Chris Gilbert, Psychologist, Baulkham Hills NSW
13 March 2018
Parenting can be hard enough at the best of times but parenting an anxious child can add an extra layer of complexity that you never expected. An anxious child can seem more sensitive than most, worrying about things that don’t seem to be worth worrying about. It can be a fight to get them to try and face their fears and when they do it can be a disaster.
So what happens? You’re a loving parent. You have the ability to help your child. So you do. You have the ability to make them feel better. It’s your job, isn’t it? A compassionate embrace until the tears stop flowing. Answering the endless stream of worries with the wisdom that reassures. Rescuing them from their current crisis and working out ways to avoid it next time.
As loving as these actions may be – what if they’re ultimately feeding your child’s fears? Short term gain, but long term pain.
When parenting a child with anxiety one of the most important goals that you can have is developing your child’s confidence that they can cope and their independence to know that they can cope on their own.
Here are four common pitfalls that parents of anxious children tend to fall into, and suggestions for what to do about them:
1. Providing excessive reassurance
When children are scared it’s common for them to ask lots of questions in an attempt to reduce their anxiety. You might find yourself answering the same or similar questions over and over again, which can get pretty annoying! Whilst it might seem quicker and easier to just answer their concerns they never learn to deal with their worries on their own. They become dependent upon your reassurance. Without that reassurance, their fears seem out of control. One way that you can help your child to regain some control over their fears and worries is to offer them the opportunity to try and solve their own problems and reassure themselves.
Something to try: Acknowledge their feelings whilst encouraging them to think of their own solutions: “Sounds like you might be a bit worried or scared at the moment? Is that right? That’s ok. What are some things you can tell yourself to make you feel better?”
2. Jumping in too soon
When your child is struggling it’s hard to not offer a helping hand. You know the sort of things that make them uncomfortable and anxious, so you jump in. But when you jump in too soon you don’t allow your child the opportunity to learn to figure things out for themselves. More than that, you subtly confirm your child’s fears, telling them that the situation really is too scary for them and that they can’t face it on their own. Dealing with emotional turmoil takes time and practice. It’ll probably be a bit messy as they struggle with the intensity of their emotions. That’s perfectly normal. When they grapple with their distress they learn to develop skills for dealing with their own anxiety. They need encouragement that when they face their fears they will be able to cope and that nothing bad will happen.
Something to try: Encourage their independence and bravery whilst validating their emotions: “I know it feels a bit scary but I want to see you do this on your own. I know that you can do it”
3. Allowing avoidance
One of the biggest ways to feed your child’s fears is to allow them to avoid it. When they avoid, they reinforce the idea that their fear cannot be conquered. The fear seems to get bigger and bigger. Avoidance can take many subtle forms: allowing a child a day off school, accompanying a child for certain activities or suggesting alternative activities. Even requests for special treatment can be a form of avoidance allowance (e.g., asking that your child always go first or be placed in a class with a certain friend). Your child needs to know that struggles in this life are not something they should run from. They need the opportunity to learn that they can cope successfully.
Something to try: Remind them of their past successes, that their fear is only temporary and that by facing it they’ll be able to conquer it: “Last time you did it you loved it, remember? Even though it felt scary, once you did it that fear went away. The more you face your fears, the more they begin to disappear. Are you ready to do it again?”
4. being too tough
Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how scared seemingly “normal” things can make your child. Because you’re not scared you might be tempted to push your child too hard and too fast in an attempt to “toughen them up”. It’s important that your child experience the success of conquering their fears by starting with the smaller ones first. They need to feel like they’re in control. Building confidence and independence should be done in a gradual manner. Every little victory gives them more evidence to convince them that they can do it!
Something to try: Find out just how strong their feelings are and help them work out a compromised solution if it’s too big for now. “From 1-to-10, how big is your fear right now? Ok, it’s a 9. That sounds pretty big. Maybe that’s a bit big right now. So let’s work out what would be a 5 and then do that first.”
So what are your pitfalls? Where do they happen? Take some time to identify the pitfalls that you stumble into from time to time. What will you do differently next time? What can you say to your child to help them develop independence and courage?
Psychologist, Baulkham Hills NSW
Chris has a particular interest in supporting individuals of all ages who are struggling with anxiety and depressive disorders. He creates a motivating and light hearted environment within which clients can develop the skills necessary for change. When treating young people Chris works together with their families to empower everyone involved with the skills needed to improve their lives.