When children are afraid or obsessed with a horrible thought you might think that the best way to help them is to teach them to get their mind “off of it.” Not only is this not effective, it can actually make anxiety and OCD worse. ERP for OCD and anxiety, also known as Exposure and Response Prevention is a counterintuitive therapy that has some parents running in the opposite direction.
But let me tell you why this wacky approach not only works, but is the gold standard for treatment.
If you are dealing with Child anxiety or OCD there is one lethal weapon you are up against….doubt. Almost everything related to anxiety and OCD comes down to doubt and uncertainty. When you conquer doubt, you conquer anxiety and OCD.
Not sure how to do this with your child? Let me know you how…
Your child is refusing to go to school, but you don’t know why. Your child is up all night in a perpetual state of panic, but nothing seems to calm them down. Your child is tapping things and turning the light switch on and off three times, but you have no idea why. Knowing your child has anxiety or OCD is different from knowing what is behind your child’s anxiety or OCD.
Do you know what is almost worse than having a child with OCD? Seeing your child be surrounded by people who just don’t get OCD. Siblings who tease their brother or sister for their “strange” behavior. Partners who tell your child to “just stop!” Relatives who think they are being helpful when they tell you “they’ll grow out of it.” And teachers who don’t understand how your child can have OCD when they just don’t see it. Explaining OCD to people who just don’t get it can be daunting. OCD can be complicated even for parents to understand.
How many times have you heard people say things like,“you just coddle him too much” or “you just need to be tougher with her!” Some other oldies but goodies are, “She doesn’t act that way for me” and “he’ll grow out of it. Don’t worry.” Sometimes explaining anxiety to people who don’t get it can make your head spin. Trust me, I get it. I have bitten my tongue so many times – I have callouses. What about if those people are your other kids? What if you hear things like, “Why do you treat him like that?” or “If that was me I would totally get in trouble!” How can you explain anxiety to your other children so they can “get” their anxious sibling and maybe even help and not hurt the situation?
On a random sick day, my youngest anxious child loomed in my office as I prepared to record my latest podcast. “What are you doing?” She asked. I told her I’m going to be on the “radio” teaching parents how to help their anxious kids. My six year old’s eyes widen and she said, “Maybe they would like to hear from a kid instead?” I agreed. She pulled up a stool next to me. Her little feed dangling as she spoke in the big microphone. I listened in awe as my daughter talked about her battle with her “worry cloud.” She talked about what helps and what doesn’t. And once again the student was the teacher.
“I had the worst day ever!” My child screams. Thirty minutes ago everything was going well. He had a good day at school and he was excited to go play. While doing homework he shouts “I’m the dumbest kid ever!” Who is this kid and where did my child go? This is a kid who gets straight As. So what is going on? Anxiety. Anxiety doesn’t always look like anxiety. Sometimes it looks like aggression. Sometimes it looks like opposition. And sometimes…it makes a child very negative. So how do you help a child who oozes negative thoughts?
You can try with some of these approaches…
Do you like coffee? I do too. But not every cup of coffee is the same. Starbucks coffee is generally too strong. Dunkin Donuts coffee is liquid heaven. Therapy is the same way. Therapists are like coffee beans…there are a zillion types and not all of them are going to be good. This is especially true if you are looking for a child OCD or Anxiety therapist.
Sarah sits at the back of the room. Her face has gone pale. Her hands are getting clammy. The teacher hands out the test. She feels nauseous, confused. The room starts to spin. She runs out of the room. The teacher stares at the empty seat. What just happened? OCD and Anxiety in school are often an unnoticed or mislabeled issue.
They are the quiet kids who are afraid to raise their hands. The aggressive kids who are feeling cornered and trapped. The perfectionistic kids who never hand in work because it’s not perfect. They are the kids that don’t participate, are frequently absent and know the nurse by her first name.
Your child is erasing and rewriting their homework…again. She is asking you over and over again if her answers sound right. She checks and rechecks that you understand what she is trying to tell you. Is she a perfectionist? Or could it be something more? Your son tightens one shoe and then the other. “No!” He shouts. The left one is not as tight as the right. He unties the shoes and begins again. Tying and tying. Over and over again. Does he have Sensory Processing Disorder or could it be something different? Just Right OCD is often missed. It can look like so many other issues.
So what is Just Right OCD and how do you help kids who have it? Let’s talk…
For some reason as parents we tend to feel this unrealistic weight and responsibility for everything that happens to our children. They got sick? What did we do to not keep them healthy? They got in a fight? Why didn’t we teach them how to solve their problems better? They are struggling in school? Why didn’t we enroll them in pre-school when they were in utero? So, I guess it makes sense that when our kids get anxiety and OCD we throw ourselves under the bus for that as well.
Sadly though, all this self-depreciation not only makes us less effective as a parent, but it hurts our kids with anxiety and OCD as well.
Anxiety is not always visible. It is not always obvious. Sometimes it is silently attacking your child from the inside out. It makes itself cozy in a child’s mind that is already filled with doubt and insecurity. Intrusive thoughts are confusing to kids. They are scary to kids. Heck, they are scary for parents. So how do you help your child deal with them? It is the opposite of what you may think…
Parenting a child with anxiety or OCD can be confusing, overwhelming and lonely. If you have a child struggling with anxiety or OCD, you most likely have read one of Dawn Huebner’s books. Dawn Huebner is an anxiety expert and best selling author of What to Do When You Worry Too Much and What to Do When Your Brain Gets Stuck. Her new book Outsmarting Worry offers kids a wonderfully in-depth approach on how to beat their anxiety and/or OCD. Listen in as I talk to Dawn Huebner about her insights on how to parent kids with anxiety and OCD.
Your child is standing there, white-knuckled and pale as a ghost. “I can’t do it,” they whisper. “I’m scared.” You are about to offer words of encouragement when your partner chimes in. “Stop playing games and just do it!” You feel your stomach drop. You give your partner the death glare, but it has little effect as the tirade continues. “I’m tired of this! Just do it or you are grounded.” You stare at your child, wide-eyed and paralyzed with fear. You have two problems. A child with debilitating anxiety and a partner who doesn’t believe in anxiety disorders. What are you supposed to do with that?!
There were three words that would stop me dead in my tracks as a kid – We. Are. Moving. I didn’t handle change well and unfortunately my parents didn’t handle stability well. It was a bad combination for an anxious kid like me. I also felt silently overwhelmed when our family dog died, when I changed schools, when my parents got divorced and all the life that happened in between. So, how should parents help anxious kids deal with such big life changes? I can tell you what I tell parents in my therapy practice and privately what I wish my own parents would have done as well.