Positive Self-Talk for Kids
I can see in my rearview mirror it’s happening again. Her face is pale, and her eyes are glassing over as if she were in a different place. She’s breathing rapidly and wringing her hands, desperately trying to fight off another attack.
“You better get back there,” I say to my wife, Christine, as I look for a place to pull the van off the road.
“I’m on it,” she replies.
“Are you OK, sweetie?” I ask my daughter, Erin.
She vomits all over herself and the car before she can answer. Most of her anxiety attacks end this way.
“Daddy, why does this keep happening to me? What’s wrong with me?” Erin asks with tears rolling down her cheeks as her mother cleans her up.
Erin was only 7 when these episodes started. In the beginning, the attacks happened only sporadically and always while we were driving. Christine and I assumed she occasionally got car sick. But we were wrong.
Over time, the anxiety attacks increased in frequency. They started to hit her in every situation — before school, play dates, birthday parties and family gatherings. Her passion was ice skating. When she physically would get sick on the way to the rink, Christine and I would cry with her.
“We have got to get her in to see somebody. I can’t stand to see her go through this anymore,” I finally say to Christine.
“I know, Ron. Don’t you think I’m trying?” she says.
I would lie awake at night wondering what was tormenting my daughter. Was something happening at school she wasn’t telling us about? We just didn’t know. The symptoms came out of nowhere, and they were rapidly destroying the carefree childhood we were trying to provide for her.
We had to wait several excruciating weeks to get an appointment with a pediatric psychiatrist. After an initial consultation, the doctor informed us our daughter was suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
With research, I discovered children with GAD worry excessively about a variety of issues, such as social interactions, past and future events, academic performance, family matters, personal and family health, and world events. The amount of time children worry, and their difficulty controlling it, often adversely impacts their daily lives. Physical symptoms may include shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, nausea, vomiting, dry mouth, trouble swallowing, stomachaches, headaches, muscle tension and soreness, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping.
Experts say biological, familial and environmental factors contribute to the cause anxiety disorders. And, while a child may have inherited a biological predisposition to be anxious, the behaviors also may be learned from a parent. Unlike adults with GAD, children usually are not aware their anxiety is more intense than the situation warrants.
Erin started meeting with a therapist once a week starting at age 7, and she continued doing so for a little more than a year. Her treatment focused on teaching her skills to manage her anxiety, which included training in relaxation techniques. She learned to identify, evaluate and change the anxious thoughts that were causing her severe physical symptoms.
Her therapist relied heavily on a technique called “positive self talk,” which taught Erin how to change her reaction to anxious thoughts once they entered her mind. Before my daughter began therapy, at the onset of the symptoms she probably thought, “It’s happening again. I’m going to throw up.” But with positive self talk, she changed that thinking to, “OK, I’m nervous, but I can make it through this without getting sick if I relax and take deep breaths. This really isn’t something I should be so nervous about anyway.”
The technique sounded overly simple to me at first, but now I know it works. It takes time for someone suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder to change strongly reinforced negative self talk, to positive self talk. Conversely, positive self talk is reinforced each time using it reduces the severity of an anxiety attack.
Erin’s condition steadily improved as she mastered the coping mechanisms she was taught with the patient, loving, dedicated assistance of her mother. The frequency and severity of her attacks diminished significantly over the next two years.
Her resolve to manage her condition has been inspirational. While one of the treatment options was the use of prescription drugs, Erin was determined to control her anxiety without medicine.
It’s likely Erin will deal with GAD on some level for the rest of her life. But she hasn’t had to see her therapist in over a year, and I can’t remember the last time she had a serious anxiety attack. It has been a very long and difficult road for her. But now when I look at my daughter in the rearview mirror, all I see is her beautiful eyes smiling back at me.
Ron Geelan is a New York-based freelance writer.