I’m a psychotherapist and I get multiple calls each week from parents of anxious children. These parents are desperate to help their children “get rid of” their childhood anxiety or learn to cope with it. They often state that their child has been highly anxious since they were very young. These parents feel like they’ve tried everything…comforting their child, explaining logic to them, tough love, and all the breathing exercises you can imagine. Often they are surprised when I suggest we start with parent work and I explain that parent work alone is often enough to make major strides in their child’s anxiety. How? By reducing or eliminating parental accommodation of child anxiety.
Anxiety is a normal human emotion and it serves a clear purpose to protect us against a threat. But sometimes kids (and adults too!) perceive too many things as threats or misperceive one big thing as a threat. For example, It’s adaptive for kids to feel anxious about separating from their parents at first, especially in a new situation. However, once a situation has been shown to be safe we want children to feel comfortable separating to go to school or stay with a trusted caregiver. An anxious child is highly motivated to avoid things that make them anxious because they truly believe it is a threat. In this example, a child may cling to their parent, fake illness, refuse to get dressed in the morning, or require a longer and longer goodbye routine all to avoid separating. This is where parents come in!
Many well-intentioned parents feel as though their job is to make sure their child doesn’t feel afraid or to stay and comfort them until they feel better in an anxious situation. Not a single parent enjoys seeing their child struggle but if we take away struggle we deprive our children of growth. When parents take away things that make their children anxious or allow them to avoid things they are fearful of, they reinforce the anxiety. Allowing a child to avoid things that make them anxious sends the message “You are right! There IS something to be afraid of” and then the anxiety gets worse and the avoidance gets stronger. And yet pushing too hard and invalidating.
Parenting is hard no matter how you slice it. However, parenting an anxious child disrupts the whole family system. Anxious kiddos can be demanding and controlling of their parents in an effort to avoid the feared situation. They can also become highly emotional and fearful to the point that the entire family is anxious and fearful as well. Anxiety is not an isolated issue, it becomes a family issue very quickly.
So what is a parent to do? First, start reframing your view of your child. Instead of thinking “It’s my job to protect him from scary things”, start thinking “It’s my job as a parent to make sure he is equipped for life’s challenges”. Or perhaps shifting from “He’s so little. It’s too much for him” to “He is capable of managing big feelings”. Check yourself and your views/feelings of your child’s anxiety. If you are anxious when your child gets anxious, things will not improve. You have to truly believe that your child can manage his anxiety.
And then get some support and resources! Certainly, you will need more support than this short article so I highly recommend the book “Breaking Free of Child Anxiety and OCD: a proven program for parents”. Many therapists support parents using the SPACE treatment protocol. Lastly, I find that many parents begin to get help for their own anxiety once they discover how their anxiety impacts their parenting. There are so many great resources out there, so get some help and support for you…not just your child.