How to Help an Anxious Child Who Obsesses About Time
I watch my seven-year-old son wring his hands. “But I am not going to have enough time!” He cries. He just got home from school. “Time for what?” I ask. “Time to play outside. Time to play on my tablet. Time to eat a snack…” He rambles on. He has four hours until bedtime. He has nowhere to be and a five-minute worksheet to complete. His worry is irrational. He constantly obsesses about time. And he is not alone, anxious kids pour into my office week after week complaining about the same thing – time.
Time can be a big anxiety theme. As parents, this can be baffling. “What’s the big deal?” You might wonder. They don’t have to juggle work and home responsibilities. Some kids just go to school, do homework and relax. But for some anxious kids, just the very idea of time is stressful.
As we drive down the highway on a relaxing Sunday my son asks from the backseat, “How long will it take us to get home?”
“I don’t know, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes,” I reply.
“Is it fifteen or twenty.” He demands.
“I am not sure,” I reply.
His anxiety revs up as the questioning continue. He won’t stop. He will be relentless. He will insist on knowing how long it will take, even when we tell him we don’t know. Even when we tell him it doesn’t matter. We will eventually get frustrated and throw out a number.
“We will be home in ten minutes!” We’ll spit out.
Silence. But, just a brief reprieve.
“We have eight more minutes to get home.” He nervously says.
It is hard to not get frustrated with conversations like these. I have learned that I cannot say, “Give me a minute.” As I don’t want to have a dialogue about whether I mean sixty seconds or if I am not being literal. Yes, we have had a long discussion on what “literal” means.
Anxious kids don’t deal well with ambiguities. Some like to prepare and plan for every minute of the day. Often this is happening inside their little minds and we, as parents, are clueless. Sometimes we are given a small peek into their world, especially when we are flooded with time-related questions.
How often have you had to deal with questions like:
How long will we be there?
When will we go back home?
How much time do I have?
When are we leaving?
I wish this was a stage. I wish this was something kids grew out of as they got older. But I am not naïve. I work with my son’s counterparts in my practice. From toddlers to teens, they fixate and obsess about time. “What are we doing next?” The anxious toddler wants to know. “When will I get to relax and watch YouTube?” The teen laments. Worries about time have nothing to do with age.
So, how as parents are we supposed to help an anxious child who obsesses about time?
Here are some tips straight from the trenches:
Let your child know what is happening next.
Some anxious kids struggle with time because they want to prepare. Anxious kids tend to be preparers. And frankly, there is nothing wrong with that (said the anxious adult planner)! You can alleviate some of your child’s anxiety by getting into the habit of stating what will be happening.
I have a huge calendar in my kitchen that has all activities and events for the month on it. I see my son standing in front of it quite often. He also asked for his own calendar in his room. I watch as he marks off each day as he goes to bed.
This structure and routine reduces his anxiety. It lets him know what is coming and how to prepare. Many anxious kids don’t like surprises and they do much better when they are able to mentally prepare for what is coming in the days and weeks ahead. Sudden changes, even when they are good changes, can throw an anxious kid into a tailspin.
If your kids learn how to manage their time by using a calendar or planner, they will have the tools to reduce their own anxiety level.
When your child worries about time, re-frame their irrational thinking.
Anxious kids can have a skewed view of how much time they have available to them. Teens will tell me that they have so much work. They will spend tons of time worrying about how to get it all done, but ironically won’t even get started.
Often I will have them write out what they need to do. We will also assign how much time each task will take. When teens write down everything they have to do and how long it will take, they see that they actually have more time than they initially thought.
We will also use a large planner to break out their assignments into bite size pieces throughout the week. If they have to read a book, they can read one chapter a night. When it is reframed in that way, it doesn’t seem as overwhelming anymore.
For my son, I explained to him that he has nothing BUT time. He anguished over the fact that he won’t be able to do every fun thing he wants to do in his head. I suggested that he pick one for each day and that way he wouldn’t feel rushed or disappointed. He developed a new love for backyard archery. I suggested that he does that maybe Monday and Tuesday. He talked about how his teen sister is finally showing him how to play Roblox on the computer. I suggested that they do that on Wednesdays. As I broke down each day for him, his face began to relax. As I teach him these mental skills, he will be able to do this for himself one day.
Setting time limits can ironically help kids who worry about time.
Many anxious kids worry about how much time they will have on their electronics. Anxious kids have a tendency to fixate far more often than your typical kid and video games are the ultimate nemeses. “How long will I have to play my video games?!” Anxious kids wonder. This can impact absolutely everything else. “How long will homework take? Will it take my free time away?” This fixation can cause irritability, anger and huge meltdowns.
For some kids, this stress is too much. Take my little munchkin. He would cry if I woke him up too late and he only had an hour to get ready for school. “It takes you ten minutes to get ready in the morning.” I would explain. “But, I want to go on my tablet.” Evenings weren’t much better. He would get upset when he had to do anything other than stare at that screen. Getting him to do homework was a challenge, getting him to come to the table for dinner was a nightmare and telling him it was time for bed was not for the faint hearted.
This week I finally said to him, “This isn’t working out for you. You are stressed all the time.” And then I did the worst thing a mom could possibly do – I set limits. I told him that there would be no more electronics in the morning. I told him he would get one hour after school and then it gets put away. I explained that I loved him and that I didn’t want him to feel so stressed and overwhelmed all the time. And then he turned to me and gave me a hug and said, “Gee mom, thanks. I love you too.”No, just kidding! His head started to spin like Linda Blair in the Exorcist and horns came out of his head. He raged. He screamed. He called me names. I remained calm and told him that this was to help him.
He negotiated. He asked if he could watch his tablet during breakfast. To give him some feeling of control, I agreed. But told him that he would have to be completely dressed and ready for school before that could happen. I also let him know that if it made him more stressed we would revisit this new plan.
This morning I awoke to a dressed and happy little boy. The morning went smoothly and he had more than an hour to relax and “eat his breakfast.” He also seemed to accept his limited screen time in the afternoons. He talked about doing art and playing outside when he got home.
Sometimes we need to save our anxious kids from themselves. Setting limits and time restrictions can help an obsessive child establish new boundaries and limits. Don’t hold your breath for a thank you anytime soon, but you will be repaid in fewer tantrums and hostility (eventually).
Hang in there.
We are all just trying to get through this one day at a time. If you have a child who worries about time, it isn’t going to change anytime soon (see what I did there). But, it doesn’t mean you can’t give them the skills to organize their life, plan out their responsibilities and set limits and boundaries (even if it is forced at first).
How about you?
Do you have a child that worries about time? How do you handle it at home? Do you know someone who could benefit from this topic? Share this article with them.
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