so you can model it, right? You’re waiting, you haven’t heard from someone you whatever, you’re feeling low stress, you can say wow, I noticed I’m feeling a little uncomfortable. And I’m going to use my breathing and we’re going to talk about some other skills that she can use to help her deal with being uncomfortable. Basically, we want to teach people that they are safe and capable of handling big emotions. And so starting now is fabulous. 

So I’m already saying to my three year old and six year old grandson, ah, you get to practice being comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. Those are lines that I want them to grow up with, so that by the time they’re 18 and 22, it makes sense. I don’t need it to make sense right now. They’re gonna grow into this intelligence, this understanding of what coping is.

[Music: Acoustic Motivation by Coma-Media]

Leslie: Okay, so there were those early situations, interestingly enough, by the time you got to that sixth grade, and you moved, and she went into school, she was having these panic attacks. I don’t know, I think that infancy when you went into that coffee shop was a mini panic attack, not what we would call it as adults. But right, it was like, this is too much for me, and I’m going to panic. So panic attacks, again, might be something that you can have skills before, during and after. Beforehand, if you know that she’s a highly sensitive person, can you both name two or three situations that make her feel uncomfortable? We would call them prompting events, situations that would prompt some strong emotions.

Michelle: One of the examples of that sort of panic attack situation, she was already into her new school and familiar with it. But we had a parent-teacher conference, this is all pre-COVID. And there was an arrangement in the school sort-of-gym area that kids would sort of play, because different parent-teacher conferences were going on at the same time. So we went to drop her off down there and walked her down. And then as she was going in, she turned around and looked at me with these very big eyes. And she said, “Mom, come, please come here after the bathroom.” And she took me into the bathroom. And then her eyes went huge. They started to cry, she got very tense, she started to kind of shake and just, “Don’t leave me here. Please don’t leave me here. Don’t drop me here. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be here.” And for me, it came out of nowhere. You know, she knew the people there. She had been familiar with the school, but I just don’t know what the trigger was.

Emiliano: Any situation, any sort of surprise, even if it’s a good one. And one good example Michelle can talk about is she used to love this podcast. What was the name of it? 

Michelle: Story Pirates.

Emiliano: Story Pirates. And so they do live shows. So I think I was traveling, and Michelle decided to get a ticket as a surprise, and go and see a live show. Because she loved it. Like, she would play the podcasts over and over and over. And so, I think they went and, and just when they were, like, in front of the theaters, we’re gonna see Story Pirates, and then she just totally freaked out. And she said, “I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go.” I remember Michelle called me and I was, I think I was in Mexico or somewhere and I tried to speak with Willow. And there was no, there was no argument at that point that would convince her to go in. So even if it’s something that we know is going to be good for her. She just doesn’t doesn’t do it. So now we know that we need to make sure that Willow understands what she’s going to do as much as possible in advance

Leslie: Beautiful. Really exciting because, again, your job as parents is to guide her on her journey. And so right there, you have the information about her, that’s probably going to stay with her, her whole life. She’s probably not going to like surprises. So you can say to her, “Willow, have one thing you know about, you can learn about yourself, is you’re someone who wants to have as much information ahead of time as possible. You like to know what’s predictable. You like to have a routine.” My other guess about why she got so upset with the teacher-parent conference was it was probably a break in routine and breaking routine or doing something new or having a surprise–it doesn’t matter how wonderful it is. It’s a shift in her system. And she might have difficulty shifting or transitioning to new things. You’re shaking your head.

Michelle: Yeah, yes, that’s absolutely true. That was a sign throughout childhood. The transitions we realize were really tough for her in those early years like preschool and what have you. They were — those transitions were really tough.

Leslie: Right. Now I want to go into another strategy. So first you are going to notice it and name it. That’s one of the skills, where you are going to actually notice a name, information so that she gets to learn about herself: we need to shift from this activity to this activity. That’s not easy, right? You might have some strong feelings about making a shift. Just keep naming, not overdoing it. But naming that that’s one of the things that is challenging for her. You also want to name the things that go easy for her like, it’s really easy to notice other people’s feelings, etc. So you can weigh both of those. When you’re at the theater, and you’re dealing with her emotions, the panic, the I can’t do this, I can’t do this. We call that emotion mind. In dialectic behavior therapy, there are three states of mind, which are really a beautiful way. And I started teaching my own daughter states of mind when she was three years old. So there’s no such thing as too young. Emotion mind, think of one circle, reasonable mind or logical mind. And then the overlap of those two arcs is called “wise mind.” 

So what we want to teach our children is that when they have intense emotions, they’re having those reactions, you get to say, well, I noticed your emotion mind, oop, there’s your emotion mind, however you want to say it very casually. Kids don’t really love it. But I want you to keep saying it, even if she gets a little upset, and use it on yourself. When you get upset, you would want to say, wow, I notice I’m in emotion mind. And it’s not easy to hear that. Because we’re in emotion mind, we don’t want to hear anything reasonable. And the important fact for you to learn, and for her to learn is you don’t try solving problems in emotion mind. You first have to settle the emotion, you have to help her move into wise mind, before you try to problem-solve how we can get into this theater. You can’t use logic per se. It’s a good try: you tried to use logic, wherever you were you called in and you said yes, but you like it, you listen to it all the time. You tried logic, logic doesn’t work on a three year old, a five year old, or a 55 year old, we’re having a lot of those problems right now. [Laughter] You’re laughing because that’s exactly — logic doesn’t work in trying to convince anyone to do something they don’t want to do. But what works is settling her body, settling the emotion. So you focus on “Hold on, let’s do some breathing, let’s do some counting.” If it was a young child, I’d say, “Stop. Tell me all the different red things that you see around you.” Or count the number of people if you’re standing outside a theater, I’d say, “Let’s count all the people here.” Or how many men do you see, how many women do you see, anything she can count. You might if she’s learning math, and she likes math or something, you can say, okay, count by fives, and then a little harder count by twos or count by threes. Wherever she is in her development, what is going to make her go from the back of her brain, which is where emotion mind lives, to the front of her brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is where logic mind lives. 

And breathing is a great way; you could get her just to stamp her feet, let’s march in place really, really, really hard. And getting her to move her body, to get her breathing. We start to settle our body and we get out of emotion mind. And now if she’s calmer, we can say okay, I think you’re ready to talk about how to get into the theater. And then I want to use, “Hey, I bet there’s a part of you,” and I use this idea of parts. “I bet there’s a part of you that really wants to go in and hear this story. You’ve been listening to it, you love to hear it, I think there’s a little part of you that wants to go ahead. And I bet there’s a big part of you, that is way, way, way, way, way, way too scared to go in. Hey, let’s invite them all in. Let’s invite all those parts in. Let’s go in and bring the scared part and bring the excited part and bring the you know, I don’t know what’s gonna happen part. And let’s see if we can take all of those in. Do you want me to hold your hand? Would that be helpful? What would be helpful so you can carry all of those parts of you inside?” Or..there are other strategies; these are just things that are coming to my mind right now. 

But the most important thing that I’m trying to impress — and I see you nodding your head, which is wonderful — is that we start by naming the emotion mind and teaching her that the first thing we want to do, whether we, whatever age it is, even if you’re having a conversation between the two of you and one of you was getting upset, two adults having conversation. I often say timeout. Let me take a breath. Let me calm myself down before we continue the conversation. Actually, that was a little white lie. I told my husband to tell me to do that. Because I told him to put up his hand and say, “You’re in emotion mind. And if you want to continue the conversation, can you lower your voice?” So I actually trained him to train me. So yes, it’s, it’s something that I do as well, because I’m one of these highly intensely emotional people. So I got big emotions. And it’s a part of me I don’t want to give up. But I do want to be effective in my life, and I don’t want the emotions for her, or for me, or for anyone else, to get in the way of her getting what she wants. 

And the story of going to Story Pirates is perfect, it’s getting in the way. And we’re just going to say, okay, anxiety. And you might call it anxiety, you might call it the unknown, but you’re gonna let her know that she’s capable, and she’s safe. And she might have a little mantra, I can do it, I can do it with little ones, again, with my six year old grandson, I have him sounding like The Little Engine That Could–you know, that children’s book about a little blue engine that goes, I think I can I think I can. And to be able to say, I can do it, I can do it. That’s that feeling children have a strong need to feel capable. 

Emiliano: Yep.

Leslie: And then reinforce it when she doesn’t. So one of the things that’s important is we have to shape behavior. This doesn’t happen overnight. It’s very, very validating to her when you say, “I bet there’s a part of you that really wants to go in and hear the Story Pirates. And I bet there’s another part of you that’s really scared to go in there.” That, she’s like, wow. Like you’re all of a sudden, this omnipotent parent, which is what most parents are when children are very young, that you know it all. And we want you to help her learn about herself. So does this sound helpful and something you might try?

Emiliano: Yeah, it’s very helpful advice. I’m wondering, the situation that you’re describing is, to me sounds like when anxiety and panic is coming, and it’s right in the moment, how do you address that. One of the situations that we’re facing now, is that we learn that we need to give her as much heads up of an upcoming situation as possible. But now, she’s coming out with anxiety of things that are going to happen months ahead. Like we’re, we’re planning events in the summer that are big events, like a trip or something. She’s already having anxiety, like, “I don’t want to go, I don’t want to do these. I don’t want to.” So does that same technique work even in just an anxiety of events that are happening in the future, just like you’re starting to work on like, “Yeah, I bet you’re anxious at the moment. But there’s a part of you that probably wants to pick that flight and go there.” And is that, does that apply as well?

Leslie: It certainly does apply. There’s a few things I’ll name a skill, just dialectic thinking. So one of the things that probably is true is that she’s either all in the anxiety, or she’s all fine. And it’s like, it’s that’s why it feels rather extreme. Like she’s either oh, my God, having a panic attack, or she’s just easygoing, happy go lucky, little child. Basically, we want to teach her that she can have two opposite feelings at the same time. That’s dialectic thinking. And a dialectic perspective is I can be really excited about going on the trip and scared as well. Okay, and there’s the magic, and you’re really excited to go on the trip and really scared. You’re really scared and that feeling is going to pass. So you use the “and” in as many creative ways as you can. That’s a feeling–you’re really scared about going on the trip. And that’s a feeling that’s going to come and go. 

So there’s lots of ways we can continue to talk about how to use that skill. But in addition, I would say with her, you want to really help her learn to practice mindfulness skills of being present in the moment. And if my daughter said to me, I’m really scared about the trip, I’m like, “Oh, let’s go get your worry book. Let’s write that down in the worry book. And let’s put it down. And then when we put it down, we’re really going to put it down and pay attention to, you know, you’re drawing you’re playing, you’re what we’re doing now, because that trip is going to happen in the future. And it is a real worry, and it pops up in your head. But we want to figure out, what are we going to do with that worry? Because right now, there’s nothing we can do about that worry. So let’s put it on a piece of paper. Let’s, you know, just really acknowledge it. Let’s put it on a piece of paper and you know what, if you want me to read some of your worries, tomorrow, we’ll go back and read them.” What I like to do with children is, before bedtime, especially if you’re having difficulties, one of the things I want to be very careful of is not to have very long conversations at bedtime, because it almost is talking to the anxiety. It’s natural that worries come out at that time. So you take a strip a piece of paper, you write down what’s the worry, I’m worried that my teacher makes me rush. Okay? You write the date, you name it, you date it, you rate it. So the rating is on a scale of 1 to 10. How worried are you about it? Oh, it’s a nine, I really don’t like when she rushes me. Okay, I’ll put a nine down. Then you fold it up, you put it in the worry bowl or the worry box, you can design one, you can make one together. And then you say your worries are going to be here, you put them down, you get to go to bed, your worries are going to be here in the morning, when you get up. It’s really important; and the funniest thing I ever heard was a parent said to their daughter, I’m going to take your worries out of the room because they thought that was really kind. And then the child started to panic: Don’t take my worries out of here! [Laughter] So children love to put their worries down, but they don’t want you to take their worries away. 

So put the worries in the worry box, leave them there and say you’re worried we’ll be here for you to pick up in the morning. All we’re trying to teach them is, put your worry down overnight. And then like three days later, or another day when she had a really good day at school, go open the worry box, find the one where she was worried about the teacher rushing her and say, oh, let’s write down today’s date. And what is your worry right now about this one? What would your rating be today? What we’re teaching in an exercise like that is we’re teaching that feelings come and go, and that feelings change. Feeling is not a fact. And that’s another little line I use with kids. That’s a feeling, not a fact. Right? So these are just some ideas of helping her deal with worries, we want to acknowledge that she tends to have a lot of worry thoughts, and teaching her to be an expert with her worry thoughts. She doesn’t want to hate her worries, she doesn’t want to hate her anxiety. She wants to learn to know how to have a relationship with these worries that don’t get in her way. They’re there, they’ll always be there, my guess is you two deal with your worries, you figured out how to deal with them as adults, but we want to teach her because they’re really getting in her way. And so my heart goes out to her because it’s painful. It’s painful, it’s not easy to be her. So we want to acknowledge that it’s real. She’s not making any of this up. It is who she is. And there are skills and strategies and all kinds of things that we can help her be her best self.

Michelle: Thank you. You know, I’m sort of thinking about what started us in this conversation with the recent issues with going to school or not. And I feel like in that situation, we listen to her while the school therapist and the teacher after her very worried evening, with probably way too much conversation on my part trying to understand it and rationalize and what have you, I was on the email, on the texting with the teacher and the teacher said, send her to school tomorrow, period, like she’s going to school, she needs the routine. She needs to show up, we need to show her that it’s safe and that she’s fine and etc. And I did that. It was a really tough morning. But then the teacher got back to me and said, “I checked with the school therapist as well on what her recommendation and advice was. And she says also, she needs to come, that that’s really critical. And we as parents listened to them, but we also listened to our daughter. And she had another one of these poetic moments where she said, “You remember, mommy, last summer when I was in the ocean. And I got pummeled by the wave, and I was underwater and got tossed and turned. I was crying and really upset and we went to the shore and we sat for a while and then I went back in.” She said, “It feels like that, I need to go on shore. Like please can I have a day?” And so we went through this negotiation with her. The next night after she went back to school and decided as parents, we’re going to let her stay home for the next day. We said, “Well, you have to go back Thursday and Friday, but you can stay home on Wednesday and have your rest, but you’re gonna go back, we’re in agreement, right?” And then she said yep, and sure enough, she went back and we haven’t really had any issues since.

Emiliano: …any significant issues. No, she was asking for three days. And yeah, we negotiated it to one.

Michelle: [Laughter] It was a big negotiation. 

Emiliano: Yeah, there was a lot of drama, but it felt important to validate her feelings. And so we decided to go with our gut rather than the advice of that teacher, at least for one day. And I think she appreciated that. Yeah, as I said, it validated what she was going through. And it made her realize that it was important for us. And we were also thinking on her, the patient, that just staying home for three days was not going to work. And that we were concerned that in the future that could repeat. So what could we do to address her reaching a situation where she reached the same point of anxiety? So yeah, so far has been, quote-unquote, resolved. We understand that there’s a lot of emotions still just beneath the surface. So..

Leslie: Yes, I love the balance. And again, this is why it’s so confusing. Who do I listen to? How much do we let her — do we give in, do we not give in, right? I mean, it’s very, very confusing. And I love the fact that you listened to the teacher and the social, the therapist at the school, you took that into consideration. And at the same time, you were able to listen to her and weigh that. And then you waited and said, well, one day is different than three days. Three days, you can get awfully comfortable not going to school, one day is a breather, and maybe — we never know, there are some children, the teachers advice, the therapist advice, they’re basically saying, yes, we need to keep exposing her to hurt, that what’s uncomfortable. And so I think that thinking was what you were doing as well. Because you said, okay, one day at home, and when she gives you a metaphor like that, like I popped out of the ocean, I sat on the sand with you, and then I went back in. I’m like, you guys [Laughter], I’m not gonna argue with that thinking; that sounds really logical to me. And very, very wise. So again, that sounds fantastic. 

It’s a nice balance that you’re thinking about, okay, we know, we need to keep her going to school, because once you get in the habit of not going, the anxiety actually wins. But being respectful and being wise is doing what works. Our definition of wise mind is actually doing what works. It’s not doing what’s right, there is no right. And I don’t like hearing what’s the right thing to do. But in that case, it worked. And that’s how we know it was wise mind, I will say that your instinct to talk to her at night about her anxieties is very well intentioned, but may have a very unintended consequence of getting her anxiety bigger and bigger. Because we already discussed how you cannot talk someone out of their emotion mind, we have to help her understand that she’s just gonna have to learn to sit with it, sit with that anxiety, learn that anxiety will not hurt her, that she’s capable of sitting with it. And I think maybe if you want to try that worry box with the worry notes, there’s a way of saying I want to hear it. And you might even say, tomorrow, when you come home from school, let’s sit down with the worry box and talk about the worries. Because it’s very, very different talking about the worries in the afternoon, and talking about the worries because I believe one function–I may not be 100% right, but I’ve seen a lot of this–so I’m going to guess that I’m making a pretty firm or sound assumption is that children want to talk more and more and more and more at night because going to bed is anxiety provoking. So they bring up their anxieties to keep them from going to bed. It’s the same thing if your child goes over to their friends to play. They keep saying Mommy, can I just play five more minutes, I don’t want to leave yet. And then make up all these reasons why they don’t want to leave just to stay a little bit longer. Sharing your worries and talking your worries about night keeps you from having to face that scary thing called going to bed. So you want to say I’m happy to talk about the worries. Let’s write them down. And we’ll talk about them after school. Watch: my guess is I don’t even know she’ll want to talk about them after school.

Michelle: I like that approach. It’s great.

[Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]

Leslie: I want to thank Michelle and Emiliano for allowing us to listen in today. This is the first of their three sessions. As you heard in today’s session, parenting children like Willow, who are highly sensitive, often with big emotions, is frustrating and confusing. I mean, we heard how confusing it was for Michelle and Emiliano, when to push, when not to push. Parenting is confusing. 

Make sure you subscribe to Is My Child A Monster? wherever you get your podcasts. So you don’t miss the next session with Michelle and Emiliano where I review what was effective with Willow and talk about ongoing challenges. Is My Child A Monster? is a new podcast, and we would love your help getting the word out in whatever way you can do it. If you found this episode helpful, perhaps you can text a friend or share us in a Facebook parenting group.

This episode was produced by Aletta Cooper, Dale Rubury, and me. Our theme music is by L-Ray Music. I’m Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Thanks for listening. And keep in mind your child’s misbehavior is a form of communication. So I want you to ask yourself: What are they trying to tell me?

Transcribed by    Edited by Eric Rubury

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