May 21, 2024

Managing Anxiety for the Whole Family with Special Guest Lynn Lyons

This week, host Leslie Cohen-Rubury sits down with anxiety expert Lynn Lyons. Together they discuss the challenges of parenting anxious children and the importance of addressing anxiety in families. 

Lynn’s work is research-based and her practical strategies for dealing with anxiety may surprise you but will make sense as you listen to this episode.  There’s a lot to learn about anxiety.  Leslie and Lynn’s conversation focuses on how  parents and caregivers can unintentionally make anxiety worse, how anxiety works and how to live with it effectively – and no, the answer is not eliminating it.   

About our Guest: Lynn Lyons is a psychotherapist, author, and speaker with over 30 years of experience and a special interest in interrupting the generational patterns of anxiety in families. Her latest book, The Anxiety Audit, looks at the seven sneaky ways that anxiety and worry weave their way into our families, friendships, and jobs, and provides actionable steps to reverse the cycle and reclaim emotional well-being. Her podcast, Flusterclux, is filled with so many of her strategies for managing anxiety, as is her website:

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. Graphics and Website Design by Brien O’Reilly. by Eric Rubury. A special thanks to everyone who contributes their wisdom and support to make this possible.

Time Stamps

  • 3:43  Defining Anxiety
  • 5:00  Avoidance begets Avoidance
  • 8:43  The keys of anxiety are certainty and comfort
  • 9:38 Plans that work vs plans that don’t work 
  • 12:20 The three X’s – expect it, externalize it, experiment with it. 
  • 15:40 Elimination strategies make anxiety worse
  • 15:50 Tolerating uncertainty is what makes it better. 
  • 20:45 Research on kids who are raised by anxious parents – 4 takeaways
  • 26:25 Change the question from how do we help the child calm down to how does this child continue to freak themselves out. 
  • 29:20 Why the accommodation model at schools to treat anxiety is not working
  • 31:50  Parental Experiential Avoidance – Parents unable to tolerate their distress or their children’s distress
  • 33:05 Expectations of therapy if your child is being treated for anxiety
  • 37:24 Stopping the transmission of generational anxiety
  • 38:40 Anxiety and Depression are disorders of passivity.  Retraining the brain for action


Leslie-ism: Remember Lynn Lyon’s 3 X’s – We need to expect it, externalize it, experiment when dealing with anxiety.


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

0:03  Lynn Lyons: The keys of anxiety are certainty and comfort. And so when you see a child that’s demanding everything go as planned, has difficulty stepping into new situations, who doesn’t have any tolerance for distress, when you see a parent that doesn’t have any tolerance for distress, those are all red flags that we really want to pay attention to.

0:30  Leslie Cohen-Rubury:  I’m Leslie Cohen-Rubury. This is Is My Child A Monster?, a parenting therapy podcast. I’m a parent and a therapist with 38 years of experience helping families navigate this question. And no, your child is not a monster. 

This week, we’re talking about anxiety and I’m really excited to be talking about it, because it’s showing up in both parents and in children. It’s one of the most common topics to come up in my therapy office. So I invited anxiety expert and host of the Flusterclux podcast, Lynn Lyons, to join me today. Lynn is a psychotherapist, author, and international speaker with more than 30 years of experience in private practice. Her latest book, The Anxiety Audit, explores how anxiety weaves its way into families in sneaky ways.

So let’s jump into this episode. But as a reminder, this show is for informational purposes only, and is not a substitute for therapeutic intervention. 

Leslie:  Hi, Lynn, how are you?

1:36  Lynn:  I’m fine, Leslie, thanks for having me.

1:38  Leslie:  Great. I’m so excited to have you here. I’ve been following you for years. And I feel like even though we haven’t ever met, I feel so connected to you, because I respect the work you’re doing and the difference you are making in the lives of so many families. 

1:55  Lynn:  Well, that’s very kind of you to say.

1:57  Leslie:  Can you tell us about yourself and your journey that got you to where you are today?

2:03  Lynn:  Sure. So, I live in Concord, New Hampshire. I’m a New Englander. I’ve lived in Concord for 25 years now, actually. And I’ve been a therapist—this is my 34th year. I’m a social worker, as you are, and started off…It’s funny, because when I was in graduate school, I was like, “I want to work with kids.” But I was a kid myself. So I worked with kids my first year, and I thought, “This is too hard. They don’t talk very much.” So I worked with adults for a good chunk of time—I worked in some inpatient psychiatry, and then kind of found me my way back. Probably I would say now that I work with families. 

I still have a private practice sitting in my office here. I do a lot of writing, a lot of teaching, a lot of training of other therapists. I work a lot with schools, to try and help them figure out how to do better with anxiety, because they are a little overwhelmed…and also, unfortunately, do the exact opposite of what we would say is evidence based treatment. So yeah, so that’s what I do. I’m a mom, my boys are grown. They’re 25 and 23. But they’re out of the house and fairly independent, I would say…yeah. They still call and ask me how to change their health insurance and that kind of stuff. 

Leslie:  Great question. [Laughter]  

Lynn:  Yeah, that’s a great question. Yep. So yeah, so that’s me. 

3:28  Leslie:  And they’re willing to ask for help, which as we know, can be a challenge for some other people.

3:32  Lynn:  Yes, that’s correct. They’re definitely willing to ask for help. 

3:35  Leslie:  Oh, that’s exciting. Okay, so can we just start with the basics of: what is anxiety?

3:42  Lynn:  Well, the big thing to think about with anxiety is that it tends to be a response where there is not an emergency. But the body and the brain acts as if there is. And the problem is, is that we’ve got a system in our body, that’s incredibly powerful, incredibly important. It keeps us alive. And when we worry, when we imagine bad things happening, when we get caught up in that response, that system gets hijacked. And so we feel these symptoms, and we have these thoughts. 

And then of course, the more we worry, or the more we get anxious about things, the more we want to get away from those things—that also make sense. But the problem right now is that there’s an awful lot of, well…let’s see. It is instinctive for families to want to protect their kids. If you have a child in distress, it absolutely makes sense that you don’t want them to feel the distress. So the more that a child is worrying about something or a parent is worrying about something, the more it feels necessary, the more it feels intuitive to help them avoid that thing. 

And the problem with anxiety is that avoidance begets avoidance. And so we end up with kids and families that are really good at avoiding, which means that they’re really setting themselves up for more problems down the road. 

5:10  Leslie:  So that short term relief that children feel and parents feel is very profound, and keeps motivating people to avoid, avoid, like you’re saying. In my podcast, I have some young children, some teenagers. And then of course, we’re talking about the anxiety even in parents. So it can look like different things. What are you noticing, in terms of how anxiety changes? So we have this throughline that no matter what it is, avoidance is a common response. What about what it looks like?

5:46  Lynn:  Well, so when we see in little kids…there are a few things. Whether or not a parent is anxious makes a big difference. So that’s often where we want to start. I don’t see kids alone in my practice. I actually am rather, astounded would be an appropriate word, at how often therapists like us that work with anxious kids don’t work with parents. It happens all the time—it makes no sense to me. 

So first of all, what does it look like? I’m going to be looking for patterns in a family. And in particular, I’m going to look early on for patterns of two things. One is somatic symptoms, meaning that anxiety in little kids shows up oftentimes talking about tummy aches or not feeling good, there can be a lot of contact with a pediatrician or a school nurse, because they’re getting complaints about the child is too sick to go to school or doesn’t want to participate in things. The more anxious a parent, the more likely it is that we’re going to see somatic symptoms in a child. 

And then the other pattern that I really pay attention to, that shows up quite early, is rigidity—things needing to be a certain way. So if you have kids that have a lot of difficulty with any kind of change, if they have difficulty when things don’t go the way that they expect, when they have certain ideas or certain routines, and they are very adamant that those rules be followed, then we’re going to pay attention to that. Now, the tricky thing is that if you’ve raised kids—like you and I have, Leslie—that toddlers, little kids, love routines, right? They love the same book to be read over and over again. It’s no big deal. My son, my younger son, wore a superhero costume every day at night for 19 months. From two and a half to almost four. Every single day. Fine, not a problem. It’s more when we see this kind of pervasive inability to tolerate things not happening. 

So say, for example, a parent will say to me, I’ll say, “Well, when does this worry thing show up? When does this worry thing really kind of grab hold? When does it really make its mark?” And they’ll say, “We make a plan, we try really hard to stick to the plan. And then if something happens, if we can’t do the plan, then she totally freaks out.” So they work very hard. They say, on the weekend, “We’ve got to make sure that she knows that we’re going to have this for breakfast, and then we’re going to do this and then we’re going to do this.” And if there’s any deviation from that: meltdown. That’s a warning sign because we know that anxiety is all about trying to figure out exactly what’s going to happen. 

So the keys of anxiety are certainty and comfort. And so when you see a child that’s demanding everything go as planned, has difficulty stepping into new situations, when you see a child who doesn’t have any tolerance for distress, when you see a parent that doesn’t have any tolerance for distress, those are all red flags that we really want to pay attention to.

9:01  Leslie:  Wow. Beautifully said. I love all that information. I know our parents are going to just really appreciate that, because you’re talking about: in terms of the plan, in terms of going forward with the plan. I’ve got to say, I want to send my listeners to an episode of yours that talked about what happens when everybody has a plan. And why the plan itself is a great idea, but it doesn’t often work.

9:28  Lynn:  Right. Because the plan, the way that the plan we come up with is the plan to make sure that everything goes as planned. And the plan I want to come up with is: how do we manage worry when it shows up? So, for example, say you’ve got a child that’s having difficulty getting them to school…and I’m sure I gave this example on that episode of the podcast. So, everybody comes up with a plan. They say “Okay, so it’s Sunday night. Last week was a disaster, this week is going to go better. So let’s make a plan. And the plan has to do with all of the logistics of getting them to school. So we’re going to lay out the clothes, we’re going to make sure the alarm is set. So we have time to get dressed and eat breakfast and brush our teeth, we’re going to…” Maybe the plan is that, “When you get to school, the school counselor is going to meet us at the door so that you can walk…” There’s all these logistical plans. But what there isn’t a plan for, which is the most important part of a plan is that when worry shows up, what is our response going to be to worry?

10:34  Leslie:  Yes.

10:35  Lynn:  The thing that is so hard for a lot of people to understand is that, what you worry about—the thing that gets your worry and your anxiety going—is the least interesting thing to me. I want to know the relationship to worry. And when I look at somebody else’s plan for, “How do we get this kid to school?” “Well, they they seem to know how to put on their shoes, they know how to get places on time, they know how to get out of bed,” they know how to do this and this, but they don’t know how to manage worry when it shows up. And that’s very often not a part of the plan.

11:18  Leslie:  And that’s the obstacle. 

Lynn:  That’s the obstacle.

Leslie:  That’s the obstacle. And the fact that you’re trying to shift that for parents to understand schools, to understand that that needs to be an integral part, is just so very important. There was a story that I like to explain, where a teenager I was getting who had social anxiety. I was getting, you know, working through, we did some role playing about getting ready to go to a social event. And I said, “Okay, so what’s the obstacle?” What’s going to get in the way of that great plan she laid out? And she said, “Well, I might get nauseous, and that would be the only reason why I wouldn’t go.”  And I went, “Wouldn’t go?” I’m like, “Let’s get ready to meet that anxiety, that feeling of being nauseous, and then let’s talk about talking to it.” So I know that’s really important in your work. And you have something called The Three Ex’s.

12:17  Lynn:  Yes, The Three Ex’s. So, we’re going to expect, we’re going to externalize, and we’re going to experiment. So the expect is: we’re going to expect worry to show up. Why? Well, because we all have worry. And when we’re stepping into something new, or when we’re stepping into something that feels tricky or difficult or whatever, we know worry’s going to show up. And what’s worry going to say? Worry’s going to say something that is very predictable, redundant and persistent. Right? Worry is not breaking news. When worry shows up, worry doesn’t bring a whole lot of new stuff to the party. Worry is like a guy that tells the same stupid dad jokes over and over and over again. It’s like, “Here we go again.” When worry shows up, it says some version of you can’t handle this. 

Now that’s what gets the symptoms going, because the worry says you can’t handle this. And remember, your little brain is, like, “Is this an emergency? Is this an emergency?” So, your body starts to respond as if it’s an emergency. If we can expect worry to show up, if we know, if we say, “Yep, that’s going to be part of the process,” then we can externalize it. 

Let’s just say we’re talking about adults—an adult who’s depressed, an adult who struggled with anxiety, an adult who is trying to heal from some sort of trauma, an adult who has relationship patterns that they’re really looking to get out of because they’ve been married 17 times and clearly they’ve got some patterns. As soon as we can begin to get some distance between you and the pattern, as soon as we can make you an observer, we’re going to make some progress. 

The same goes with kids. As soon as we can pull the worry out, give it a name—call it “Stella,” call it “Pete,” call it “Joanne”…no little kid has ever named their worry “Joanne”—give your worry a name, make it into some sort of character, and then become an observer of its patterns. I do not care what you worry about. The only reason I need what you worry about is to practice handling “Joanne” when “Joanne” shows up. So, if you’re afraid of dogs, we’re going to need some dogs. Why? Because we want “Joanne” to show up. 

So, then we experiment. The experiment part is: how do we step into the situation in a very counter-intuitive way? Because remember, anxiety is all about, “If I can get out of this, if I can avoid, I’m not going to get triggered, I’m going to stay away.” We want to step in, because that’s how the brain re-learns. It learns experientially. So we’ve got to do these three things. 

And the trap that people fall into—very well meaning, caring people, sometimes even people that should know better—the trap they fall into is they’re trying to get rid of the worry. So we teach all of these, what I call elimination strategies, where the message is to the child, “We have to get rid of your worry. We have to make it go away. You have to feel calm. We have to help you feel relaxed, we have to help you feel confident.” No, no, no. I mean, that would be nice; but what we have to do is we have to teach you how to tolerate worry when it shows up. Tolerate it. 

16:00  Leslie:  And people do want to say that their anxiety is their enemy. And I think what we’re trying to do, what you so beautifully are describing, is: let’s change that relationship. It’s not about anxiety is an enemy—it’s a part of us. And we want it to be a part of us, we don’t want to get rid of any part of us. It’s serving a purpose. And sometimes it’s a little overexcited, has a few false alarms, as we know. And we need a new relationship, which you describe. I love your expect it, externalize it, and experiment with it.

16:33  Lynn:  Yeah, the mistake that people make—and again, I totally get it—is that they think the goal is to have all the information ahead of time, so that we create certainty. We do all these things to try and feel comfortable, so that we have no symptoms at all. And those are traps, because you’re not going to be able to pull it off. So when I hear people talk about, “Well, I’m going to help this child feel calm,” I say, “Well, good luck.” But that’s a high bar, just like your client, right? “I’m not going to go if I feel anything in my tummy.” Right? “If my tummy feels upset, I’m out.” And very often, there’s a list of things that they pay very close attention to. And if any of those things start to show up, they’re out—it’s too high a bar.

17:30   Leslie:  And you bring along that throw-up-bag when you go in the car, you go on the train or wherever you’re going. Chances are anxiety’s, like, “Oh, bummer, we thought she was going to stay home.” Now, it’s interesting how we tend to reduce some of our anxiety as we experiment, as we move forward.

17:51  Lynn:  Correct. That’s how the brain learns. And so, if we’ve been telling a child or giving a child a message that something is dangerous, they are going to believe us. So, say you have a child who is afraid of bees. They’re afraid of bees; and again, doesn’t matter to me—you can be afraid of bees, you can be afraid of gorillas, I don’t care. Harder with gorillas, hard to do exposure with gorillas. And so the child says, “Well, I’m afraid of bees.” So, the very caring, loving parents says, “All right. For one, let’s give her all the information about bees. Let’s give her a ton of reassurance. The bee doesn’t want to sting you. The bee just wants to go from flower to flower. If you leave the bee alone, the bee will leave you alone.” 

Okay, say that once, got the information. But now they’ll say, “Okay, so we know you’re afraid of bees. So, instead of going out the front door, where there’s all these blooming rhododendrons, we’re going to go out the back door. If we see a bee, we will leave the picnic. We know at the playground there were some bees over by the slide in 1987, so we’re not going to go near that slide anymore.” And the message that child is getting, over and over and over again, is that, yes, bees are dangerous, because the little kids are watching how hard the adults are working to make sure that she never goes near a bee. We want to do the opposite. And so the more that we put things in place that support the desire of the anxiety to avoid, the stronger this thing gets.

19:32  Leslie:  Yes. And you’re beginning to tap into one other thing that I wanted to segue us into, which is the fear that sometimes is running the parenting show. So, when parents are trying to raise their children, but they’re doing it from a place of fear, anxiety. Genuinely. Because they also need the security and the safety of the unknown. And so, so challenging. Not easy.

19:58  Lynn:  Yeah. Part of parenting, right? If you think you’re going to get through parenting and not worry…right?  I mean, my dad’s 82. And I was leaving his house the other night. And he said, “Be careful driving.” And I said, “I will.” And he said to me—and he’s not said this before—he said, “You know, one of the hardest things about parenting is when you send your kid off in a car.” And I said, “I know, Dad, I felt the same way. I still feel the same way.” So it’s an inherent part of the vulnerability of parenting. There’s nothing more risky in life than parenting. So I totally get it. 

But our fear and our worry is so easily transmitted to our children. And the research is pretty clear that there are certain things that show up in kids that are raised by anxious parents, I’ll give you some of the big hitters. One is that kids raised by anxious parents—they don’t tolerate uncertainty very well. Well, that’s no surprise, based on everything that I’ve said. Kids raised by anxious adults aren’t very good independent problem solvers. Because the adult jumps in very quickly to solve the problem, doesn’t want the child to feel uncomfortable, doesn’t want them to fail. 

Very closely related to that is that we see kids with a lack of autonomy, and so a sense of independence, a sense of being able to move forward in life. We know that right now, autonomy is taking a big hit, just just in terms of all the stuff with phones and access and all that kind of stuff. Letting kids do things on their own, it’s decreased wildly in the last few decades. 

And then the fourth thing—which is pretty interesting, I think—is that kids raised by anxious parents perceive the world as a more dangerous place than kids raised by non-anxious parents. So, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t dangerous things in the world. But it means that kids raised by anxious parents, very globally, look at the world as a dangerous place. And what we really want for kids is for them to be able to differentiate between what’s dangerous and what’s not. So, using our dog example, again, say you have a child that’s very afraid of dogs. Well, we wouldn’t want to say, “All dogs are friendly, you should go up and pet every dog.” We would want them to develop the ability to say, “That looks like a friendly dog. That doesn’t. Maybe if I’m going to pet a dog, I have to learn to ask the owner first if that’s okay.” We want to teach them the skills of determining the range of safety and danger in the world. 

And anxious parents get in the way of teaching their kids that very, very valuable skill.

[Music: Stand in the Forest by Pixaby]

23:07  Leslie:  When we first moved to Connecticut—and we have very windy roads—I had just come from Miami with my three kids, where there were sidewalks, and everything like that. And so on the winding country roads, my son walked about half a mile down. He was nine years old, and he walked to the neighbor’s house. The mom called me when he got there and said, “I can’t believe it.” I said, “What’s the matter?” She said, “No one in Redding lets their children walk on the roads.” I’m like, “Oh, why not?” She said, “Because it’s dangerous.” I said, “Of course, it’s dangerous. It’s very different. I had to actually teach my children how to walk on these roads, because they’re not sidewalks.” And the idea behind that is that we want to teach our children to handle the risks. So, just like you said, discerning between what’s safe and not safe, and then also being able to learn to handle the risks, because then you end up feeling, “Wow, look at me, I can handle this.” 

Lynn:  Well, then you’ve got a problem solver, right? 

Leslie:  You’ve got a problem solver.

24:09  Lynn:  Then you’ve got a child now that’s…the hard part is that there’s no guarantees. And so remember that anxiety is all about certainty. So if you ask somebody who’s afraid to fly, they’ll say, “Well, they can’t guarantee me…” We say, “Look, it’s so safe to fly, you drive your car, why don’t you fly?” And they say, “Well, they can’t guarantee me 100% that this plane won’t crash. So I’m not doing it.” 

You made reference to the socially anxious teenager. We try and say to teenagers, we try and say to socially anxious kids, “People aren’t judging you.” Well, yeah, they are. We’re incredibly judgy I say when I’m when I’m in front of audiences all the time. I say to parents all the time, “We judge and we lie every single day. Every single day, you judge people, and you lie. And sometimes you lie just to spare somebody’s feelings. Sometimes you lie to get out of something. Sometimes you lie because it’s convenient.” But this idea that we teach socially anxious kids, “Well, you should feel confident and secure and calm stepping in and people aren’t judging you.” Yes, they are. The skill is to be able to tolerate judgment. The skill is to be able to tolerate uncertainty, to tolerate not knowing. And human beings, just as a general rule, are not so keen on that. 

25:33  Leslie:  I love the reinforcement of tolerating that discomfort. I have a little line that I love to use, and actually came from my daughter, raising my daughter: Learning to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. We’re not getting rid of the uncomfortable situation. We’re going to learn to be comfortable, even though that feels very, you know, and as a dialectic behavior therapist, that’s true dialectic, which is putting two opposites together. And why not? That’s what we need to do.

26:04  Lynn:  Right. The question, probably, that I get asked so often, when I’m at schools, or when I’m talking to parents, somebody will raise their hand and they’ll say, “What do I do when my kid is freaking out?” Or, “How do I calm this student down?” And I say, “Well, that’s actually not very hard.” Once they’re there, you basically just wait, right? Or you take them for a walk? Or you have them breathe. I mean, that’s not very sophisticated. The much more interesting question for me is: how does this kid continue to freak himself out? 

How do you freak yourself out? That’s the interesting thing to me. So when you feel uncomfortable, when you walk into a room of people you don’t know, when you realize that you’re caught in traffic, and you’re going to be late for your appointment—all of the things that happen in life—how does that go from, “Ugh, this is not good,” to, “This is an emergency, this is a freak out.” Anxious people, anxious kids, anxious families, are very, very good at freaking themselves out, and then working very hard to not freak themselves out. So when you say the ability to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, the ability to tolerate distress, how does this keep getting promoted to an emergency, when it’s not? 

That’s the basis of this disorder. It’s just the basis of how we interact with uncertainty. Think of the jobs that people have, where they’re handling difficult things. We don’t want them to promote things to an emergency that aren’t an emergency. If you’re on a plane, and there’s a lot of turbulence, we don’t want the flight attendants to start freaking out. But the person next to you who’s freaking out, they’ve promoted turbulence to an emergency. So we can see how often that influences the way that people respond in life. And if as a parent, you are a emergent responder, if you tend to react, if you tend to freak out, you are undeniably teaching your kids how to do it. 

28:31  Leslie:  Absolutely. And so you go back to this idea of teaching parents, so if they come to therapy, you’re working with the parents and the child, the family. And the same in schools—you’re working with this school staff, not just the child, but the environment.

28:51  Lynn:  Correct. So usually, when I’m working with schools, they have me come in to do a training, usually with their school counselors, often the school nurses, oftentimes with teachers, too, so that they can just get information about this thing. Because what schools do, very consistently, is accommodate the anxiety. Because the language of accommodation is so, so pervasive in schools. 

And accommodation for a lot of things is really, really important. So, if you’re dyslexic, if you have ADHD, if you have type one diabetes, if you’re deaf, if you’re blind, if you have cerebral palsy, if you’re on the spectrum—a gazillion things we want to accommodate. But the problem is we took the accommodation model, and we plopped it on top of anxiety disorders, with apparently not talking to the people who know how to treat anxiety disorders, because that makes the problem worse. 

So we need a different approach to it. And oftentimes, I don’t see a different approach. And people who are trying to do the best they can—people who are trying to get through the day, parents that are trying to get their kids to school—are unfortunately doing the very things that make this thing more powerful. 

30:09  Leslie:  So you’ve mentioned a number of things. Is there anything that you would want parents to take away from this conversation? OYou’re a wealth of information.

30:23  Lynn:  Well, you’ve heard me say repeatedly that parents have a big impact. So remember that there is a positive impact, too. I would say the hardest people for me to work with, in my practice, the hardest parents for me to work with are the ones that won’t own their own stuff. They’re denying, they’re saying…those are really hard for me to work with. It’s really okay if there has been a generational pattern of anxiety in the family, it’s really okay for kids to learn about that. It’s really okay for you to say, as a parent, “Oh, my gosh, I’m going to pull my worry out, and I’m going to name it, ‘Maria.’ And when ‘Maria’ shows up, everybody, let me know because I really don’t want ‘Maria’ to be in charge of this family.” So, I want parents to be open about it. 

I also want parents to know that they don’t have to be perfect with this, it’s okay to screw it up. It’s okay to say, “Oh, God, we really were accommodating that. And then just talk to your family about it. You need a strategy that, when the worry shows up, that everybody is able to tolerate that there’s going to be a level of distress. There’s actually a research term, parental experiential avoidance. And what that means is parents being unable to tolerate their distress or their kids’ distress. So you got to work on that. 

The other thing, too, that I think is really important for people to know, is that therapy for your child that has anxiety should be therapy for everybody. I say this all the time, if you made me choose, if you said, “Lynn, you can either see the kid or the parent, you got to pick one.” Ninety five percent of the time, we’re going to pick the parent. It is really important for parents to be involved. And when I meet parents—I do a lot of talks—and they come up and they say, “My son has been in therapy, and he’s seven,” or he’s twelve. And I say, “Well, what are the goals?” “Oh, I don’t know.” “Well, what does the therapist tell you that you’re supposed to work on?” “Oh, well, we’re not allowed to go into the room” “Well, what are the homework assignments that you’re doing as a family, that you’re practicing between sessions?” “Oh, I guess we haven’t gotten to that part of the therapy yet.” I’m telling you…

Parents, I want to give you permission, as you’re listening to this, to be assertive, and to say to somebody that you’re working with: One—do you know how to treat anxiety disorders? And also, it’s okay for you to say to the people that you’re working with, “We need to practice between sessions—what should we do?” f you were taking your kid for clarinet lessons, and the instructor said, “I don’t want him to touch the clarinet between our lessons, no practicing on the clarinet,” you’d be like, “I don’t think that’s going to work.” But that happens a lot. 

So we have to get out of these outmoded ways of thinking, in my opinion, which is that the goal is to eliminate the feelings. I think we spend far too much time talking about distraction and breathing. I am all for breathing, one hundred percent  in favor of breathing. But if your kid has been in therapy for two years, and I say to them, “What have you learned in therapy about managing worry?” And they say, “Distraction and breathing,” I don’t know what you’re paying for, people. There’s got to be a plan, an active plan, that has you step in and manage worry. And if you’re not getting that, ask. Ask–that’s what I want parents to hear.

34:21  Leslie:  That’s so practical, but so effective. It’s not just, “Okay, here’s a little trick, if you try this it’ll work maybe once or twice,” it’s what works. It’s what we know works and is effective for reducing anxiety. And I want to reinforce that idea that: let’s go to the research and say avoidance begets avoidance. Like you said, we get more of it. And the anxiety actually increases. The anxiety has to get a little more clever. We avoided, great—it’ll do whatever it needs to do to get you to avoid more. So we’re really looking for: What are those skills that are effective that are going to make a difference? 

Wow, you said such beautiful things, I want to look at one thing you said, which was that generational anxiety where…we really are seeing a lot of, you know, it makes sense. It’s biological, we’re passing it down. Plus, there’s more environmental stressors on us. So that makes sense. So, in terms of the talking about it, like you said, bring it up. There are few things that feel taboo. And obviously, we’ve got sex and drugs and money and all these other things that seemed to be very important in order to be an adult. Anxiety is one of those, you’re not going to avoid it, whether you have an anxiety disorder, or you’re just a human being…

35:51  Lynn:  …you just want to go to college, you just want to go get your driver’s license, you just want to go for an interview for a job at the supermarket…

35:58  Leslie:  …anxiety is showing up. Anxiety is going to show up. It’s a part of us. And so when that happens, do we actually know and have talked about it with this kind of matter-of-fact, “Let’s look at it. Let’s not be afraid of it.” It breaks my heart when parents say, “You can’t use the word anxiety.”

36:19  Lynn:  Oh, I hear that. Yeah. “You can treat my child for anxiety, but you can’t use the word, anxiety.” I say, “Okay, so the next time you go to your dentist, I want you to walk in and tell the dentist he can’t use the word tooth. Like, that’s off limits. No saying tooth.” It’s just silly. 

36:36  Leslie:  Well, it tells us that there’s so much anxiety over the word, anxiety. Again, this is not an emergency we want to neutralize. Not say it’s insignificant—we’re not dismissing the impact, the discomfort, the true discomfort that each and every one of us feels with anxiety. But it’s not just about making it this horrible thing and, instead, welcoming it into the conversation, like you said.

37:09  Lynn:  The thing too, that we know—and there’s some interesting research about this—is that we know that genetics can bump it up. We know about temperament. But there’s some very good research that shows that when we’re talking about the transmission of anxiety and depression in families, that modeling has a huge, huge impact. And we can’t separate the nurture and the nature. 

But we can interrupt the passage on of the patterns. And so one of the things that is really important that parents hear is that the more you talk about this as biology, the less likely that it’s going to get better. So over and over and over again, the approach, particularly to depression—and unfortunately, anxiety is a feeder school into depression—the approach of trying to de-stigmatize things by talking about their biology, is having the exact opposite effect. It is not decreasing stigma. And it’s making people more passive in doing what they need to do, which makes perfect sense. 

If somebody says, “Well, it’s your genes, there’s nothing you can do,” then why are you going to do anything? Both anxiety and depression are disorders of passivity. They love you to do nothing. So any language that we know, any approaches that we use that actually increase passivity, we’ve got to target those and go against those. This is about retraining the brain. And we do it with action, not with, “Oh well, this is what my family does.” That’s not a good approach.

38:53  Leslie:  Right. Right, right. Well, I think, even though I don’t want to end the conversation, I think this is a great place to wrap up. Can you tell people where to find you? 

39:05  Lynn:  Sure. So my website is just—just my name. The podcast that I do is called Flusterclux, with an x. So I do that. My co-host is my sister-in-law, she’s married to my brother. We started it in April of 2020, right when the pandemic started. We were thinking about it, and we were, like, “Alright, let’s go.” And she figured all that stuff out. I have a few books. I’ve written four books, but the two that are probably most relevant, Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents, I wrote with my pal, Reid Wilson. That’s for parents to help them interrupt these patterns. And then I wrote a book about a year and a half ago, my latest book is called, The Anxiety Audit. And that’s for adults and for teenagers. And it really looks at how these patterns…you know, what I’m asking, that question, how do you freak yourself out? That’s the question that this book answers. What are the patterns that you engage in that keep you anxious, that keep you isolated, that keep you stuck in your way of thinking? So, yeah, that’s where you can find me. 

40:01  Leslie:  Beautiful. I was going to ask you: Any last thoughts to share with our listeners? But you might have just shared it with that last thought about freaking out, right?

40:12  Lynn:  [Laughter] Yeah, yeah. And that the brain learns: the more you freak it out the more it freaks out, the more you step in, the more you step in. So you’ve got to take a pretty aggressive approach to this even though it feels counterintuitive.

40:28  Leslie:  Absolutely. Okay, keep doing what you’re doing, Lynn. And I appreciate so much that you joined us today. Thank you. 

40:38  Lynn:  Thanks for having me.

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

40:48  Leslie Cohen-Rubury:  I just want to thank Lynn again for joining me. And I want to add that this is an episode that I know I will certainly be listening to over and over again. It’s got such practical and helpful information. And it’s so exciting for me to get to sit down and talk with another anxiety expert. There’s plenty that I know that I learned from her today. You can find links to her work in the show notes. 

Join us next week for my first session with Emma, a mom of four in a blended family. Emma is concerned that her seven-year-old is manipulating her; and we unpack that word and explore how Emma’s past experiences are influencing the way she interprets her child’s communication style. 

Subscribe to Is My Child A Monster? wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss an episode. And if you like what you hear, tell a friend. You can find a full transcript of this episode or sign up for my newsletter at The Is My Child A Monster? team is Alletta Cooper, AJ Moultrié, Camila Salazar, and me. Special thanks to Eric Rubury. Our theme music is by L-Ray Music.  I’m Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Thanks so much for listening. And this week, remember Lynn Lyons’ three ex’s of anxiety. We need to expect, it externalize, it, and experiment with it.

Transcribed by edited by Eric Rubury

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