I could not have predicted when I got my social work graduate degree and license that I would clock so many hours talking about toilets. I envisioned heady conversations, but instead find myself touching, hanging out near and strategizing around toilets all the time. As a therapist specializing in OCD and anxiety, it’s par for the course.
And it’s a wonderful entrée to discuss one of the foundational concepts I talk about with my patients — that the content of your worries is largely irrelevant.
It’s rarely about the toilet. It doesn’t matter whether you can’t ask to go to it or you think it’s too gross to sit on, or you think you’re going to throw up and that freaks you out, or you’re scared people will hear you go to the bathroom, or that the toilet is too noisy … you get my drift. What’s important is how you respond to your worry.
The same is true for parents of anxious children. What’s important is how parents are responding to their kid’s worry. As my mentor Lynn Lyons, LISW, taught me years ago, worry always demands the same things: certainty and comfort. If you can’t be 100% certain that you’ll be OK and comfortable, worry is going to tell you to avoid the situation, because you can’t handle it.
My Child is Afraid to Use the Bathroom
For example, let’s stick with the toilet theme for a minute and talk about little kids asking to go to the bathroom. It’s really common that younger kids get nervous about asking to go to the bathroom in school. Many would rather choose to hold it all day than have to ask the teacher. I can relate; my eldest was one of these kids. What you don’t want to do as a parent is engage with the content:
- “Why aren’t you comfortable asking your teacher?” – This will just lead down a path that’s likely unproductive.
- “What’s the worst that can happen?” – Never ask an anxious kid this. You’ll get a litany of possibilities.
- “You’ll be fine, he/she’s really nice. Just do it!” — In general, saying “you’ll be fine” is a terrible phrase.
- “I’ll call the teacher and make a plan so you don’t have to ask.” — You’re playing right into worry’s hands by accommodating it. NO!
A better approach is to engage on a process level where you work on how your child will respond to their worry. It looks like this (and the more dramatic and fun you can do it, the better): “Wait! I’m sniffing your worry bully trying to boss you around, and he STINKS! I hear how nervous he’s making you, so let’s flush him down the toilet. When he tries to boss you around, remind him that you know his stinky tricks, and he can’t boss you around — you’re stronger than he is.”
Talking back to the worry is half of it. The other half is getting them to DO what they’ve been avoiding, so help your child take steps to ask to use the bathroom. Remember that the problem is not the teacher and not the bathroom; the problem is that worry is taking charge of your child.
My Older Child Worries About her Friends
While older children may not worry about going to the bathroom, there are plenty of other worry opportunities. For example, my daughter frequently comes to me worried about something that happened in a group chat (I’ve come to hate these) or in her friend group. If you have a middle schooler, maybe you’ll relate. I’ve caught myself getting caught in the content, where I ask things like “How do you know everyone’s talking about you?” or “Why do you care if they do?” when I need to be taking it out of the content.
If I stay in the content, I’m likely to “do the disorder,” as Lynn Lyons says. That people are talking about her, that so-and-so did something is largely irrelevant. What’s important is how she responds to her worry (not catastrophizing and/or jumping to conclusions) and, in turn, her friends.
Learn to be Uncomfortable
Worry wants me to provide certainty and comfort — common ways we parents do that is by providing reassurance (among a million other ways). A great skill we can help our kids learn is to tolerate uncertainty and feeling uncomfortable. Teach and model for them that the feeling doesn’t feel good (in fact, it sucks), but we can (and need to) learn to tolerate it. When anyone, kids or adults, tries to get rid of their anxiety, what they’re really trying to do is make the uncomfortable thoughts or feelings stop and go away, so they can feel better (more in control and more comfortable). That’s why strengthening this muscle — the tolerating-the-discomfort muscle (otherwise known as embracing-the-suck muscle) — is so important.
5 Steps to Stay Focused on Process
Content is irrelevant 99% of the time, because worry has the same message. Following these 5 steps, parents can learn to stay focused on the process and not the content:
- Validate what’s true — that they’re really nervous and it’s scary.
- Help them expect worry to show up. It’s normal to worry.
- Discuss how they are going to talk back to it. For instance, they can say something like “I was expecting you, worry, and you’re not going to boss me around today”” or ‘It’s normal to be concerned about friend stuff, but imagining the worst is extra.”
- Make a plan for doing the opposite of what worry tells them to do. From our above examples, make a plan to ask the teacher to use the bathroom, or make a plan on how to check in with her friends about what’s happening.
- Remind your child that the feeling they’re feeling, be it worried, unsettled, or nervous, will pass. Emotions are like waves or storms that need to be ridden out. “This too shall pass” is a great mantra to learn early.
When we focus on the process of dealing with worry, then we get to the heart of the matter. This applies to every parent, not just ones of anxious children. It also applies to our own worry, of course, and can be a great tool in moving through fear. While the idea is simple, it’s not always easy; depending on the level of anxiety, professional help may be needed to break down these steps even further.