Episode #115 – How do I help my anxious, indecisive child?
Question of the Day:
My 12 year old daughter gets really worked up when it’s time to make decisions.
Right now I am watching her work herself up into a state over whether she should, or should not, return a gift she got for Christmas. Her anxiety shows up in little ways (should she go to a sleepover or not, what food to order off a menu) or bigger decisions like should she go out for the club team or stay in recreational league. I have tried many things to help her but nothing seems to work.
The other night we were watching The Good Place together and she recognized herself in the character of Chidi. He tries so hard to make the right decisions it gives him chronic stomach aches, but his suffering causes other people to be annoyed by him. I think it’s the first time she realized that her struggle to make decisions affects others, not just herself. She doesn’t want her friends to be annoyed by her indecision (she could care less about annoying me!)
She is motivated to change and asked me for help but I don’t know what to tell her. This is not a problem I understand or struggle with. Do you have suggestions to help someone who is plagued by indecision?
Parent Educator Answer:
This type of anxiety is one that most therapists are trained to handle so starting with finding a psychologist to help her is my first recommendation.
This is also the type of anxiety that is going to greatly affect YOU as her mom, so I am happy to help you understand it better so you can be a more effective resource to your daughter.
Just like if your child was diagnosed with Celiac disease, you would learn everything you could about being gluten free and start making changes in your lifestyle to support your newly diagnosed child. You wouldn’t get annoyed at her for having Celiac, nor blame yourself for something you did. When it comes to mental health issues like anxiety or depression, I think we should take the same approach: learn, grieve, surrender, adapt, repeat.
Amanda sounds like she has done all this. She accepts it without resistance, she’s tried offering suggestions, she doesn’t blame herself or daughter, so let’s learn more about it.
Difficulty making decisions stems from perfectionism. We think perfectionism means needing to have a perfectly clean house, and it can be that, but generally it’s more about the belief “There is a right way and a wrong way, and I need to make sure I choose the right decision.”
People who struggle to make decisions are trying to optimize their choice. Because they believe there is one right answer and the consequences of choosing the wrong answer are dire, “analysis paralysis” takes over and they get stuck considering countless data points and possible future outcomes.
Being plagued by indecision sucks. The Good Place character Chidi has a chronic stomach ache and difficulty enjoying himself. When someone is stuck in anxious indecision they are unable to hear their intuitive voice. The fear blocks them from being able to listen to reason or gut instincts.
Giving kids choices seems like a good thing, and it is in small doses, but too many choices can feel overwhelming. I remember taking my 5 year old to a candy shop and saying, “You can have anything you want in this whole store that fits into this little white bag.” I had a fantasy about how his eyes would widen and he would look at me with wonder and gratitude while he excitedly picked his way through the brightly colored bins. I was so busy reveling in what a cool mom I was that I didn’t notice his hunched over shoulders, furrowed brow. The more he weighed his options, the more weight seemed to fall on his shoulders.
I remember seeing a Dad sweeping his arm around the periphery of Toys R Us exclaiming to his son, “You can have any toy you want in the whole store!” The dad was so proud of himself but after 5 minutes after they walked through the store, the boy was melting down in a fit of overwhelm, stress and indecision.
Research shows that “choice overload” causes people to be less satisfied and engage less with their final decision. Meaning they aren’t as happy with their decision as those who went with their gut, or those who made a half-hearted decision.
How can we help our kids who are plagued by indecision?
If they are in a moment of paralyzed anxiety:
- Sympathize and realize they are suffering even more than you are.
- Make decisions for them and eliminate the pressure. It’s nice to have someone to blame if it doesn’t work out.
- Decide not to decide. Encourage your child to use take the energy used to wrestle with her decision elsewhere and give her brain a break.
- Later when they are calmer:
- Play the game “You are getting warmer”. Tell them that “the right answer” is hidden in the room and they have to figure out where it is. Help them realize that the only way to lose the game is to not take a step in any direction. Even if they step in a “colder” direction, it gives them helpful information to inform their next step.
- Point out some of the decisions they make on a daily basis that are easy. Show them how habits and routines reduce the number of decisions they need to make.
- Practice celebrating mistakes. Talk about bad choices that turned out good. Share your poor decisions that turned into funny stories.
Life Coaching Answer:
What gets in our way from being compassionate, helpful guides when our kids are melting down over seemingly nothing?
Different brain states.
You are in your logical brain with full access to the big picture of life.
Your daughter is in an anxious, fearful part of her brain. If she makes the “wrong” decision, her inner mean girl is going to start berating her telling her what a stupid loser she is. She is legitimately afraid of what she is going to say to herself, about herself. This is unconscious to her, but every perfectionist I’ve ever talked to has this as the ultimate worst-case scenario. A perfectionist might SAY the worst thing that will happen to them is they may regret their decision but always, it’s WHAT they will say to themselves if they regret it that is the absolute worst thing.
Being in different brain states can make it harder to understand where your child is coming from. It’s easy to get annoyed or exasperated because you aren’t thinking the way she is. But you can also use your different brain states to help elevate her mind to a higher consciousness.
I remember being in a Burger King, working myself into a fretful state trying to decide what to order. As the line grew longer with people behind me, the pressure I felt was as strong as the smell of french fry grease in the air. I was comparing calories and nutritional benefits, and trying to optimize my order to spend the least amount of money possible on the healthiest thing. I didn’t know what to order but felt pressured to make the best decision in a short period of time. Finally, I stepped aside and let those in line behind me go through so I could have more time with my weird math/health problem. I was so enveloped in my indecision I couldn’t see how ridiculous I was being.
It wasn’t until my husband pointed out (kindly and sarcastically) that saving $1.25 while eating junk food was not creating the quality experience he looked for in an outing to Burger King. He suggested “enjoyment of the dining experience” was more important than extra coins or calories.
Of course he was right. It was a silly thing to get riled up over, but my brain was in fear, perfectionism, and maximizing opportunity. When he talked about his values and priorities in a light hearted way, it shifted my brain out of fear and into a higher state.
When we think about what we want and what’s important to us in the long run, it shifts us into a higher state of consciousness.
Einstein often said that “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
The best way to help your daughter make decisions is to help her shift her mental state into relaxation, love, or optimism. One way to do this is by playing the metaphor game.
If there is a decision that really does belong to your daughter, remind her that she is safe and loved, no matter what she chooses. That if she regrets it later, she can always pivot and no one will be mad at her.
Let’s say she’s trying to decide if she should attend a sleepover and her mind is spinning in circles considering all the what-ifs (what if she wants to come home, what if everyone is on their phones, what about covid, will her friends talk about her if she’s not there, etc.).
Her anxious brain is not going to help her decide. Instead, look out the window or go for a walk and play the metaphor game.
How is my indecision to go to the sleepover like this tree?
From far away, it looks like a simple ordinary tree, but when you look closely, there is a root growing over another root, strangling the tree’s access to nutrients. This tree looks healthy but it’s struggling, kind of like me. I look the same on the outside but because of my anxiety, I’m not getting full access to my intuition and higher brain.
How is my indecision to go to the sleepover like that frozen lake?
People look at me and think they understand me. I look cool and calm like that lake. But once you get out onto the lake, you realize I can be fragile and unpredictable. I’ve got waters underneath me that run deep and are filled with wildness. Maybe I want to go to a sleepover where people know the wild and deep version of me, not just the cool and calm version.
The beautiful thing about the metaphor game is that it’s a game. There is no right or wrong answer. The purpose is to stretch the imagination with levity, but the result is that it shifts us to the right hemisphere of our brain where our calm knowing lies, giving us access to that beloved intuition we all yearn for.
Supermom Kryptonite – “What if’s”?
Part of what causes doubt, uncertainty, and decision anxiety is thinking about all the “What-ifs” that may occur. Google “decision making frameworks” and you will be overwhelmed with templates and flow charts to help you analyze and maximize all the potential outcomes to help you make the best possible decision.
Trying to anticipate all the possible “what if” future scenarios will drain our energy and drive us crazy. Sometimes, indecision is a sign that you need more information. Doing research and gathering data can help us make an informed decision, other times, it keeps us stuck in a mental hurricane.
When trying to decide something, know your values and do your due diligence. Weigh your options, but as soon as you are turning up the same information over and over, it’s time to go with your gut.
Ask yourself does this choice feel like bondage or liberation? Go with the step that feels like freedom.
Supermom Power Boost – Hot Tubs
I am a huge fan of hot tubs. I can count on one hand the number of years I lived without one. I love having one, especially during COVID. If you have considered buying a used one off Next Door, or you have wanted one but your partner doesn’t think you will use it enough, perhaps this list will help you pull the trigger and make a big decision that you won’t regret. (and if you do, tell your inner mean girl to blame me).
Here’s 10 reasons why hot tubs aren’t just for Californians but the perfect thing for Supermoms.
- You can experience a deep relaxation without leaving your property.
- It’s close enough to home to bring a baby monitor but far away enough to act as your sanctuary.
- Your kids will practice “swimming” all year round so when summer comes, they aren’t afraid of the water and they feel confident holding their breath.
- It’s a great place for deeper conversations with your teens or tweens (if they get uncomfortable they just dunk under water).
- It feels like a break, another place to go after being home all day.
- It extends your day. You can be outside longer without freezing your tushy during these dark, winter days.
- Somehow it helps siblings get along better. They use their imaginations and make up games.
- Depending on the age of your kids, they can go in with only distant supervision while you enjoy the peace and quiet in your house.
- Your body will thank you.
- You can read or play music but NO CELL PHONES in the hot tub!
Quote of the Day:
“Always make decisions that prioritize your inner peace.” Izey Victoria Odiase