When my wife and I were raising our two sons, we noticed the oldest was struggling with anxiety issues.  We took him to a psychologist, and after a couple of sessions, she said, “Don’t bring him back.  You are wasting your money.  I can’t get him to talk to me.”  My heart sank. “What to do now?” I thought.

My reading led me to a “family systems” approach to therapy.  I found a psychologist that specialized in that approach.  He explained that when a child has a problem it’s a family problem and unless the family system changes, we were not likely to see much change in our son.  That meant we needed to attend therapy as a family. Sometimes the psychologist would talk only to my wife and me.  Other times he talked only to our son and other times to the entire family.

Slowly, we began to see changes.  It wasn’t miraculous, but life got better.  Mostly, our son’s self-esteem improved as he realized none of us were perfect, and we all had room to make changes, and we did.  In addition, he learned to understand himself differently.  He learned why he reacted to certain things the way he did.   He learned to manage his anxiety better.    He learned we were willing to change how we parented.

I learned that my anger was getting in the way of proper discipline.   While anger might have been a justified emotion for some of the things my son did, he did not feel loved or see the lessons in the discipline when I was angry.  The result was often emotional distance and more rebellion.

It took a long time to understand the importance of setting boundaries without anger, the importance of praise and encouragement when things were going well, and the essentialness of spending time doing things we both enjoyed doing.

As I work with families with anxiety issues, I try to get the parents to examine the family system objectively.   Although children/teenagers deal with a lot of anxiety that originates outside the home, what happens in the home may have more impact.

It’s easy for parents to think that the problem is just with their child or teenager but children, whose parents do not manage their anxiety well, are not likely to do any better.

Part of my job as a pastoral counselor is to teach both the parent and the child/teenager how to manage their anxiety.

When a child or teenager understands that I am trusting them with information about their body and how it works, they listen.  When they learn why they feel the way they feel and react to stress the way they react, they discover:

  1. They are normal. Everyone has some anxiety.
  2. They can learn to manage their anxiety. This gives them hope.
  3. By leaning into their anxiety and not avoiding it, they can reach their goals. (More hope.)

Children, teenagers, and adults can all learn to become their own coach and works themselves out of anxious moments and into new experiences, overcoming their fears, and proving to themselves they CAN achieve something that once was beyond their grasp.

I am discovering that when children, teenagers, and adults are equipped with this information, it can have a liberating effect.  I will write about this in my next blog.