Mr G is self-driven. He runs on internal motivation, period. He chooses, he does. He is also a generous, thoughtful, and considerate person who genuinely cares about others, so internal motivation isn't necessarily a problem. He started out pretty outwardly concerned, overly concerned with safety and approval, and we gently and carefully guided him towards challenging himself, allowing himself, choosing for himself, thinking for himself.
We had kind of blown it a few times (um, the first couple of years, straight through) regarding catastrophizing. That is, we greeted every possible conceivable risk with the worst-case result. Don't climb on that, you'll fall off and break your neck. Don't run in the street, you'll get hit by a car and die. Don't run so fast, you'll fall. Don't spin around in the living room, you'll fall and hit your head and have to go to the hospital for stitches.
It didn't help that the last two on the list actually happened.
We set up the world to be a place where the slightest error on anyone's part meant certain disaster. No surprise then that he was trending toward perfectionism (if I am not perfect, the world will implode, everyone will hate me, my friends will make fun of me, the teachers will not pay attention to me, nobody will love me), and anxiety (I can't try, it's too dangerous; I can't start, what if I can't stop?; I must always be on the alert for danger and threats).
We did finally figure out that something was wrong with the picture, and started working through two book - Helping Your Anxious Child: A Step-By-Step Guide for Parents and Your Anxious Child: How Parents and Teachers Can Relieve Anxiety in Children. The first of those was also recommended by a child psychologist for Miss M's anxiety. So, two scores for that one.
Both books were worth the effort, though I discovered quickly that the main issue was not him, but us. Ouch.
Taking our cue from the books, we did two main things.
- Stopped making every possible mishap into the worst-case.
- Started talking about the range of real possible outcomes. And unreal ones, too.
The first item was remarkably difficult. I am prone to PPA (postpartum anxiety), so in my mind every risk kept bringing up just what I said - worst case. I could see the crisis coming, for every instance. This, however, isn't a useful way to live. I didn't even know about PPA at the time, but I did know I wasn't nearly so anxious before I had a child (I assumed this was normal, though it was just a bit on the outer edge of normal). Choosing to just state my worst fear to my child meant I was injecting those fears into him, rather than dealing with them as my own fears. I had to start relying more on allowing myself to be afraid, and to state that I was afraid. Teacher-friends noted that it is more useful to say, 'I'm scared that you'll get hurt' than to say 'you will get hurt' - because they WILL try it out to test your hypothesis, and they can prove that they didn't get hurt (that time), and so 'you will' is therefore suspect for all future cases, and may be discarded out of hand. Total ignore. That's just grownups being boring old grownups. But 'I'm scared'? Well, you know, that's not disproven. Every time we do something like this, and the teacher (or other adult) says, 'I'm scared', they actually look scared (or at least upset, and sometimes angry). Case is proven true, this is a statement that can be attended to. And kids are remarkably unhappy about making others unhappy, all things considered. More so when they have an honest statement to work from. It was still hard to do. Hard to say out loud, 'I am afraid.' Hard to accept that the child is not afraid of the things that scare me. Hard even for me to remember the sheer joy of meeting a challenge, climbing to the top of the slide, learning to hang upside down from a tree limb. Fear had no place there (okay, just a bit at the top of the really TALL slide, but having my big sister climb up behind me, and slide down with me between her legs, and pick me up with a laugh and a quick dust-off from where I'd flown into the dirt at the bottom, and then with a twinkle in her eye ask if I wanted to do it again... fear? yeah, for a moment. But oh, speed, and oh, height, and oh, the astonishment of the world blurring into a smear of color and light with the warmth of slide under me and the strength of sister behind me, and the sudden solidifying of all experience as I jarred to earth again... fear? what fear?). Even remembering that, hard to speak to my own fear, and not to try to make it theirs by force.
And the second item. Making the range of possibles a range of possibles is healthy. It is safer, and saner, and a better way to live. Refer to Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane). Addressing reality in a real way is a great safeguard. Knowing that there is a range of risk, and that one can choose one's actions to modify that risk is important. That, actually, was much easier, once I got past the emotions about my emotions (meta-emotion, 'feeling about feelings' - fear of being afraid, or anger or fear about people expressing anger, etc.), I was much more able on this front.
We started with playing 'What If' - whenever Mr G would bring up an anxiety, we'd open up the world to the many possible outcomes, not limit it to just one, and that one catastrophic. One I recall in particular was about 'what if a bear got into our house?'
Now, we live in a small town, but not in bear country. The odds? Vanishingly small. But minimizing the fear ('that won't happen' or 'that's a silly idea' or 'heavens, what made you think that was possible?') just makes people think they're not being taken seriously, and leaves them with the fear plus feeling alone, which is worse.
So, play what if? "What if a bear did get into our house? What do you think would happen?"
Mr G's response was that it would eat us all, we'd all die. I could then choose to minimize again - tell him his fear was misplaced, or silly, or not relevant because a bear would not ever do that. And again, that would just leave him still afraid and still alone. Instead, I went with the game - come up with another answer. ANY answer, and keep going coming up with answers until you are getting into the absurd so far that you have left the anxiety behind, and have presented as many possible realistic scenarios as you can think up, too. The kid will come up with all the scary ones for you, so you don't even have to go there, but you can allow them to be part of the range of possible. That allows the fear to be okay, but also places it in perspective.
I came up with, "as the bear comes in the back door, we all run out the front door, slam the door, run around the house and close the other door, call the police who come take the bear away. Now, what else? What else would happen if a bear got in?"
Mr G, full of his anxiety, was willing to let it out - more scary scenarios came out with each of the next few turns for him. But I took the ball and ran with it, too.
"The bear would stand up, ask us if we have any peanut butter, we'd say yes, give it a jar of peanut butter and it would say thanks, and then leave."
"We'd ask the bear if it wanted to stay for tea, and we'd serve tea and crumpets with blueberry jam, and the bear would be our friend forever."
Well, it didn't take long on that to get the imagination going, and Mr G ended up merrily deciding that the bear was actually an alien in disguise and it turned our house into a space ship and took us on a flight around the galaxy and we got to meet all sorts of aliens and see all the planets and...
And anxiety gone. The range of possible included (yes) the scary options. People DO get hurt by bears. And it included the sane ones. And it included the impossible but fun-to-imagine ones.
This game takes full advantage of the imagination that is involved in anxiety. One of the books (I can't recall which one) suggests that anxiety is often the result of an untrained imagination - or rather, one that has been trained in only one way, to picture the worst case. Modeling by parents makes that even more potent.
Now, Mr G is still a little cautious sometimes. But mainly, he considers the world to be an adventure with some risks and a lot of great possibilities.
Unfortunately his assessment of risk is still somewhat at the 10-year-old level, and so we spent four hours or so at the emergency room on Saturday, because he'd chosen to try to move some large panels of plexiglass while barefoot, and dropped one on his foot. It doesn't seem to be fractured (the foot - the panel is fine, much to their relief since it is going to be part of their bedroom decor), but he's still in a large black robotic-looking walking boot, and I still have to call the orthopedic department at the children's hospital to find out whether we need to do something more. I did manage to keep my emotions to myself (mostly), and instead of asking him why he didn't THINK and why he didn't ask himself if this was safe, and why he didn't... everything, I just asked if he thought he had new information about what he could and could not do safely, and what kind of safety equipment might be good before trying to move heavy objects, and whether the thought he should check in with someone with more experience with the task to help assess risks. (not all those questions at once, either - I spread them out.) And he ruefully said shoes would have been good, and asking an adult for help would have been good, and now he was going to have quite the story to tell his kids about choosing safely, and he's thinking he'll save the boot so he can show them what it looked like.
Okay, maybe that's a bit much, but at least his imagination is still working! I just wish sometimes the 'what if' was played out in his head, first, instead of on his body.