by Alice Goff, MS, LPC
From the moment parents bring their bundle of joy home, the journey begins to love, teach, and protect the precious life they’ve been entrusted with. In those early days, it seems the parents’ main role is to soothe the crying or uncomfortable baby. They make plans, and take action to actually prevent discomfort for the child. It’s the natural thing to do. Fast forward to that first day of preschool. We’ve all seen that child clinging to mom’s leg as she is fighting back tears herself! Preschool, scary bedtime monsters, or doctor visits are all common childhood fears. For some children, though, their worries go far beyond those seemingly insignificant worries or fears. It would seem “normal” for parents to continue their role of preventing, or sometimes completely avoiding those situations that cause their little one distress.
Equipping parents to empower their child rather than always avoiding the worrisome situation is the key to managing anxiety. It is understandably challenging for parents to stand by and allow their child to go through something difficult when they could swoop in and rescue their child. In some instances, that may be warranted, but a repeated habit of rescuing and avoidance, prohibits the child from developing the skills to overcome challenges. Psychologist Anne Marie Albano, PhD says “When parents are doing a lot of negotiating to remove anything that upsets the child, that child is at greater risk of anxiety.” On the other end of the spectrum, are parents who ignore, and sometimes discredit their child’s worry or distress. They have the “suck it up, buttercup” attitude. Neither of these extremes are healthy for the anxious child. With that in mind, what is a parent to do? Young adults who struggle with anxiety report that their parents’ lack of compassion toward them made them feel alone, and actually contributed to their anxiety. Others report that they felt smothered because of a parent who never allowed them to do new things. They remember seeing or sensing their mom’s anxiety which made them nervous and afraid to try new things. Parents who are anxious sometimes display behaviors their child mimics, so these parents may need to address their own anxiety as they strive to help their child. Family therapy is useful in that parents and children can tackle their anxiety together, and understand how to control their anxiety, rather than allowing their anxiety to control them.
Acknowledging the child’s distress, being understanding, compassionate, and consistent are practices vital for parents in helping their anxious child. Adopting Robert Frost’s observation that “the only way around is through,” exposure to anxiety provoking situations slowly and systematically helps a child face fears, and learn to tolerate the anxiety until it subsides rather than reacting with negative behaviors such as escaping or avoidance. Obviously, it will be appropriate to avoid situations that are unhealthy or unsafe, but always avoiding stressful situations may cause a child to miss out on new opportunities for growth and confidence.
There are many treatments available to assist parents and children in navigating and conquering their anxiety. Talk therapy, exposure therapy, bibliotherapy, and sometimes medication are all useful tools for helping an anxious child. Dr. Dawn Huebner, author of “What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety” writes, “Therapy isn’t just about managing the problem or desperately trying to make it go away, it’s about teaching kids skills they can use to get on top of their problems.”