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How to Encourage a Child Struggling with Anxiety: An Interview with Cheryl Swope

May 1–5, 2017   |   Vol. 130, Week 10

If you have a child struggling with anxiety, you know how tough it can be—both for your child and for you.

But you’re not alone.

Author Cheryl Swope homeschooled two children with autism and schizophrenia, and over the years she has collected an abundance of ideas and strategies for relieving anxiety in children. Join Cheryl on today’s Homeschool Heartbeat to learn how you can give your child the confidence and the strength to overcome anxious thoughts.

This week’s podcast will cover:

  • Common causes of anxiety
  • Why you shouldn’t always “rescue” your child from anxious situations
  • Two helpful strategies for relieving anxiety
  • How to talk to your child about his or her anxiety
  • Balancing your standards as a parent

“Many people feel anxious or nervous—it’s what we do with those feelings that’s important.”—Cheryl Swope

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When you have a child struggling with anxiety, it’s natural to want to rescue him from anxious situations. But according to author Cheryl Swope, constantly rescuing your child can do more harm than good. Find out why on today’s Homeschool Heartbeat.

Mike Smith: My guest today is Cheryl Swope. She’s the author of the homeschool curriculum Simply Classical, and she has successfully homeschooled her two children, who both have learning disabilities. Cheryl, thank you for being with us and welcome to the program!

Cheryl Swope: Thank you, it’s good to be with you.

What causes anxiety? [0:32]

Mike: Cheryl, your curriculum focuses on helping children with special needs and learning disabilities. Now, anxiety is one struggle that many children face, but it isn’t talked about very much. So in your experience, what are the most common causes of anxiety in children?

Cheryl: The most common causes are both external and internal. External causes of anxiety include real dangers they might face; being overexposed to stressful situations or violence, say, in media; or even hearing the news too often. Internal causes include a familial predisposition to being a very sensitive person, neurological or sensory challenges, or faulty thinking patterns that the child has developed. The good news is that as parents we can lessen the effects of all of these.

Mike: Now Cheryl, what are the best ways for parents to tell if their child is struggling with anxiety or not?

Cheryl: The first way is to listen. If you child often begins sentences with “I’m worried about” or “I’m afraid that,” this may indicate anxious thought patterns. Second, observe. Does your child engage in nail-biting, excessive crying, trying to avoid situations that other children would find enjoyable? Does he have an overly inward focus? We intentionally include good children’s literature throughout our Simply Classical curriculum from Memoria Press, because literature has been shown to nurture a healthy empathy for others and an outward focus.

Anxious thoughts vs. clear thinking [2:03]

Mike: Cheryl, how can parents encourage a child struggling with anxiety?

Cheryl: The key is to help him notice when his overly anxious thoughts are unwarranted, so he can replace those thoughts with clear-calm thinking. It’s a cognitive approach. I recently wrote an article entitled “Hope for the Worried Child.” It’s free to read at CherylSwope.com. In the article, you can find a link to a great book that outlines this cognitive approach step-by-step. My husband and I have successfully used this approach with both of our adopted twins—a boy and a girl. They both suffer from severe mental illness, specifically schizophrenia, so we needed something powerful and effective.

Mike: Cheryl, what practical steps can parents take to help their child gain confidence—without overwhelming them?

Cheryl: Well first, be sure to break things down, whether academic or social, into small, successful bites. You want to reverse any patterns of failure and turn the child towards real achievement. This is confidence-boosting in itself.

Second, assure him that many people feel anxious or nervous—it is what we do with those feelings that’s important. We can bravely face our nervous or anxious feelings. We can move forward with confidence, knowing that we will not be given anything we cannot handle.

Raising confident children [3:23]

Mike: Cheryl, how old were the children when you adopted them?

Cheryl: They were just 1. They came to us as 1.

Mike: Okay, so you actually got an early start. That’s probably good.

Cheryl: Yeah, it was very good.

Mike: How old are they now?

Cheryl: They are almost 22.

Mike: Wow, how are they doing?

Cheryl: They are doing fabulously, really, all things considered.

Mike: Do they live at home?

Cheryl: They do live with us, yeah. And their lives are lives lived in service. That’s a theme that we started really early and that has helped them overcome so much, is looking at their lives that way: that no matter how challenged they are, they can serve other people.

Mike: What are some examples of the kind of service they do?

Cheryl: Well, my daughter works every Tuesday in a nursing home.

Mike: Okay.

Cheryl: Just yesterday she was helping her favorite resident, who has dementia. They just, they have this connection, the two of them. And I think partly it’s because they think similarly. But she was helping her play bingo. Neither one of them won, but they just had the best time. And that’s her favorite thing to do, is to play bingo with this lady. I can’t say her name, but they have this special connection. So she serves every Tuesday as an activity aide with our local nursing home.

And my son helps some widows on our street with yard work. He’s very big—he’s 6’2”. So he can help with raking and shoveling the driveway, and they’ll try to insist on paying, and he’ll say, “No, I just love to do it.”

And so they find little ways like that around the house. Plus, they both help a ton as we get older—my husband and I—they help quite a bit around the house. Michelle is my Domestic Assistant—capital D and capital A.

Mike: Good, good. So are they going to be able to be self-sufficient at some point?

Cheryl: No. No, their biological mother had schizophrenia, and we don’t know about the biological father. So I think their load, genetically, was pretty high. They both do really, really well with support, but if we pulled that support out from under them, then things would unravel.

Mike: I got it. So you’re their guardian, I presume, right?

Cheryl: We are. Right. We received guardianship right before [they turned] 18, and so we’re guardian and conservator, and that has worked really well for them and us.

Mike: Okay. Well you guys, I admire you for taking on what you’ve taken on. That’s amazing.

Cheryl: Well, we had no idea. When they came to us, they were just cute little bugs.

Mike: Well, God bless you. That’s great, God bless you.

(Don’t) W-O-R-R-Y [5:55]

Mike: Cheryl, what are the biggest pitfalls that parents can fall into when trying to help their child deal with anxiety?

Cheryl: The five big pitfalls can be remembered with an acrostic: W-O-R-R-Y.

The W is for wringing our own hands. If we worry about our children’s worrying, we do no one any favors.

The O is for overreacting. Similar to W, if we overreact out loud to our child, that will not solve the problem.

The first R is for rescuing. It’s very tempting to rescue our anxious children, anticipating every need so they never need to feel anxious, or so we think. Rescuing can unwittingly cause the child to feel even less capable and more anxious.

The second R is running to every specialist under the sun. We don’t want to do that. Just find one or two good professionals and let them help you if you need it.

And the Y is for yelling. Of course, this only creates more tension for the child. Model your own calm.

When we focus too much on the child’s worries, we forget the child’s gifts and talents. It’s through those gifts and talents that the child can learn to still his fears and to love and serve others. Love conquers fear, and that’s what we really want for our children.

Mike: Cheryl, did you come up with that acrostic?

Cheryl: Yes, sir.

Mike: That is fantastic. Wow!

Cheryl: Just for this interview.

Model your own calm [7:17]

Mike: Cheryl, children who struggle with anxiety can be very sensitive, and it can be hard to communicate with them in a healthy and constructive manner. Now what advice do you have for parents when they talk to their children about his or her anxiety?

Cheryl: Yes, not only do we need to take steps to change the way we talk to our children; we also need to help them learn to change the way they talk to themselves. So instead of, “This is impossible! I can’t do this,” we teach them to say, “This looks difficult, but I’m going to try.”

Here’s a new acrostic: C-A-L-M.

The C is for coach. We come alongside our children as a coach who teaches new ways of thinking and provides lots of practice.

A is for assess. Find out if the child is overestimating the bad things that will befall him—whether [it’s] embarrassment, ridicule, or physical danger, assess what she fears.

And then L, lead. Lead her to think more clearly with facts and evidence. What is the actual likelihood of something catastrophic happening here? What is the possibility of something tolerable or even favorable happening?

And finally, M for model. Give examples out loud, such as: “I feel a little nervous about visiting Grandma at the nursing home today, but I’m going to go because she needs us. Her needs are more important than my worry.”

So coach, assess, lead, and model. C-A-L-M. Model your own calm.

Balancing your standards [8:44]

Mike: Cheryl, sometimes the expectations we parents set for our children can contribute to their anxiety or worry. If we set our standards too high, our children might become afraid of failure. How can parents of a child struggling with anxiety keep their standards realistic without losing them altogether?

Cheryl: Yes, we need to be careful not to create a demanding or overly critical relationship with our children. Perfection cannot be our standards. Neither do we want to coddle, excuse, or give up on them completely. So a good way to safeguard is to step back with a spouse or a good friend or a fellow homeschooler, check to see that your expectations are clear and fair and that consequences are equally clear and fair. Anxiety will lessen for everyone when your child knows he is in good hands.

Mike: That’s great. Now Cheryl, what are the most important things for parents to remember as they help their child cope with anxiety or worry?

Cheryl: The most important things to remember are to help the child think more clearly about himself and his place in the world. Be sure he eats well and gets plenty of daily exercise, as this has been shown to relieve anxiety. And be sure that you notice and nurture his own gifts. If you need a gentle, nurturing curriculum to help you do this, we invite you to consider the Simply Classical curriculum at Memoria Press. Above all else, we can remind our children and ourselves that in the world we will have trouble; but we can take heart, for we have the one who has overcome the world for us.

Mike: Cheryl, that’s fantastic advice and great encouragement. Thank you so much for joining us this week. I know our listeners have appreciated your guidance and insights for helping them handle a child that has anxiety. Until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

Cheryl SwopePhoto of Cheryl

Cheryl Swope, M.Ed. is the author of Simply Classical: A Beautiful Education for Any Child (Memoria Press, 2013). With Memoria Press, she created the full-year curriculum recently voted #1 for special learners by The Old Schoolhouse magazine.

Cheryl has a master’s degree in special education and lifetime state teaching certification in learning disabilities and behavior disorders. She concedes that most of her own education came through homeschooling adopted twins—a boy and a girl who both have autism, learning disabilities, and schizophrenia—from the children’s infancy through high school. Now at nearly 22 years old, these children’s love of history, literature, and Latin have persuaded Cheryl that a beautiful, effective, classical education offers benefits to any child.

Cheryl lives with her husband and their adult twins, Michael and Michelle, in a rural wooded community where they can swim in the lake, grow kale in the garden, and stargaze on blankets in the open field.

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