Friday, May 13, 2011

Coping With Anxiety Not As Simple As 1, 2, 3

There is no shortage of things that my son has anxiety about:

Being late; answering a question; a change in his schedule; putting his face in the water; performing a challenging task; riding a bike or swing; playing with other kids; an unfamiliar person; thunder and lightning; and on and on.

When Kai has anxiety, he tends to gravitate toward numbers. Numbers are his comfort. He knows numbers, he loves numbers. They are his friends. They are objective. They never change. He has confidence when it comes to numbers.

His psychotherapist was the first to point out how Kai uses numbers to cope with his anxiety. Before, I didn’t think twice when he would start to talk about them during our sessions with her. But once she mentioned it, I did notice that he seemed to always start talking about numbers or writing them when he was feeling anxious.

When it comes to his anxiety, I have to keep reminding myself to see things from his perspective. All too often, I forget to do that and wonder why he should be anxious about something. After all, if something is simple for us, shouldn’t it be simple for him? And yet, as I’ve come to realize, that often is not the case.

We could be out somewhere when someone greets him. Instead of responding to the person, he may start talking about how old something is or what year it was discovered or something else that has to do with numbers. Even when the person asks a simple yes/no question, he may not respond.

His world is different than ours. Especially in an unfamiliar place, he may have trouble just figuring out his place in the environment. It gets more complex if he is in a noisy spot with a lot of activity. Then, it is a further challenge to listen to what the person is saying and try to process it all while struggling to shut out all the distractions. Add on his language deficits, and coming up with the words to answer back is not instinctive like it is for most of us. Sometimes it all gets to be too overwhelming.

As he gets older, it is likely that the social situations he finds himself in will get even more complex. And so his skills will have to improve.

He will need a comprehensive learning plan that includes support for social skills, emotional regulation, and speech and language. He would benefit from learning to “self talk” his way through solving problems. He ought to have occupational therapy, though his insurance company doesn’t seem to feel it is necessary.

There is also the question of medication, and whether that may help reduce his anxiety. But, that is a topic for another day.

In the meantime, we continue doing what we can. And if I hear him talking about numbers, instead of just tuning it out, I’ll think about whether that is an indication that he is anxious about something.


This post was submitted for the S-O-S Best of the Best series on Anxiety, which will be published on May 15th, 2011. You find more information and read other submissions here.


  1. I was especially happy about your comment on realizing that when he does talk of would start to look at the reasons for his anxiety.

    My son did exactly the same thing a few years ago...numbers and everything.

    The repeating of numbers or calculations is a is an indicator of the emotional temperature. Trying to extinguish the reliance on the numbers without teaching him adequate coping skills to handle, or better yet, master the backwards.

    The anxiety is the heat source. The method of mastering the anxiety is the thermostat. That is what needs to be controlled.

    You have it right...your son will continue to progress because of your keen insight. Kudos to you and your wife.

  2. I like your analogy of the thermometer. Too often we try to bring the heat down without understanding what the heat source is. You are right: mastering the anxiety is the key. Thanks!

  3. What a brilliant post
    My son is the exact same way
    He carries ( and has done since he was a baby )foam numbers around all the time
    WHen he was only 3 - I asked a child psychologist why he liked to carry numbers - say number etc - everywhere .
    She said it becasue numbers are completely predictable.
    ANd when the unpredictable world causes stress- numbers remind him that - no matter what - some things are the same

  4. Thanks!

    I love your post - numbers are not the only thing that is predictable, but so is your love! And that is something we all can give to our kids.


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