Anxious Parenting Series Week 8: Next Steps and Moving Forward (with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy)

Does Anxiety Ever Really Go Away?

After 8 weeks of talking about anxiety at different ages, you might be feeling a little overwhelmed.

Or, maybe you just gulped down the information and are hungry for more.

But I think one of the tricky things we need to keep in mind about anxiety is that it never really goes away. It’s always there, even if it looks different from pre-school through college. As I say on my homepage, “Whether your pre-schooler has behavioral issues or your highschooler gets caught up in the small stuff…” I could include in that statement:

  • Whether your child has separation anxiety or your college student is a perfectionist

  • Whether your teen has anger management problems or your child gets tummy aches every other day

  • Whether you feel overwhelmed and on edge, or you feel like you’re at the end of your rope parenting a child who gets so overwhelmed so quickly

We’ve had 8 weeks of content because anxiety can look so different from person to person. Here are our other weeks:

  1. The Building Blocks of Anxiety

  2. Managing Your Own Anxiety as a Parent

  3. Parenting Anxious Pre-Schoolers and Elementary Schoolers

  4. Anxiety and Parenting a Child with Anger Management Issues

  5. Perfectionism and Parenting Your High Schooler

  6. Preparing Your High Schooler for College

  7. Out of the Nest: How to Parent Your Anxiety-Driven College Student

  8. Moving Forward and Next Steps: Does Anxiety Ever Really Go Away?

Anxiety doesn’t go away, but it can change.

What first felt overwhelming and out of your control can become manageable. You notice anxiety spikes and what sets them off, and you have a plan to deal with them. Instead of being afraid of anxiety, you accept it - meaning, it has that much less power to impact you.

This is true for adults, and it’s also true for kids and teens.

The more you practice identifying what’s going on, utilizing relaxation strategies, and then figuring out your game plan (rather than trying to jump into solving the problem first, or not recognizing what emotions you’re experiencing underneath the behaviors), the easier it is to make anxiety feel manageable. For everyone.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Anxiety

Acceptance and Commitment therapy, a type of therapy I use for anxiety in my practice, focuses on accepting the thoughts that come up for you rather than trying to fit with them. Rather than labeling a thought as bad or good, it just is.

One of the reasons ACT is so useful for anxiety is that it recognizes that anxiety is trying to serve a role for you. The thing is, sometimes that anxiety feels like it gets so big, so fast, and it ends up in the way. Rather than trying to ignore the anxiety, or push it down (which makes it even stronger), ACT encourages you to notice that you’re anxious and just sit with it.

Notice the wave crest and then go down.

Notice the waves that keep coming.

Notice how they eventually slow, and your anxiety eventually cools down on its own.

Anxiety and the Chocolate Cake:

Photo by  Toa Heftiba  on  Unsplash

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

If I told you “Don’t think about chocolate cake!” what’s the first thing that pops up into your head, even for just a split second?

It’s impossible to stop our thoughts!

Now what if I said, “It’s bad to think about chocolate cake! It makes you a bad person! If you think about chocolate cake, you’re weak and stupid.”

Not only is that chocolate cake still popping up in your brain, you’re also experiencing all of these feelings of guilt about the thought.

Anxious thoughts are like that guilt-inducing chocolate cake. They’re going to pop up no matter what. But when you label those thoughts as bad or unhelpful, or you tell yourself you’re hopeless when you experience them, it compounds the problem and makes it bigger than before.

How to Handle This As a Parent:

When your child experiences anxiety, you may still want to jump in and solve the problem right away. But as we’ve discussed these past weeks, jumping in isn’t helping.

If you just jump in and “fix” whatever’s going on, there are two things that you could impact:

  1. Your child’s ACT skills - if you fix it, they won’t be able to tolerate their anxiety as well

  2. Your child’s problem solving skills - if you fix it, they can’t

Rather than jumping in to soothe, try and solve the problem, or even compound their anxious response by removing them from the situation, the first step is to identify what’s going on. Help your child to recognize that they’re experiencing anxiety, stress, or anger which is leading to the behavior.

Then, you help them to calm. From an ACT perspective, even just sitting with that anxiety will help it to calm on its own, rather than getting you stuck in a feedback loop of, “I’m anxious, it’s bad that I’m anxious, which makes me more anxious, I shouldn’t feel this way!”

Finally, after identifying the concern and calming down the nervous system, then you can game plan and figure out a solution, together. For younger kids, you may need to direct them more. For your teens and college students, you can help my asking prompting questions and walking through the pros and cons of their game plan. You can steer their problem solving, as long as you’re allowing them to make final decisions about what is truly best for them.

And if you need help with this three prong approach, or the anxiety is feeling like more than you can handle, you should meet with an anxiety therapist.

Someone who is comfortable assessing for what’s underneath their anxiety, and someone who can help everyone in the family figure out what to do about it.

Building tools, ACT skills, and distress tolerance are all important components of child and adolescent counseling for anxiety. And because a therapist/counselor/psychiatrist is separate from your family, they can offer a different perspective of what’s going on and what to do about it.

Curious to learn more about anxiety therapy for kids, teens, and young adults? Kelsey Torgerson Dunn, MSW, LCSW specializes in anxiety and anger management from age 4 through college. Her office, Compassionate Counseling St. Louis, is located in Clayton, MO. She works with families throughout Ballwin, Creve Couer, Ladue, Brentwood, Webster Groves and surrounding areas. To set up a free phone consultation, email her at kelsey@compassionatecounselingstl.com