Finding Your Balance – Responding To Your Anxious Child
Have you ever felt unsure of how to help your child when they experience symptoms of anxiety? Anxiety in children is becoming increasingly common. As trained therapists we can help you gain the skills needed to help your child. When responding to anxiety it is helpful to find your balance between a response of avoidance and demand.
When children are allowed to avoid what makes them anxious constantly, it may relieve their anxiety temporarily in the moment, but it keeps them consistently anxious. Anxiety is really effective at causing someone to avoid what is uncertain and uncomfortable. Therefore, if allowed to avoid the thing that makes them anxious, a child’s anxiety may be affirmed rather than challenged. Consider a child who is afraid to go to school. If the child is consistently allowed to stay home, he or she will feel some relief by not going, but they wake up the next day still anxious.
This can be true in more severe cases of anxiety, such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). If a caregiver of a child struggling with OCD aligns with the child’s compulsion to avoid what makes them anxious, eventually the family will feel frustrated and isolated by the child’s anxiety. Imagine if a family avoids eating out to help reduce the child’s anxiety about eating in restaurants. It would help the child in the moment to feel less anxious, but it will not change or challenge the anxiety. An avoidance response can affirm the anxiety and perpetuate the problem.
On the other hand, if a parent demands that a child face what makes them anxious it can increase their anxiety or cause panic. For example, if a child was afraid to try out a new social situation and the parent dropped them off and told them to try it without addressing their anxiety, they may end up calling home or panicking in the moment. Unfortunately this could increase their fears and anxiety around social situations.
We often do not think of ourselves as demanding, but demand language is often easy to use as caregivers. Have you ever responded to a child’s anxiety with any of the following responses:
● “Just stop.”
● “Just don’t think about it.”
● “Just trust me.”
This demanding response can deepen the shame around anxiety. What that means is that it may cause the child to feel like they are both causing the anxiety and should be able to control it. That feeling leads to the experience of shame. Anxiety is both powerful and painful. If someone experiencing high anxiety could “just stop”, they would.
Is it hard to find your balance as you think about these approaches? It is very painful to watch your child experience anxiety. It is our natural response as caregivers to respond to our children by helping to remove whatever is causing them pain. It is easy to lean towards protecting your child by helping them to avoid what causes their anxiety. Parents also have the very important jobs of exhorting and encouraging their children to grow. It’s also common to believe the best and assume they can handle anything which might create a demanding response.
The avoidance and demand responses to anxiety are usually unintentional and often out of care. If the balance is hard for you to find, I encourage you to be kind to yourself. We are all growing and learning as parents.
What children need most is people to help them problem solve and cope when they feel anxious. They need to know that someone is walking alongside them and that they aren’t alone in their anxiety. Next time your child feels anxious, try to keep your balance between avoidance and demand by seeking to:
● listen empathetically to their concerns
● gently remind them of truths
● reminding them they don’t have to be alone as they navigate their fears
If you are concerned about your child’s anxiety and are seeking more ways in which to help them cope, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced Orlando mental health counselors.