How to Parent the Girl Who is Wired to Worry

By age 15, girls are six times more likely to have an anxiety disorder than boys. How do you recognize it? How can you help?

She sat across from me focusing on her fingernails, almost obsessively picking at the same one the entire time. Her eye contact was minimal as the intrusive thoughts streaming through her head seemed to steal every ounce of energy she had left. Her body was trembling and her breathing labored. Fear, I’m sure, was all she was feeling in that moment.

When I asked her why she was so scared to get on the plane to go visit her dad, she looked at me quizzically and whispered, “Don’t you know why I’m so scared? What if it crashes? What if we land in the water and they can’t get the door open to let us out? I am just so tired, but I can’t sleep. I have been up every night this week researching the best seat to have on the plane in the event of an emergency, and no matter which way you look at it, I could die.”

As soon as those words left her mouth, she began to hyperventilate. While I recognized what was going on, she had no idea that she was experiencing her first anxiety attack.

In my role as a secondary school counselor, I’ve noticed a trend in the last 10+ years that makes me wonder if we’re facing an epidemic. Girls are reporting symptoms of anxiety in increasing numbers. The symptoms are showing up younger and younger and, with nearly three quarters of afflicted adults developing symptoms by age 22, the amount of female students I see that are struggling and living with anxiety seems to have increased twofold.

We’re surrounded by people living with anxiety disorders, yet our understanding of this complex mental health issue is still very immature. When I think about the severity of this disorder and the statistics overall, I’m frightened for the families who live with anxiety and continue to be shamed as they seek a diagnosis and attempt to get help.

An interview conducted by Parents Magazine with Dr. Harold Koplewicz (CEO of the Child Mind Institute) states that “17.1 million children in this nation suffer from a serious mental health disorder, and anxiety disorders make up the biggest percentage (31) of that number.”

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety impacts over 40 million people in the U.S. alone and women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and panic disorder. For those of us with daughters, we have even more reason to be concerned. Experts are learning that women may be wired to worry.

Research confirms that women are significantly more inclined toward negative emotion, self-criticism, and endless rumination about problems. Many experts have reported that until age 11, girls and boys are equally likely to develop an anxiety disorder. By age 15, however, girls are six times more likely to have one than are boys.

Even more troublesome is the fact that anxiety is actually under diagnosed among women. Robert Leahy, Ph.D., a clinical professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, reports that the “average length of time between the onset of symptoms – the time a woman starts to feel bad – and when she gets actual diagnosis is between nine and 12 years. And of those who are diagnosed, only a very small percentage get adequate help.”

Experts are learning that women may be wired to worry more than men. Research from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia suggests that the female brain may be more sensitive to stress hormones and less able to adapt to high levels of them. Females also have a well-known propensity to ruminate and let problems roll around in our heads. All of this leaves me with one thought: have we created the perfect storm for our daughters, nieces, sisters, and students?

When I think about my own struggles with anxiety and how it took over three decades to finally seek help, I have to wonder if women wait so long because we feel like this is a normal way to operate in life. I’ve lived the anxious life of anxiety for so long – overestimating the risk of danger and underestimating my ability to cope with the fear – that I’m not sure if I even know how to look at a situation without “what if” being my filter.

I find myself thinking a lot about that 16-year-old girl who sat in my office so many years ago. I wonder where she is in that nine- to 12-year cycle that Leahy describes. Did she continue to seek help after she graduated from high school or did she cease treatment like so many women do?Has her life continued to be defined by “what if?”

Female shadow on a wall in a square of light

How to recognize anxiety in children.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. One might feel anxious when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or making an important decision. But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. The feelings can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships.

The type of anxiety a parent may see is typically tied to a child’s developmental level. The most common forms of anxiety experienced by children and teens are:

  • generalized anxiety disorder
  • separation anxiety disorder
  • social anxiety disorder
  • panic disorder.

Separation anxiety is the most prevalent in preschool or early grade school and social anxiety tends to show up around puberty.

There are many risk factors that might make a child or teenager more susceptible to experiencing anxiety. Some of the most common risks include:

  • genetic factors — family history or mental health problems (specifically anxiety)
  • environmental factors, such as chronic stress or a very stressful event in a child’s life
  • ongoing physical illness and personality factors
  • precocious puberty (showing significant signs of puberty before age seven).

Anxiety can be considered a serious issue in a child’s life when it begins to interfere with daily activity. Some of the more common things to look for in your child or teenager are:

  • being afraid when there is no imminent danger
  • physical symptoms like racing heart, headache, stomach aches/nausea, and tense/sore muscles
  • displaying constant agitation, restlessness, and worry that seems out of control
  • catastrophic thinking and a decision-making process that is based in fear
  • beginning many thoughts and questions with “what if”
  • avoiding new situations because of new challenges
  • having trouble starting or completing school work (can look like perfectionistic tendencies)
  • sleep problems including difficulty falling and staying asleep
  • compulsive behaviors (need to do a particular action or something over and over again).

Many parents are unsure of how to best support their child who is struggling with anxiety. In an attempt to alleviate their discomfort, many are consequently adding to it. No parent wants to see their child suffer and it’s a natural instinct to protect and do whatever we can to make things better. While this is not always a bad thing, when it comes to anxiety, it can be detrimental.

So what can we do?

All of this research and information leaves many parents wondering what they do at home to help. Here are some helpful tips and strategies for parents with an anxious child:

1 | Teach basic mindfulness and breathing exercises.

Guiding children through deep breathing (in through the nose, out through the mouth) while relaxing all the parts of their body can provide instant relief for many kids. Often times, repeating this pattern of breath until their heart rate slows down and their thoughts are off of what is causing them anxiety is all they need.

2 | Help them manage transitions.

Going from one activity to the next without a plan can be difficult for some young children with anxiety. Developing routines and structure can help your child manage the stress and anxiety that can come from unpredictable transitions.

3 | Focus on the positive by asking your child to share one thing that went right during their day.

Ask them to identify how it felt when they experienced success and build on that feeling when discussing situations that make them anxious.

4 | Encourage your child to face their fears.

Sometimes parents help their children avoid these situations because they’re worried it’s too much for them to handle. In fact, they really need to help them face these fears to reduce their anxiety, according to Amy Przeworski Ph.D. “Avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations maintains the anxiety. Instead, if a child faces his or her fears, the child will learn that the anxiety reduces naturally on its own over time. The body cannot remain anxious for a very long period of time so there is a system in the body that calms the body down. Usually your anxiety will reduce within 20-45 minutes if you stay in the anxiety-provoking situation.”

5 | Remind your child that being imperfect is better than okay.

No one is perfect. No. One.

6 | Make sure they have time to relax in their day.

Including activities that they enjoy can help reduce stress.

7 | Model calmness, self-care, and courage by facing anxiety-provoking situations.

Children learn from us and they will do what we do. Parents (especially those who have anxiety) must practice self-care and approach situations that cause anxiety. By facing our fears instead of avoiding them, we show our children that they do not need to fear situations that are safe. The more we can face situations that cause us anxiety, the more likely they are to not avoid them.

8 | Teach your child that she is not her anxiety.

Professionals who practice Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have come up with a clever way to teach kids how to distance themselves from their anxiety. A method used by psychologist Jerry Bubrick is gaining attention as kids are finally feeling like they have some power over their anxiety. He teaches kids to distance themselves from the anxiety by having them conceptualize it as a bully in the brain. He encourages children to give the bully a name and talk back to it. He explains that he is going to teach skills to handle the bully, giving children the idea that they can control their anxiety rather than letting it control them.

photography of a butterfly shape cut into a white sheet of paper.

Anxiety is a normal part of childhood, and every child goes through phases involving worry, anxiety, and fear. But sometimes this anxiety crosses the line from normal everyday worries to a disorder that gets in the way of the things they enjoy and also begins to limit the things they need to do. When those phases stop being temporary and start being more permanent, it may be time to seek help.

Above all, we need to be available to listen to our children when they want to talk about what is bothering them. Being empathetic and letting your child know that anxiety is scary and that they are not alone, is one of the first steps in teaching them how to manage their thoughts and feelings. There is no cure for anxiety, but with a lot of support, encouragement, and education, kids can learn the proper strategies to help them cope with the anxieties they face in life.

   

Why I Celebrate My Daughter’s Defiant Streak

It’s not always going to be easy raising a defiant daughter- this girl who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to get it. But it’s going to pay off.

When I was pregnant with my first child, although I was single and scared out of my mind, I imagined that motherhood would be the blissful, easygoing experience I’d always dreamed of having.


I’d helped my two sisters who had also been single moms by babysitting their children since I was 12, helped one of my best friends through her two kids, and worked in childcare for years, so I thought I knew what to expect.

I had no idea what I was in for.

I repeat: I had NO IDEA what I was in for.

When my daughter was born in 2012, she was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. She was perfect. She was an angel that heaven had dropped down to Earth, and I was lucky enough to be chosen to be her mom.

But as she grew older, I realized I had given birth to a “defiant” child. “Defiant,” to most people, is almost synonymous with “little devil child.”

My “little devil child” was adventurous beyond belief. She had me chasing her around everywhere, praying I’d catch her before she ruined whatever it was I was working to clean up, write up, or cook up.

She ran out into the street. She would never stop talking. She climbed on anything and everything. She broke a table once, by climbing and jumping on it. She got into EVERYTHING imaginable, and had no fear whatsoever. Ice? No problem. Huge puddles? Fun! Kids biting her at daycare? She bit back!

I had a child who defied the expectations I had about the “mellow, good baby” and sank those expectations right in the toilet, along with the entire roll of toilet paper.

I always loved my child. From the minute I found out I was pregnant, I was filled with an intense and overpowering love for my baby. But as parents we’re often left vulnerable to well-meaning friends, family, and even strangers, telling us what we’re doing wrong and what we should do instead. Motherhood sometimes became unbearable because of all the judgment I faced, even before my child was born. Among all the messages that I’d gotten from society about how babies are “supposed” to enter the world, and how their lives are “supposed” to go, I felt like a colossal failure for being single, financially insecure, and floundering career-wise.

I felt like I was supposed to be miserable that I’d given birth to this defiant child who never let me sleep, or somehow was holding me back from having the career I once aspired to have as a dancer, and at first, I internalized the messages. It led to a lot of depression and struggle for me.

But I also secretly relished having this defiant child in my life, not only because she was a beautiful being, but because her defiant nature let me make peace with my own.

When I was a child, I was bullied, made fun of, and called names for being “weird,” for holding opinions that were different from the opinions of those around me. Because of that, I learned to keep my opinions to myself and allowed myself to shrink so I wouldn’t attract attention from those who were threatened by my ideas.

I was never satisfied with the status quo. I wanted to defy convention, to defy the rules of society, and to live authentically, true to who I felt I really was. But I didn’t have the courage.  My parents raised me to be quiet, compliant, and do what was expected of me.

My defiant daughter has taught me to love the person inside me who wasn’t acknowledged or appreciated when I was younger. She taught me to make peace with why I wasn’t acknowledged or appreciated as a child for being exactly who I was. She also taught me the value of letting my own rule-questioning nature shine.

I love the fact that my daughter is so fearless, so courageous. So defiant! I love that she is stubborn and insists on things the way she wants them to be, and refuses to be prim and proper when it doesn’t feel right to her. I love that she knows what she wants, and isn’t afraid to say so.

You see, in order to really change the world, to really shift the status quo, we must be defiant. We must go against the grain. We must be creators of change, defy the boundaries and constrictions of society, if we are to achieve a world where equality and community matters.

I remember that famous quote, “Well-behaved women rarely make history,” and I think to myself, YES! Let my daughter be defiant, to lead the way to progress.

Susan B. Anthony was defiant.

Rosa Parks was defiant.

Harriet Tubman was defiant.

While I don’t expect my daughter to go down in history, I do want her to continue to be who she is – authentically – and to blaze her own trail, despite what society may demand of her.

What Does it Mean to Want a Girl? 

As I puzzled over my desire for a girl, my husband wondered why I was stressing when we had no control over the outcome anyway.

I’ve always wanted to be a mother.

When I was a little girl I’d line up my dolls and stuffed animals like children and sing for them as I cooked or cleaned or changed their clothes. As a teenager I began dating my now-husband and, wise beyond my years, I made sure he wanted babies too, before we got too serious.

When I envisioned my future family, as I often did, I always saw a pile of kids – four or five at least, wrestling in a big green yard or sipping lemonade on a wide front porch. My children would be well behaved and smart and funny. And they would all be girls. I didn’t have anything against little boys, I just never imagined them as a part of my life.

So when I became pregnant with my first child, I spent the first 16 weeks imagining finally meeting one of my daughters and watching her play, learn and grow into the strong, world-changing woman I knew she would be. And then we had our anatomy scan and I learned I would be having a boy and, surprisingly, I felt nothing but joy.

Since his birth my son has brought a depth into my life I didn’t imagine before he existed. He’s adventurous and sweet and affectionate and, having now spent countless hours in mommy and me classes and at the park observing other families, I’m confident that his boyness has far less to do with his personality than his natural inclinations or the way we’re raising him.

I’ve made a conscious effort over the past two and a half years to check myself on how I parent him, I want to be sure that I’m raising him free to be himself, whoever that might turn out to be. And, while his sex will impact the way the world interacts with him, I hope he never feels either boxed in or entitled because of his anatomy.

My little guy has done a lot of growing since he came into the world and, this winter, he’ll be growing again, this time into the role of big brother. His little brother or sister is due exactly a month before he turns three and, to help him get acclimated to the idea, we’ve been reading a lot about babies and talking about how life will be different and he’s been rocking and diapering his dolls diligently.

During the months my husband and I wanted to be pregnant, but weren’t yet, we talked a lot about what life would be like as a family of four. Would it be chaotic or calm? Loud or relaxed? Would we feel like we’d made a good choice or be in totally over our heads? We looked forward to a new baby with the same excitement we’d had as we looked forward to my son. The only difference was that this time, instead of longing deeply for a girl I felt totally at ease with being surprised- I knew now, after having my son, that having a boy or girl was far less than important that have a baby with a big, wonderful, unique personality.

I was surprised then that one of my first thoughts after the double lines appeared was, “I hope it’s a girl.” My desire for a little girl was, apparently, alive and well. By the end of the week, I’ll know whether the baby I’m carrying is a girl or boy, but the wait to find out hasn’t been nearly as maddening as my own self- analysis regarding my desire for a little girl.

I know, both academically and from experience, that gender is fluid and that their biological sex determines almost nothing about who a baby will become. But still, I want a girl. Is it because of the clothes? Or the interests I presume she’ll have? Or the fact that I want to be able to share my experiences with someone whose body matches my own?

Though baby girl clothes are so cute that, daughter-less, I can hardly pass them by without taking a peak at Target, I don’t think it’s the clothes that drive me towards wanting a girl. I’ve always dressed my son neutrally and without fuss and I’m sure I’d dress a daughter the same. In fact, with a due date so close to my son’s birthday this baby will undoubtedly be wearing my boys clothes, no matter what happens to be under their diaper.

I’ve wondered if my desire stems from wanting a child with traditionally “girls” interests as many presume a daughter would have, but I don’t think that’s it either. My son loves care-play and has quite a collection of dolls. He also enjoys cooking in his kitchen and likes to sit and color if given the right supplies.

A daughter might like these things, or she might not, but, either way I’ve never cared what I’m playing with my son as long as he’s having fun. As my kids grow up, I’m sure that how they like to spend their time will evolve but, son or daughter, their interests will only overlap with mine as much as they happen to.

Though due to social and societal conditioning, it’s probably more likely that a daughter would go get her nails done with me  that a son would, I’m really not that into going to the salon and would much rather spend the day hiking.

As I puzzled over why I seemed to want a girl a friend suggested that perhaps I’m subconsciously drawn to wanting to raise a child who will share the experience of womanhood, at least physically, with me.

And perhaps there’s some truth to that. I do look forward to helping my girl love her body and herself and teaching her how to be strong, but that in itself seems like a silly reason for a preference, and, honestly, I want all those things for my son as well. We already talk about loving and respecting our bodies and the bodies or others and I feel proud of how much he already seems to understand his and others physical autonomy.

After much digging, I think the answer for my desire is simple – I want to recreate the family I grew up in. I grew up with both a brother and a sister and feel, deeply, that having them for siblings shaped me into who I am today. We’re all still very close, and very close with my parents and so, I think, I want to make a family that looks like mine did so it will turn out like mine is- loving and happy and bonded. I also want my son to have a sister and my daughter to have a brother- I got to have both and benefited deeply so it’s my hope that my children will too.

As I puzzled over my desire for a girl and what might be driving it, my husband wondered out loud why I was stressing so much over the self-analysis when we had no control over the outcome anyway. It’s true, I have no say in whether I’m having a boy or girl, but I still wanted to know why I felt the way I did- an over-reliance on gender stereotypes? A feminist failing? No, I think just a desire to have a happy family and a subconscious idea what that looks like.

When we find later this week whether my baby-to-be is a boy or girl I’m sure I’ll be overjoyed either way. Maybe my picture of a happy family will stay the same, or maybe it will change. In time though, my child will be born, loved and safe and healthy, and I’ll be grateful for whatever life has in store.

Girls Play Baseball: Lessons From Youtube

Girls can't play baseball? Hold it right there, grasshopper.
Girls can’t play baseball? Hold it right there, grasshopper.

 

A few days after Christmas, we slowly started relocating the gifts that remained under the tree to their proper resting places. Among the clothes, forsaken for noisier more exciting things, lay the baseball and glove given to my three year old daughter by her uncle. She had unwrapped it and accepted it graciously, if not enthusiastically, yet hadn’t touched it since.

“I don’t want this, Mama.”, she declared as she plopped it into my hands.

“Why not? Uncle Paul gave it to you. He’s the best.”

“I don’t want to play baseball. Girls don’t play baseball.”, she offered, matter-of-factly.

Here’s the thing. I don’t care how my kids suss out gender “norms”. It seems perfectly natural that there comes a point in each child’s life, when they begin to make delineations between themselves and the rest of the world. Having just started to wrap a rapidly developing brain around the fact that they are an individual, a being completely separate of their parents, there’s comfort in compartmentalizing what they observe. I just don’t want them to get lost in absolutes.

Without even bothering to argue, I ushered her over to the kitchen table.

“Come with me. Sit on my lap.”

As I sat the glove down alongside my computer, I pulled her up and typed “Mo’ne Davis” into youtube.

She watched quietly as the powerhouse of a teenage girl disproved that theory faster than the ball could fly.

After watching a few more, per her request, I asked, “So, do you still think girls don’t play baseball?”

“No. But I still don’t want to play it.”

That’s fine, little girl. So long as you know you can. I can live with that. And may your stubbornness serve you well.

Have you ever used Youtube to teach your kid a lesson? Any favorites that lay down the law?