When clinical psychologist Dr Malie Coyne came to write a book on how to deal with childhood anxiety, there was no shortage of case studies that she could draw on. However, she was also keen to share her own experiences as a mother of two girls aged six and eight, and, as she describes herself, ‘a bit of a control freak’.
In her new book, Love In, Love Out: A Compassionate Approach to Parenting your Anxious Child, Coyne talks about how her own anxiety was exacerbated when she became a mother, words that will resonate with parents everywhere.
“My transition to parenthood was pretty hard. I suddenly realised that I had to look after another human being, and it terrified the life out of me.
"How could I possibly manage to keep my child safe and happy throughout her life? More importantly, how would I achieve it with the level of control I was used to having in other parts of my life?”
She gives one particular example of how she began to manage her own anxiety, and in turn help her own daughters deal with theirs.
“I used to hate it when the children got out of bed after I had tucked them in – it was as if by getting up they were proving that I’d lost control of the situation.
"So I’d be listening out for the slightest noise, and if I heard anything I’d shoot straight up the stairs to see what was the matter.
"One evening my husband asked me, ‘Do you ever need time to settle after you go to bed or go to the toilet or whatever?’
"Maybe, he suggested, I should leave the girls to settle for a few minutes and not rush up at every sound. This would also teach them a valuable lesson in settling themselves.
"He was right. Yes, it was hard to stop myself from reacting immediately, but I realised I had a choice.
By setting the bar at ‘good enough’, the theory coined by British pediatrician Donald Winnicott in the 1950s, parents can reduce the unrealistic expectations that have led to increased anxiety levels, even before the psychological impact of Covid is taken into account.
“I do think anxiety has increased in the last few years, definitely I see that working as a psychologist,” says Coyne. “Before the coronavirus happened, people were running around, busy all the time, and children were being enrolled in countless activities.
"There was a fear of ‘what if my child misses out, what if they have a hidden talent that I haven’t nurtured?’ We need to fill every second of every day and if it is not filled, we go on our phones — me included.”
Coyne says all children will experience normal developmental anxiety.
“I remember my daughter hated the sound of the hand-dryer. If we are out in a bathroom somewhere, she will still say ‘Mummy, don’t lock the door’.
"They might be afraid of going into a lift or going to bed because of a monster. But you know anxiety has become a problem when it is really impacting on the child’s sense of self, them being able to engage in activities that they enjoy, or going to school.
Key to Coyne’s approach for dealing with children’s anxiety is compassion, which, contrary to how we might perceive it, goes hand in hand with resilience.
“When people think of compassion, they think of something soft, where you are kind to other people and you are not thinking of yourself. But actually, compassion is also about nurturing yourself and what you need.
"For example, helping a child to understand that if your friend gives you a present that you don’t really like, you don’t tell them because you don’t want to hurt their feelings — but that doesn’t mean if your friend asks you to do something you don’t want to do, that you say yes so as not to upset them.
"Assertiveness is part of getting our needs met.”
Nor does taking the compassionate route negate the need for ‘tough love’ when necessary. However, timing for such interventions is key, says Coyne.
“While anxiety is made worse by avoiding situations which make children feel fearful, there is a time and a place for helping them to face their fears,” says Coyne.
“When you have anxiety you are no longer using your reasoning brain, so you cannot say ‘there is no threat, everything is grand’.
"Being rational doesn’t work, your child will feel even more anxious because the one person they have recruited for support is not actually hearing them.
"But that’s not to say that we should let our kids avoid things — sometimes we just have to push a little, especially when you know it’s not true anxiety, that they just don’t feel like doing something and would rather watch TV or play on their iPad or whatever.”
Coyne also says that self-care enables parents to better address their children’s emotional needs.
“If your kids see you taking care of yourself, going for a walk, doing something for yourself, it is so beneficial. They mightn’t want you to do that in the moment but they are seeing you meeting your needs.”
It is also important that parents do not shy away from admitting they are wrong when their own emotions become too much for them and they become angry or upset with a child.
“It is another opportunity for resilience. Anxiety plus compassion equals resilience. In a crappy situation, you can talk to your child and say, ‘well, maybe mummy was a bit too shouty and I’m sorry about that’.
"However, don’t say the word ‘but’ in that sorry — the learning moment comes later. ‘But you need to listen to what I’m saying’ — that’s not a sorry.”
Coyne also acknowledges that there are times when we need to be honest with our children regarding legitimate worries, especially now.
“In the book, I talk about too little information and too much information. Too little is not telling your kids something that is going on, for example, not mentioning the coronavirus.
"But if your child asks if people are dying from the coronavirus, you tell them yes but what is also true is that the rate is going down and Ireland has done loads of really good things to make it better.
"So you are answering the question, acknowledging how they feel and packaging it in a particular way… you are telling the truth but reassuring them.”
It is also natural that children will pick up on a parent’s anxiety, says Coyne — what matters is how this is dealt with.
“Children will pick up on everything, including your joy or your excitement, so they’re going to pick up on your anxiety. If you’re feeling worried, it is okay to show them that, within reason. The important thing is that they know you can take care of them and that you can work through their difficult feelings together.”
Coyne has developed the four steps of what she calls the SAFE Chain of Resilience to support parents in navigating their child’s anxiety.
“This approach is about the child feeling safe in their bodies and feeling validated and connected before you can then move on to helping them face their fears,” says Coyne.
These steps comprise:
how you look after yourself as a parent and regulate your emotions;
how you can help your child feel safe;
how you can help your child feel connected;
how you can empower your child to manage their anxiety.
- Love In, Love Out: A Compassionate Approach to Parenting your Anxious Child, by Dr Malie Coyne, published by Harper Collins, is out now.