What doesn’t work?
There are a number of things that parents or caregivers try to do to help their anxious child. Some of the things that may not be the most helpful, and I will address why, include:
Everyone benefits from a vote of confidence, for sure. However, with anxiety, sometimes that reassurance is not enough.
A child might not know they need more, and might ask repeatedly for the same information over and over, hoping that they get what they need to feel better. But words alone will not suffice, and may not tap into the feeling underneath.
Without having the person (child or any age) feel seen, heard, and understood, that vote of confidence could miss the mark.
Minimizing (“You’re FINE”)
Because if someone thinks they are actually in danger, simply telling them they will be okay will not stop them from having those feelings.
Imagine sitting in your living room watching TV and smelling actual smoke. Your body will perk up, your scent sharpen, you ears will tune in to all the sounds in the background, your mind will quickly check through sources (“Did I leave the oven on?”) while your eyes scan the area for signs of smoke (You are not consciously thinking through all of these things – your body just does them). Imagine turning to your partner (if there is one, and if they are present) with that alarmed look, just before you get up, and they say “Relax, there’s nothing wrong.” Chances are you are not relaxing and enjoying the rest of the movie without a second thought.
It’s not any different for your child. If they are anxious about something, simply telling them to relax or no be worried will not actually alone calm them down.
They might actually even amp up the message, because they do rely on you for safety and comfort. You might notice that behaviours get worse.
Distractions are great tools, especially when feelings are way too intense to manage. In the short term, they provide relief. But they are really an avoidance strategy from the present moment emotion or situation. And we have already covered above why avoidance is not helpful.
Distractions can sometimes be helpful. Sometimes, we want to temporarily distract, to ease the intensity and be able to return to the emotion or situation without getting overwhelmed or consumed by it.
However, relying on distractions as the only way to cope does not actually build up skills in tolerating the anxiety, or whatever uncomfortable feeling we are distracting from.
What we want to do is build up an ability to tolerate and move through discomfort.
“Fixing” the Problem
Because of that urge to protect from pain, and maybe even because pain in a child can feel like pain for the parent too (mirror neurons?), parents sometimes jump in and try to solve the problem too quickly.
Of course, parents have way more life experience and have lots of great advice and proven strategies that work in managing all sorts of situations. And relying just on that knowledge alone misses the mark, because coming in with advice and problem solving is a “front-brain” mechanism while the child is in “back-brain” and so the two can’t communicate.
Literally, all logic, reasoning, problem solving, organizing, even language, will not register with a kid who is feeling super anxious. What they are needing is to be soothed first, so that their front-brain can come back online, and once that happens they can hear some how to fix the cause.
On top of this, if you have ever been stressed about something, and a very caring partner, friend, or family member tried to tell you what you should do about it, you probably weren’t super eager to take in or follow their advice. (One of my favourite examples of this is from a Modern Family video clip, that if you have an extra few moments you can catch it right here.)
The fact is that we actually have the ability to find the best solutions to our own problems. We might just need a little patience and support in getting there. And if your child can come up with a solution that actually makes them feel better and solves their problem, then they are learning to trust themselves, building confidence, learning to self-regulate, and practicing to develop and implement self-management strategies.
Accommodation of the Anxiety
Earlier we introduced the idea that sometimes there are things parents do to avoid the anxiety, or avoid upsetting the child, because then all hell breaks loose. In the short term, it’s easier to just provide the child with what they are asking for, with the hopes that the anxiety will go away, that it’ll get better, or that they will grow out of it.
Life is busy, and families have so much on the go. Sometimes we do what we can to stay afloat. Often times, it takes a while before parents even notice that although the child isn’t coming undone by anxiety, they are also bending over backwards to prevent the anxiety and it’s beginning to take a toll.
Another caveat here is that by accommodating the anxiety, the child gets the message that the anxiety is huge and serious and dangerous, and also that they are not capable of coping with it. That even parents are not able to cope with it, and so the anxiety actually grows.