Controlling Anxiety | Teaching Self-Government

Controlling Anxiety

I once received a letter from a mom asking how she could help her daughter navigate feelings of anxiety. The daughter would take her feelings out on whatever family member was closest. The mom had pre-taught her daughter that those actions were inappropriate and worked with her to find better alternatives, but it wasn’t working.

The mother wanted to know if she should focus on what was causing the anxious feelings or if she should focus on the actions and consequences. After lashing out at family members, the daughter would often self-report, leaving the mom struggling to find an appropriate response. She was at a loss.

This kind of anxiety feels like a ball of fire in your stomach. It feels like if you give into it and hurt someone or get angry, you’ll feel better. Even many parents don't know how to control this kind of anxiety. Emotionally healthy individuals can learn to control their anxiety or their impulse to get angry when stressed. Thinking about how you stop yourself from yelling at your children when you’re stressed will help you know how to help your daughter control her fireball.

My initial thought was that you need to have a counseling session with her and tell her the consequence for each time she chooses not to control her anxiety. Talk about what her body does when she’s anxious and what she can do to stop herself from losing control. Give her the steps to control her impulses.

As soon as she reacts to her anxiety instead of controlling it, she needs to earn automatic negative consequences. This teaches cause and effect without second chances. She’ll only learn to govern this behavior if she knows she has to stop the anxiety before it controls her.

Don’t worry about the causes of the anxiety. Anxiety is often a choice and can be controlled. She’ll have anxious moments her whole life, so she needs to know how to control herself. If she doesn't learn this basic skill, she’ll feel out of control, build a habit of making excuses and end up rationalizing other negative habits.

Most of my foster youth had severe anxiety. One youth didn't like change, one got anxious in new social settings, and almost all of them were anxious about getting negative feedback about their behavior. However, they soon saw that I wasn't going to get angry at them. They felt safer in my home and slowly learned how to master their anxiety.

It’s important to reward her for self-reporting. Make sure the positive consequence is something that motivates her. So, even though she has to follow through with the negative consequence, she’s still motivated to self-report. Praise her and have a positive consequence for any effort to control her anxiety. Focus more on the positive moments than the negative ones. Don’t show emotion when she makes a mistake. And be certain to show genuine excitement when she takes steps toward self-mastery.

We all feel stressed, misunderstood or anxious from time to time. Think about the process you use to calm down and teach your child to do the same.

I’ve discovered over the years that anxiety often becomes a habit. Individuals who don't learn to notice and control their anxious feelings becomes ruled by them. To be free from anxiety, individuals have to recognize their feelings and learn to calm themselves down so they can address the problem.