Anxious Times: Helping Kids Cope

Oct 1, 2019

We talk with a psychologist and author about how to approach conversations about frightening world events and help children process distressing news they inevitably hear about. With anxiety on the rise in kids, we hear strategies for young people and the adults who take care of them.

Air date: October 1, 2019

GUEST: 

Here she is at an Amoskeag Millyard Tedx talk on "Rethinking Anxiety":

The Daily, heard on NHPR at weekdays at 6:30 p.m., had a special kids edition on a nine-year-old Ella Maners, who was terrified of tornadoes and getting sick. She attended a camp to help confront her fears.

Transcript:

This is a computer-generated transcript, and may contain errors. 

Laura Knoy:
I'm Laura Knoy. and this is The Exchange.

With TV ads and smartphones everywhere, it's difficult to shield kids today from frightening news events, but our guest today says that's not what children need anyway. She says what they do need is to talk about their news related worries and learn how to manage and even overcome those fears. We're talking this hour with New Hampshire based psychologist and author Dr. Dawn Huebner. Her work on kids anxiety and fears has been nationally recognized with her many books aimed at children and the adults who care for them. Huebner's latest, is called Something Bad Happened A Kid's Guide to Coping with Events.

Laura Knoy:
And Dr. Huebner, it's really nice to meet you.

Dawn Huebner:
Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

What's the most common mistake parents and other trusted adults do? Typically, in this area of trying to help kids cope with events in the news, what do you see again? Again we go, oh, I wish the adults wouldn't do that.

Dawn Huebner:
So actually, the most common mistake is to not talk to children, to make the assumption that children aren't going to hear about events in the news and to have the idea that if I don't bring it up, it doesn't exist. But it does exist. And children have a way of picking up on bits and pieces and hearing things and feeling afraid. And so we need to talk about them. We need to talk to them directly.

Laura Knoy:
Well, why do we need to talk about it again? It's very difficult. Parents may be processing their own emotions. It may be very scary, especially for younger children. So why do we need to talk about it?

Dawn Huebner:
So there are a few reasons. One is that children are likely to hear these things anyway, hear them, you know, in just fragments and have trouble understanding them because they haven't been told directly about them. So we need to kind of preemptively tell our kids about things that happen.

Another is that sometimes we want to talk to our kids about issues, things like climate change or the immigration crisis. And this is a way to do that, to talk about issues that we see as really important in the world.

And the third reason is that it's important to talk to kids about things that are happening that don't directly affect them because it helps them to build some skills that they'll then have when something does hit closer to home. So we want our children to learn how to deal with sadness or deal with uncertainty or deal with fear when the event that's happened hasn't happened in their direct world. Because then if something hits closer to home, they have a skill set that they can use to to cope more effectively.

Laura Knoy:
You said a moment ago that one of the mistakes adults make is assuming kids won't hear about it or they won't know about it. So why bring it up? And you said they are going to hear about it anyway. It really is difficult to limit their exposure. Dr. Huebner, these days many establishments have TV's on restaurants, airports, lobbies, waiting rooms. Some doctor's offices have televisions on all the time. How does this complicate a parent's ability to talk to their kids about the scary news headlines to create that more helpful narrative when you're sitting at the pediatrician's office and the TV is blaring about something terrible?

Dawn Huebner:
Right. So it means that parents aren't fully in control of what their children are hearing. And it's interesting, some families are are really conscientious about keeping the TV off or keeping the radio off when their children are around. But that's not necessarily the case in other households. And so kids also hear things from their peers.

Dawn Huebner:
You know, there are some children who hear things on the news at home and then they come in and they talk about it at school. So one of the things it's important to do when parents decide to talk to their children about events in the news is to begin by asking when a child already knows. So you want to hear whether a child knows anything about a particular event. It's certainly an opportunity to correct misperceptions that a child may have. And then a parent can build on what their child already knows to provide additional information that's that's relevant or important.

Laura Knoy:
You know, that's really interesting. Give us an example, Dr. Huebner. It could be just a for instance, it doesn't have to be a actual real life example of something happening. You ask the child what he or she knows and their response could be way off base.

Dawn Huebner:
Yeah. So I hear this a lot with kids who are concerned about natural disasters. So a child might hear about a flood in a town that gets wiped out. And then they become really afraid that every time it rains, there's a risk of that level of rain and a flood in their town. So, you know, parents want to understand what the misconceptions are that children have so that they can correct those misconceptions, because it's not true that we're at risk at every rainfall.

Laura Knoy:
Another mistake I've heard that parents often make is saying, don't worry.

Dawn Huebner:
Right. Right. So that happens not only talking about events in the news, but in general, you know, I think adults are big on telling kids not to worry about things. But that's not the way worry happens. You know, you can't just tell someone not to worry and then poof, the worry disappears.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, OK. Thank you very much. I hadn't thought of that yet.

Dawn Huebner:
You know, parents do try to reassure their children. That's really what they mean by don't worry about it. Kids do better when they're equipped with some information about why they should not worry. So it's better for parents who are talking to kids about bad things happening in the news to talk in a specific way about protections that are in place, like why a child is not at risk rather than just kind of minimizing the fear by saying, don't worry about it.

Dawn Huebner:
We want our kids to know that we have people watching out for our safety or we have various protections in place. And that's the reason you don't need to be concerned about whatever the situation is.

Laura Knoy:
That's interesting. Give us a little bit more there, Dr. Huebner on: Don't worry. Not helpful versus reassuring. Helpful.

Dawn Huebner:
So we do want our kids to know that they're safe. And so we want to talk about the specific things that make a child safe.

Dawn Huebner:
It's important to not do that in such a way that we're giving guarantees. And I'm sure we'll talk about this much more a little further in the conversation when we're talking about anxiety in general. One of the things that happens with with all levels of anxiety is we begin to want a guarantee. You know, we think that a bad thing might happen and we feel like we need absolute assurance that the bad things are not going to happen.

But that's not realistic. And even relatively young children know that that's not realistic. And parents sometimes get into a really untenable kind of position where they're trying to, you know, give pinky swears that some things are not going to happen and that's just not useful to do. So parents instead can talk about things being really, really unlikely, but they don't want to go down the road of trying to give an absolute guarantee.

And children sometimes come back and say, do you promise this isn't going to happen? And parents, it's better. It's better to deal with that honestly and to say, you know, I can't promise about this, but I really think that you're safe and here are the reasons that you're safe and to still give assurances without without ultimately giving that guarantee. That's a tough message to deliver to a child. It is.

Dawn Huebner:
You know, one of the things that parents can do, starting with kids that are pretty young, like six years old or so, is to talk a little bit to a child about how our brains work and that we have kind of a danger alert system within our brains, where there's a part of our brain that's on the lookout for things that might be a problem for us, might be dangerous to us. And when we notice something or hear about something that might be a danger, it sets off an alarm and that makes us feel afraid. And that alarm goes off when we're actually in danger. But it also goes off around potential dangers. And that's a false alarm when it's a potential danger. That's not an actual danger.

Dawn Huebner:
And young kids can be taught about that to begin to understand that just because you're afraid, it doesn't necessarily mean you're in danger. There's a difference between being afraid and being in danger. And we want our children to begin to be able to sort that out. And kids need a lot of help sorting that out.

Dawn Huebner:
Adults need help sorting that out, too. But it's something that we can begin to teach our children about. So if a child is repeatedly asking questions about is this bad thing happen, is this bad thing can happen. A parent can talk about, you know, you've had a danger alert go off in your head, but really, you're safe. So parents can be can give that kind of reassurance to a child explaining something about why this is persistent for the child. And then going back to the reassurance.

Laura Knoy:
You talked a moment ago, Dr. Huebner, about the difficulty parents have controlling the narrative, exploring it with their child in the way that they want to, to reassure that child, given the ubiquity of, you know, TV is everywhere and every waiting room and people in their smartphones and so forth. And even if a child doesn't have a smartphone, he or she can take a peek at someone else's or hear about it. Is it more difficult for adults to manage children's anxiety these days or manage that narrative than it was 20 years ago when news wasn't, you know, around you 24/7?

Dawn Huebner:
Yes. You know, I think it's more difficult for adults to manage their own anxiety as well, because they're they're getting such an onslaught of news and information and children pick up on adults anxiety. So sometimes kids haven't heard things about specific news events, but they can tell that their parents are preoccupied or their parents seem unsettled or nervous and. Parents sometimes do well by talking to their kids directly about what's happened rather than kids just picking up on this low level kind of unease in their environment.

Laura Knoy:
And kids interpret things in different ways. If mom or dad is acting anxious because there's been something terrible in the news, the kid may think, oh, I did something wrong, you know, or mom and dad are mad at me or whatever.

Dawn Huebner:
Right. That's right. Yeah. Parents do want to do what they can themselves to get on top of their own reactions before they talk to children, because it's very frightening for a child to see that their parent is is frightened.

Laura Knoy:
Dr. Dawn Huebner is our guest, an Exeter psychologist specializing in anxiety. She's author of the book we're talking about today. Something Bad Happened: A Kid's Guide to Coping with Events in the News. Her other books include Outsmarting Worry and What to Do When You Worry Too Much. Dr. Huebner, how do young people process frightening information differently from adults?

Dawn Huebner:
Young people are pretty literal in their thinking. So even bright children are concrete and literal and they don't have the same way to put information into a context. You know, to understand that something terrible happened and it was scary, but it was far away or something happened in one place. It's not necessarily likely to happen where they live. So they just don't have kind of the ability to think more broadly and put things into context.

Laura Knoy:
That's interesting. So they don't see the bigger picture. They just see these scary picture in front of them. And it's very easy for them to make the leap from it happened here. So it's going to happen to me tomorrow, right? Right. So how does a parent talk about that? You've got some of that in the book. The sort of just because it happened there doesn't mean it's going to happen here.

Dawn Huebner:
Right.

Dawn Huebner:
So, again, I think that parents can talk to children about it's normal for them to feel nervous. It's normal for them to wonder if it's going to happen to them. But if this is a, you know, quote unquote, false alarm. So, you know, your brain has told you that there might be a danger, but there's not actually a danger to you. And here's the reason why. And for parents to talk in specific ways about protections and things of that sort.

Dawn Huebner:
One of the things that we haven't touched on that's related to this is that children are also experiencing things like lockdown drills at school. And so that really brings close to home for them the possibility that something horrific is going to happen. And that's really frightening for children. And there's a whole controversy about whether or not lockdown drills are effective and are serving the purpose that we wanted to serve. But the reality is that they are happening. And so kids are aware that bad things can happen, even places that are, you know, kind of their world.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and let's talk about that, because the book Something Bad Happened. You don't mention a specific events, but one gets the sense you're talking about like an earthquake far away or a flood faraway. There's a map of the world. And, you know, you sort of show the kid how big the world is and how many people there are and so forth. But kids now, as you said, are in lockdown drills. We're in an era where there may have been a mass shooting in a child's state or even in their city. So. Oh, my gosh. How do you help children process those events in the news where you can't say this event was very far away and is very unlikely to happen to you?

Dawn Huebner:
Right. So an event being far away and an event being unlikely are two different things. Right. So when you have the advantage of it being far away, you certainly can use that.

Dawn Huebner:
Even things that happen close to home, even things that happen in our country or in our state are still very unlikely to happen to an individual child. And when a parent is talking about lockdown drills, or if a child has heard about an actual event that's happened in a school, a parent can say that you have the lockdown to practice in the same way that you have fire alarms. And kids relate to fire alarms. And most children are not actively afraid of their school burning down or their house burning down. That's just not something that occurs to kids to be very afraid of, in part because it's super unlikely. And so parents can make that connection for kids, that it's it's something that we practice, because if it does happen, we need to know exactly what to do. But it's incredibly unlikely to happen.

Laura Knoy:
Do you think lockdown drills are helpful? Dr. Huebner?

Dawn Huebner:
I don't.

Laura Knoy:
You don't. How come?

Dawn Huebner:
No.

Dawn Huebner:
Well, there's there's a question in the research about the extent to which people who go through lockdown drills and then have been in this in a shooting situation use what they've learned are able to access what they've learned. So one of the things that happens when we're in a crisis situation is that the thinking part of our brain goes off line. And so, you know, that's one of the reasons to practice things, because you're trying to get behavior to be automatic.

Dawn Huebner:
But there's not research that supports the fact that the lockdown drills are happening in such a way that, you know, there's a question about how are the adults conducting themselves and how are children conducting themselves. And there's not persuasive research that shows that lockdown drills are actually saving lives or they're helping people when they get into that situation. There's plenty of indication that they're very frightening for for all of the participants, adult and child participants, especially the drills that are made more realistic. You know, schools that are doing active shooter drills rather than just standard lockdowns.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. And you say in the book, talking about learning that this is in the worry book, you say very well that when you are stressed, when you're frightened, your body automatically sends its energy, its blood to your body. It goes away from your brain. And that's why you can't think clearly.

Dawn Huebner:
Right. Right.

Laura Knoy:
Can you describe sort of what happens when we are super frightened and super stressed in our bodies.

Dawn Huebner:
Yes. So there's a part of the brain called the amygdala. It's deep within the brain. And that's the part of the your brain that's tasked with keeping you safe. And so when the amygdala senses potential danger, it sets off an alarm and that triggers the fight or flight response, which result we've all heard of. And as a part of the fight or flight response, as you described, your your limbs get energized, your digestion slows down, your heart rate speeds up. So your body is preparing you to keep yourself safe. And as a part of that process, the thinking part of your brain shuts down essentially. So you can't access logical thinking and problem solving and the things that might be helpful to you in those situations.

Dawn Huebner:
One of the reasons why there's often the recommendation when somebody is panicking to take a breath is that breathing is part of what resets the system. It's part of what teaches you internally that you're safe and OK and it gets your thinking brain back on line.

Laura Knoy:
You're listening to The Exchange on NHPR. So, by the way, Dr. Huebner just to clarify this latest book. Something Bad Happened. A kid's guide to coping with events in the news is for little kids up to age 12. Teens are a whole different story. So tell us why you have that focus.

Dawn Huebner:
So my clinical expertise is with children 12 and under. And so that's that's how I write my books and that's just how I focus my attention.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. So if kids are older, they teenagers who, by the way, all have smartphones practically. So they're going to be learning and processing differently.

Dawn Huebner:
Yeah. And interestingly, the kinds of strategies that I teach in my books are one size fits all. So they're the same strategies that are relevant for teens and for adults. It's just that I translate them in ways that are understandable and relatable to kids.

Laura Knoy:
You're also very clear in the introduction to this book that if a kid has been directly involved with a traumatic event, reading this book is not enough. They need to see somebody. So just clarify that for us to please.

Dawn Huebner:
Correct. So when a child has experienced trauma directly, there's a different there's a different form of support and treatment that's needed. So I wanted to make clear that this isn't a book for a child who's experienced trauma themself. You know, horrendous thing happening in their own life.

Laura Knoy:
And those must be some of the kids that you see in your practice, children who have been through traumatic events.

Dawn Huebner:
I specialize in anxiety disorders, so I'm actually not working with trauma. There's an interesting different thing. OK, so people who haven't been through traumatic events but are creating anxiety or living with anxiety and trying to manage anxiety predisposed to anxiety and having significant difficulty with anxiety.

Laura Knoy:
Do you think certain people, children or otherwise. Dr. Huebner, are more predisposed to anxiety?

Dawn Huebner:
Absolutely.

Dawn Huebner:
Yes. Yes. There's a genetic component,.

Laura Knoy:
Really?

Dawn Huebner:
And there are differences in the brains of anxious people. So there's heightened activity in certain parts of the brain that are related to anxiety. But what's really interesting is that so there's a concept of neuroplasticity, which means that we can learn to rewire our brain. And there's a particular kind of treatment called cognitive behavioral therapy that teaches people a set of techniques or skills that serves to rewire the brain so that even people who are predisposed to anxiety learn how to manage the anxious thoughts in a different way. So rather than snowballing, they're able to unhook from those thoughts more easily.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, and cognitive behavioral therapy. I've heard about it for years. It takes some rigor. Right. Dr. Huebner, I mean, you can't just, you know, do it once or twice and you're done, correct?

Dawn Huebner:
It's not about just understanding things in a different way. It's about doing things in a different way. Right. So cognitive behavioral therapy is based on the idea that we all have an internal triangle and the points of the triangle are our thoughts, our feelings and our actions or behaviors. And the idea is that people often run into difficulty because of what's happening with their feelings. Their emotions are causing them trouble. But we can't just decide to change our feelings. You know, it doesn't work that way. So thoughts, feelings and actions are linked together. And the idea with CBT is that if we change our thoughts in conscious ways or we change our actions and behaviors in deliberate ways, that leads to changes in our feelings.

Laura Knoy:
So sort of accepting the feelings, but then recognizing it for what it is.

Dawn Huebner:
Right.

Dawn Huebner:
Learning to talk to ourselves differently. Learning to not take action based on the fear, but to take deliberate action that challenges the fear or that steps towards the fear rather than away from it steps towards the fear. So what does that mean? So when a person is struggling with anxiety, what they're most tempted to do is avoid the things that are making them nervous. Avoid the thoughts that make them anxious. Avoid the situations that make them anxious.

Dawn Huebner:
And avoidance feels best in the moment. So, you know, as soon as you decide I'm going to avoid that dog, I'm going to avoid that public speaking opportunity. You feel better, but avoidance locks anxiety into place, meaning it fuels it. It makes it such that the next time you're in that situation, you're going to feel anxious again and you're going to feel that the only way through it is to avoid again. So there's a cycle that develops that you get nervous, you avoid, and then you feel better. And then the next time you get nervous, you need to avoid. So that you can feel better. And that happens over and over again.

Laura Knoy:
All right. We're going to pick up on that thread after a short break. Stay with us. This is The Exchange.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy. Today, we're talking with Dr. Dawn Huebner, an Exeter psychologist specializing in anxiety. She's the author of the new book Something Bad Happened: A Kid's Guide to Coping with Events in the News. We're talking about that and the common themes around childhood fears that come up in this book. And her others, including Outsmarting Worry: An Older Kids Guide to Managing Anxiety.

Laura Knoy:
And Dr. Huebner, let's go to our listeners. Sheila is calling in from Putney, Vermont. Hi, Sheila. You're on the air. Welcome.

Caller:
Can you hear me?

Laura Knoy:
Sure can. Go ahead, Sheila.

Caller:
Good. I think it's also really important for kids know what's going on in the world, in part so that they can develop empathy for others. And I also think that it's important for them to understand that their safety is often if they are white, middle class kids, a lot greater than other kids. And that's a privilege. That's white privilege. So being able could be safe.

Laura Knoy:
So it's difficult to talk about, but it does help develop empathy for other human beings. Thank you for the point, Sheila.

Go ahead, Dr. Huebner.

Dawn Huebner:
Absolutely. I think that that raises a really good point. And that is why do children have a reaction to hearing about bad things in the news? And we've been focusing so far on they have a reaction because they're afraid. But also children get sad about things that happen in the news. And we need to help with that. And they get sad because they have the capacity to feel empathic and to feel compassionate. And one of the most helpful things to do with children is to teach them that they can take positive action. So one of the ways to deal with our helplessness and our fear is to shift and not shift to something completely unrelated, like try to distract your child by giving them ice cream when they feel sad, but to shift to something positive that can be done about the situation that's problematic. So to teach kids that they can take action even in small ways to be on the side of the good in the world. Give us an example of what you mean.

Dawn Huebner:
So kids that have heard about maybe, I don't know, a wildfire that that happened, we can talk about how sad it is for people that lost their homes and children might be involved in raising money to go to victims or collecting supplies to send to victims. So we want our kids to learn that they can take action in positive ways. They can be a helper in the situation, even if they live far away.

Laura Knoy:
You know, Sheila mentions the stresses on children of minority races, different ethnicities and pediatricians are, in terms of childhood anxiety, especially worried for their minority patients. A recent policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics warns members that kids of color are directly being made less healthy, even sick, because of the rise in racist language threats, attacks aimed at ethnic and racial minorities. What are your thoughts, Dr. Huebner, in terms of helping parents and other adults who want to help those kids feel like the world is also a safe place for them?

Dawn Huebner:
So I think that we want to actively be talking to our children about what it means to be a citizen of the world, what it means to be a good person, how choices that we make matter and how we become bystanders to things that are happening in the world. But as bystanders, we have a choice. You know, we can either turn away and go about our business or we can take action. And it's taking action that we want to value within our families, and we want to be teaching our children.

Laura Knoy:
Talking about turning away. And you touched on this a little bit earlier, but I'd love to talk to a little bit more about it. It's the idea of confronting your fears, as you said earlier, stepping toward your fear. But then exposure too much can be frightening for kids. You talked about some of the lockdown drills that are too realistic being traumatizing for kids. So how do you balance it with children? Dr. Huebner, sort of stepping towards a fear, not shutting it out all the time because that doesn't fix it, but not going overboard. You see what I'm getting at there?

Dawn Huebner:
Yeah. So I'm going to talk about I'm going to distinguish between anxiety with a lowercase a and anxiety with an uppercase A. OK. So anxiety about things that are happening in the world.

Dawn Huebner:
I would say is lower case anxiety. It's normal. It it is in the right proportion to the. Actual events that are happening, it makes sense to feel bad and to feel nervous or worried about those things. The anxiety that I work with in my clinical practice is upper case anxiety. So that's anxiety that's outsize. It's anxiety that the fear doesn't match the risk to an individual person. And it's for that kind of anxiety that learning to move towards the things that you're afraid of and doing that technique that you just mentioned, exposure that it's relevant to anxiety like an anxiety disorder, not the way we talk about. I feel anxious about the world situation.

Laura Knoy:
So how do you figure out what the differences between small letter anxiety and capital letter Anxiety?

Dawn Huebner:
So capital letter Anxiety clearly gets in the way of life. So this is children who are afraid in ways where the fear interferes with their day to day functioning.

Dawn Huebner:
So, for example, a child who is nervous that a parent might forget to pick them up after school and they need repeated reassurance that the pickup is going to happen and they need to know exactly where their parent is going to be, OK, all day so that they know that the parent is going to be there on time. It might be hard for them to actually go to school because they're nervous about them, nervous about that. So it's that kind of anxiety that I deal with in my clinical practice. And it's that kind of anxiety that children need to learn this technique called exposure, which means to to do the thing that you're afraid of or to move towards the feared situation. Often a little bit at a time, but in deliberate and intentional ways so that you can learn that the thing that you're afraid of is very unlikely to happen.

Dawn Huebner:
And also, as people are doing exposures, they learn to get used to the feeling of nervousness and fear, which is a really important component. It relates back to something we touched on earlier, which is that anxiety becomes a loop where you feel nervous about something and you want to avoid that thing. And then you need to avoid that thing in order to feel any sense of relief. And the more you're in that pattern of avoiding, the more that pattern is self-perpetuating.

Laura Knoy:
Let's go to another listener and then I have lots more questions for you about that, Dr. Huebner. Ernest is in Northfield Hi Ernest. Thanks for calling in. Go ahead.

Caller:
Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I was wondering if your guests would address something that I have thought about for a number of years.

As far as a parenting technique, we see and hear so much about helicopter parenting these days.

And I've often believed that it's important to allow children to fail and overcome on their own at times so that they learn the experience of resiliency in the face of occasional failure. Children are allowed to experience that. I think that may be very hard for them to deal with it as they move into early adulthood. And I'm curious what your guest would have to say about that.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Ernest This is a great call. Go ahead, Dr. Huebner.

Dawn Huebner:
Yeah, I agree. It's a really it's a really good question. So parents often become intent on protecting their children from difficult feelings and they immediately zoom in. This is what helicopter parents do. They zoom in to try to fix situations or take away difficult feelings, whether those feelings are frustration or sadness or boredom or anxiety. So in the case of anxiety, often when children begin to feel nervous, parents are quick to try to reduce the nervousness for their child. And that comes from a loving place. But it's doing children disservice, because when parents are quick to take away the anxiety, they're often fostering avoidance or they're providing excessive reassurance. And it's part of what keeps the anxiety going.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, I'm looking at you and I'm thinking I'm so guilty as charged/.

Dawn Huebner:
Well I am too.

Dawn Huebner:
So I have a child who's now a young adult, but when he was young, he was very anxious. And I was parenting him before I became an expert in dealing with anxiety. Actually, parenting him is one of the reasons I became an expert in dealing with anxiety. And so I did many of the things that I now teach parents to not do. He had phobias. And one of the things that he was afraid of was splinters. And I became intent on helping him feel safe that he wasn't going to get splinters. And I felt any piece of wood that he might have to touch. I would run my hands over to reassure him that he was not going to get a splinter. And this little fear of splinters mushroomed into a fear of all wood. Oh, my God. It became quite incapacitating.

Laura Knoy:
Well, especially in New Hampshire, which is the second most forested state in the nation.

Dawn Huebner:
And also wooden furniture and wooden decks and wooden toys. And he couldn't touch anything made out of wood. And the more I scrambled around trying to accommodate him, the worse the fear became, because he was utterly dependent on my checking everything out for him and reassuring him that he wasn't going to get a splinter. And what I should have been doing relates to what the caller was talking about. I should have been helping him to take chances and to see that a the risk of a splinter was pretty low. And B, even if he did get a splinter, it wasn't the end of the world. You know, a splinter is is very survivable.

Laura Knoy:
And most of the time when you fail. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and you say, oh, I didn't die. Okay. Moving on. So I really appreciate that call, Ernest. Thank you so much, Michael E-mails: How would you classify a student who comes to tears when talking about climate change and expresses a fatalism when discussing their future? Michael says, I've heard young people say, why bother with their studies because of climate change and saying they won't bring children into this world? Michael. Wow. And there is a lot of very scary news about climate change and lots of gloom and doom apps about the future. And that's not to discount the science at all. But it's a message. As Michael says, that is tough for young people to take in. I wonder what you think, Dr. Huebner?

Dawn Huebner:
Absolutely. So. You know, young Swedish climate activists gratitude Berg in one of her recent speeches had a wonderful quote, which is along the lines of where there's action, there's hope. And so when you're feeling despairing, don't look for hope. Look for action.

Dawn Huebner:
And I think that's something that we can be teaching our young children. It's not about whether or not you feel a sense of hope in some artificial way. It's about paying attention to what people are doing and what you can be doing to stand on the side of things that are good, things that are effective to begin to make a difference. No individual or person can fully change the situation, but enough of us collectively can help to shift.

Laura Knoy:
So you talked earlier about the importance of exposure and you told that story about your son and would. And that's a great story. We talked earlier about lockdown drills, mass shootings and so forth. Obviously, you don't want anyone, children or adults, to experience a mass shooting. You even questioned Dr. Huebner, the lockdown drills that they have. So how does one help one's children deal with that fear and anxiety?

Dawn Huebner:
Yeah. So I think that we want to be talking to children about that as a practice for something that is very, very, very unlikely. The lockdown drill and helping children see that we practice all kinds of things where we're we're not expecting to be in that situation, but we practice anyway. You know, in some ways it's related not only to fire drills like we talked about before, but to something like putting on our seatbelt. We put on our seatbelt because it's safe and smart to do. We're not expecting to be in an accident. We probably won't be in an accident, but we do it preventatively. And so we can talk about lockdown drills in in in that way as well.

Laura Knoy:
Have schools talked to you about these, Dr. Huebner, and your thoughts on them, given your specialty in childhood anxiety?

Dawn Huebner:
No, but I know that they have spoken to other psychologists.

Laura Knoy:
All right. You're listening to The Exchange on NHPR. You know, Ernest, who called earlier, Dr. Huebner, talked about parents not being helicopter parents or snowplow parents plowing all the problems out of the way so that they do fall. The blessings of a skin knee is another famous book about, you know, letting kids fail. On the other hand, and you talked about the importance of not shielding them from difficult feelings. On the other hand, we all see the statistics increase in suicides among young people, increasing rates of depression. So the parents are between a rock and a hard place. You don't want to ignore all this stuff because there's a very real fear that when the child gets older, he or she might take his own life.

Dawn Huebner:
Right. So, again, I think that we want to be talking with children in advance about difficult feelings and helping children build the skills for dealing with difficult, difficult feelings. There's a difference between talking to children about major events in the news and we do to whatever extent that we can.

Dawn Huebner:
We want to kind of curate that information for our children. We don't want to be flooding our kids with information about the bad things that are happening in the world. That's different from kids that are struggling with particular anxiety, not about things happening in the world, but about, you know, things like dogs or bees or making a mistake or bad guys or the dark or things of that sort. Those are really two different things. Right. And so we want to be helping our children learn how to identify what they're feeling and how to manage those feelings so that kids don't feel like when they have an uncomfortable feeling, they're just stuck with it.

Dawn Huebner:
And part of what happens with suicidality is that people feel desperate. They feel bleak. And they feel like there's absolutely no way out or past or through the feeling. And so we want to be equipping our children with skills to deal with their difficult feelings.

Laura Knoy:
Well, we were talking earlier also... we both chuckled and said guilty as charged when it comes to just. Shielding kids from anxiety instead of helping them do the harder work. One of my kids, I won't say which one was forever afraid to go upstairs by himself when it was time to get ready for bed. And it was dark up there and we'd be washing up dishes or whatever, and we'd say, go upstairs and get ready for bed and come when you come with me. We'll know we're busy. And it was just easier to say, OK, dishes do later. I'll just come up with you. It's just a lot easier to do that when you're tired and you just need to get ahead.

Dawn Huebner:
Right. But that's that's the biggest mistake that parents of anxious children make is overly accommodating the anxiety. And again, it comes from either a loving place. You're wanting to protect your child from distress or from a pragmatic place. You know, you need to get bedtime going. And so parents, parents accommodate innocently.

Dawn Huebner:
But it's important for parents to have an understanding that the accommodation actually keeps the anxiety going. And ultimately, if you have a child that's really struggling in serious with with anxiety, it's important to learn how to not accommodate the anxiety and how to help your children, learn how to do the things that are scary to them, even though they feel afraid.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. Easier said than done. Even with that little example that probably, you know, half the parents listening have been through, I'm afraid to go upstairs by myself in the dark. Easier said than done when you're busy and you're tired and you just want to get the evening moving.

Dawn Huebner:
You know, the thing is, though, that this is doable stuff. So it does take time and attention and deliberate effort, but it's doable. So an analogy that I think helps make this make sense is when you're thinking about exposure or thinking about moving towards difficult situations, you're essentially thinking about desensitization. Right. So desensitization means getting used to something that's uncomfortable.

Dawn Huebner:
And the analogy is jumping into a swimming pool and we've all had that experience. Even children. So you jump into a pool, the water is cold, you stay in the water and then you get used to it. You don't hold anymore. That's right. And just like with the pool situation there, you can jump in or you can walk in slowly. And so when there's something a child's afraid of, like navigating the house alone, you can do a jump in or you can do a gradual exposure.

Laura Knoy:
So you get to choose.

Dawn Huebner:
Yes.

Laura Knoy:
But don't do what I did, which was I'll do the dishes later. More on helping children manage fear and anxiety, especially related to the news in just a moment. This is The Exchange on New Hampshire Public Radio.

This is The Exchange. I'm Laura Knoy.. Today, Dr. Dawn Huebner is our guest, an Exeter psychologist who is nationally known for her work and her books on children's anxiety. . We've been talking about her latest, A Kid's Guide to Coping with Events in the News. In just a few moments, we'll switch to one of her other recent books. It's called Outsmarting Worry and Older Kids Guide to Managing and Anxiety. As always, we want your comments and questions.And Dr. Huebner Nick is calling in from Manchester. Hi, Nick. You're on the air. Welcome.

Caller:
Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

Laura Knoy:
Sure.

Caller:
I'm a professor of psychology and a clinical psychologist with a expertise in early childhood anxiety. And I'd just like to say this is a great program.

Caller:
I totally agree with everything your guest is saying. I'd just like to add one thing, and that is that, you know, I think sometimes we lose sight. And you were kind of talking about this recently as to how hard this is for parents coaching kids through these anxiety provoking situations and exposures.

Caller:
One thing that I do in my classes with college students is we talk about the parents tolerating their own distress as they're watching their child experience distress and how important that is. And they often kind of half jokingly make the comment that, you know, if you don't think you would be capable of watching your child be in distress and not jumping in to save them, you're not ready to have children. You know, that's just such an important aspect of that. And I really emphasize that that this idea of like, you know, tolerating that discomfort in the parent as they're sort of observing their child, experiencing some distress, that they're trying to things and taking chances. And it's just so important and often kind of overlooked. And that's you know, that's a good thing. That's why we have professionals that could sort of help parents who do need that help.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Thank you so much for calling, Nick. It's really good to hear from you. Dr. Huebner what do you think?

Dawn Huebner:
Yeah, that's a great point. So I talked about how we have an an internal alarm system in our brain that alerts us to potential danger. And when kids are anxious, they've had their alarm get triggered. When a child gets triggered, that triggers their parents internal alarm, and especially a parent with a predisposition to anxiety themselves, which is often the case. Anxious children have anxious parents often, but parents feel distressed and anxious in relation to their children's distress. And so much of the the impetus to a comedy or overly reassure comes from the parents having trouble tolerating their own feelings and their child's feelings.

Dawn Huebner:
So the point is really well taken that parents need to learn how to talk to themselves and reassure themselves and breathe and get on top of their own feelings so that they can be calm enough to help their child to tolerate what's happening. Part of what we want to communicate to children is that we understand that what they're feeling is scary or hard.

Dawn Huebner:
And we also have faith in their ability to handle it. So we definitely want to acknowledge that our children are suffering or they're scared or they're having a hard time. You know, we want to acknowledge and empathize that and we want to couple that empathy with expressing to our kids. I know you can handle this or I know you can get through it. You know, kind of faith in our children, it children's ability to deal with something.

Laura Knoy:
What if you don't have faith that your kid can get through with it again? We talked about the rise in young people taking their lives.

Dawn Huebner:
Yes. So you then we want to provide additional support and assistance. Also, if we don't think that our child can manage the feeling that they're struggling with, whether that's anxiety or depression, we want to seek professional guidance. So I'm talking when I say that parents can express faith in their children's ability to handle it, something like the situation that you talked about with being afraid to go upstairs alone. Right. So that kind of fear, a child might feel afraid of that. And I think that we as parents can be confident that it's safe for you to go upstairs. And I also understand that you don't like the way you're feeling right now, but you can manage that. Right. So we need kids to not be so reactive to their fear. And we need parents to not be so reactive to their child's fear. Not that not that they should dismiss it, but they don't need to immediately accommodate it.

Laura Knoy:
Thank you so much for the call, Nick.

Laura Knoy:
Dr. Huebner, early you were talking about the swimming pool and the idea of getting through your anxieties, helping your children deal with their anxieties through exposure. But you've got a choice. You can either do the jump into the swimming pool, you know, getting cold right away, but then you acclimate or wading in slowly. Is there a better way? You know, would you pick between two of these or both are fine here.

Dawn Huebner:
They're both fine. I give children a choice. So I explain, you know, the analogy. I explain what happens in our brain that makes this work for us to get used to something that feels scary or hard for us. And then I give kids the choice. And most kids know that jumping in is faster, but it's more extreme. It's going to be harder because it's more intense. Wading in is more gradual and gentler and thus more appealing. But it's going to take longer. But either one is absolutely fine. And we've been talking some about parental responses more and less how helpful parent responses. There are two things that parents sometimes do that are not particularly helpful. One is to tell their child, you don't have to go in the pool. So, you know, to kind of protect their child from going in at all. And the other is to shove their child in. And neither of those are helpful.

Laura Knoy:
Ok. So give me more on... Well, the first one's kind of obvious. You don't have to. That says you're not capable of dealing with difficult emotions.

Laura Knoy:
So I'm just going to let you avoid those difficult emotions?

Dawn Huebner:
Or this really is so, so difficult and dangerous that I'm going to protect you from it.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah.

Dawn Huebner:
The shoving in is, parents sometimes do this because they get frustrated themselves and they want their child to just deal with it, just do it right. And that tends not to work well because kids feel not heard, not cared about. They begin to dig in their heels. So that's not a particularly useful thing for for parents to do either.

Laura Knoy:
Ok. And again, I'm trying hard not to laugh because I have done all these things wrong with you. Dr. Huebner, but let's go to another listener. And Beth is on the line from Bartlett. Hi, Beth. You're on the air. Welcome.

Caller:
Hey, good morning. I just wanted to make what you say that I'm just it's really overwhelming and sad that we've created this society in which there are so many dangers and traumas and stresses for poor children. But number two, there is a beautiful, wonderful, poignant children's author. Her name is Ruby Roth and she's just written and published a book called Bad Day. And this is specifically what she deals with. So I don't know if anybody has heard of it yet, but I just wanted to put it out there because she's just a wonderful children's author. The book is called Bad Day.

Laura Knoy:
So for more from a fictionalized perspective then?

Caller:
Well, no, I don't think so. No, it's just it really dealing with the fact that we have a society that unfortunately is filled with all kinds of double standards and violence and trauma and children are greatly affected by it and how to talk to them about it.

Laura Knoy:
Ok, Beth, thank you very much for the recommendation. Again, that's Ruby Roth, I believe she said. And we've been talking about your book, Dr. Huebner Something Bad Happened, A Kid's Guide to Coping with Events in the News. But let's talk a little bit more about this one as well. Outsmarting worry and older kids guide to managing anxiety and lots of similar themes, obviously, with the other book. But what's the most important theme in this book, Outsmarting Worry?

Dawn Huebner:
Yeah. So the idea with this book is that it's really helpful to do something called externalizing anxiety, and that is to help children think about their anxiety or their worry, like it's a little creature, like a little gremlin of some sort who wreaks havoc within their brain. So it kind of pulls the danger alarm within their head and scares them. And kids can learn the quote unquote tricks that that worry tries to play on them. And then they can also learn to outsmart those tricks. They can learn to do things that push back against this little personified worry so they can learn how to question what their worry is, telling them they can learn how to challenge their worry rather than obey it. So that that's kind of the basis for this book.

Laura Knoy:
It's actually helpful for older kids who often love to argue and you give them tools to argue with worry. How do you debate with worry and to win?

Dawn Huebner:
Well, actually, you don't debate with worry and win. So that's one of the chapters in the book talks about where he loves to debate. So kids sometimes do get involved in debates with worry or with their parents where they're seeking assurance that a bad thing isn't going to happen.

Dawn Huebner:
So I often work with children who are afraid of throwing up. That's actually one of the most common fears I treat. And kids who are afraid of throwing up want absolute assurance that they're not going to get sick that day. They're not going to get sick. And so having a debate with worry would mean having a back and forth about I'm not going to get sick and worry says what if you do? And a child says, I'm not. And worry says, well, your stomach feels funny or will you eat this thing? And it goes back and forth and back and forth. And there's no end to it because worry always comes back with, are you sure? And the reality is you can't be sure. And so I teach children to not enter into a debate with worry, but instead to recognize that where he's talking to them and to say you're not the boss of me or I'm not listening to you, but to not get pulled into a debate like that.

Laura Knoy:
Well, it's really interesting that you mentioned the fear of throwing up, because that was one of the main fears of a girl who was featured this weekend on The Daily, which is broadcast on NHPR.

Laura Knoy:
And we've put a link to that episode. She was afraid of throwing up and tornadoes and she found a way to manage is very interesting.

Laura Knoy:
So just to wrap up, Dr. Huebner, you write that worry capital w worry in this debate, which you should not enter into, because worry else always has that last kicker winner of a line. Ah, yes, sure. So just describe that sort of ultimate line that worry throws out at us.

Dawn Huebner:
Yes. So when we're nervous, we want assurances that the bad thing is not going to happen and that's not realistic. And as long as we're involved in a tug of war, trying to get that absolute assurance, we're going to be stuck. And so people who are having trouble with anxiety and including children need to learn how to tolerate uncertainty and need to learn how to unhook themselves from that quest for certainty, because it's not productive and it's not possible to be certain.

Laura Knoy:
That's really hard.

Dawn Huebner:
It is, although we can train ourselves to do it so we can learn how to tell ourselves that's not productive. I'm not going to go there or that's just my worry. Talking to me, I don't need to listen. And that's one of the places where neuroplasticity comes in that we can retrain our brains to not follow the path of anxiety. We can teach ourselves to identify. That's a worry thought. I don't need to go there and then turn our attention to something else. And deliberate distraction is a useful tool. Different from frantically trying to distract ourselves.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and the hopeful part about your work is that I'm guessing the brain is always plastic, but I'm guessing with young people, kids you work with, you know, 0 to 12, basically their brains may be especially open and able to learn these cognitive behavioral techniques to help them manage it throughout their lives.

Dawn Huebner:
Absolutely.

Laura Knoy:
That's the good news. It's been really nice to talk to you, Dr. Huebner. Thank you very much for coming in.

Dawn Huebner:
Thank you. It was my pleasure.

Laura Knoy:
That's Dr. Dawn Huebner, Exeter psychologist, specializing in anxiety. She's written many books about this topic, including the two we talked about today, Something Bad Happened and outsmarting worry. You can read other references and check out that episode of The Daily that I mentioned, which also talks about childhood anxiety. The Exchange is a production of NH PR.