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Perhaps the best day-to-day tactic for helping children avoid anxiety is to be positive and upbeat, even when faced with your child’s shortcomings. Whether it’s a poor grade in school or something as simple as spilled milk, a parent’s reaction can make or break a young person’s self-image. Harsh responses can lead over time to depression, less occupational success, difficulty accepting failures, lack of motivation and reluctance to try something new.

If, on the other hand, a parent encourages a child to look at the positive angle of a bad situation and try hard to do better next time, the effect can be spectacular. By modeling a positive outlook, you can lead your child to fly high and succeed in later life.

So my son didn’t want to go back to school this morning after a few weeks off, which was weird, because he loves school. There’s nothing more valuable to him than playing with other children. But this morning, we had to sit him down and have a talk with him.

It started because he didn’t get his full 12 hours of sleep, and every time we send him to school on not enough sleep, he turns into an insane clown possum and interrupts basically every activity with, as one teacher put it, ‘crab walking around the classroom at 90 miles per hour.’ So, we put him back to sleep for an extra 45 minutes, made sure he had a good breakfast (curried chicken salad, thank you very much, Daddy) and got him off to school.

But before he went back to bed, he sat and talked to both of us and told us he’d rather stay home today — which was weird. He’s never said that before, and when we asked him why, he essentially said, “Because some things at school are hard. Like scissors work. Cutting curves is too hard for me.”

Now, we already have an appointment to talk to the doctor about this, because his teachers suspected that it may be the case, but this was the first time that it came out so obviously at home.

I started looking up anxiety in children, and I found the big quote above. When I saw it, I realized that his anxiety issues may very well be my fault. I had this memory: when I was five or six or so, I spent all of one afternoon making a pop-up book out of a couple pieces of paper. I worked really hard at it, making it so that pulling tabs moved little boats and I was super-duper proud of myself.

When I showed it to my mom, she said, “Wow…you really need to work on your handwriting. I can’t understand this at all!”

I was crushed. If I recall correctly, I basically just sat down on the spot and started crying. Here I had put all this effort in, and it was basically pissed on. I’m not telling this story to villianize my mom, but because it was the earliest memory I have of thinking, “But what about all of the stuff that I did right? What happened to all of the approval I was supposed to get for that part?”

…and I realized that I was basically doing the same thing to my son. I might have stopped yelling at him, and he knows that I’m working hard on that — but that doesn’t mean that my basic attitude of only interacting with my son when there’s something wrong isn’t still there.

It’s funny, because you read all of these stories about people seeking approval from their loved ones, and I know I sure do it — but somehow, it’s surprisingly difficult to turn that around and realize that you have a duty to look for things to approve of in the people around you.

It goes back to the worth economy. You can go through life looking at the things that seem to demand your attention — they’re all the things that are annoying and stupid and petty and crap. Or you can go through life deliberately looking for things that deserve your attention — and they’re all of the things that are awesome and wonderful and beautiful and whatever the opposite of crap is.

My son has anxiety issues, and there’s at least one school of experts out there who would readily point to my behavior as a proximate cause of that anxiety. If I want my son to do better in school — and, all told, in life — I have to get off my butt and start deliberately looking for and talking to him about all of the things that he does right.

Handwriting be damned.

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