How Much Reassurance Is Too Much When Your Child Has Anxiety?
If you have a child with anxiety, what do you do to help relieve the anxious feelings? Do you want to protect them from feeling scared or upset? Is your first instinct to protect your child and take away the anxiety? Or do you gently push your child to face their fears?
What Not to Do
A new study, completed at Arizona State University and published in the journal Child Psychiatry and Human Development, found that coddling children when anxious can make matters worse. Some parents, the researchers say, can fall into the “protection trap,” paying extra attention to them, reassuring them and making whatever is causing the anxiety go away. This approach, the researchers say, can backfire and cause anxiety levels to rise.
Researchers surveyed 70 children and adolescents between the ages of 6 and 16 years old. According to the responses, when parents either reinforced or punished anxious behaviors, the children were more likely to be anxious.
What to Do
When children have fears, from the fear of darkness to speaking in public, the best way to approach the situation is to have the child face the fear, in a controlled and supportive way. Exposure therapy has someone face a fear in small increments, slowly moving toward a goal. For example, if your child is afraid of dogs, you might start with looking at pictures of dogs, then move to watching videos of dogs. The third step might be seeing a dog through a window and then moving to having a dog across the room and then slowly having the dog move closer to the child until he or she is able to pet the dog. This process can take weeks or months, depending on the level of anxiety. While you can create an exposure program for your child by yourself, there are therapists with training and experience in working with children with anxiety and you might find the program works better under the guidance of a therapist.
Lindsay Holly, lead author of the study suggests encouraging children to do “brave things that are small and manageable,” for example, if you child is afraid of speaking in public, you can start with having them answer a waitress’ question when eating at a restaurant. This is providing support and encouragement without trying to take away your child’s discomfort or fear.
Other ways you can help your child include:
Teach relaxation methods, such as meditation or deep breathing techniques. Help your child to find ways to reduce stress, such as listening to soothing music, going for a walk or watching a favorite television show.
Add exercise to your child’s daily routine. Exercise has been found to reduce anxiety levels. Make sure your child is getting at least 20 to 30 minutes of exercise each day.
Be consistent on how you handle anxiety. If you are married, it is important that you and your spouse handle an anxiety episode in the same way. Discuss beforehand how you will react so your child knows exactly what to expect. Make sure to tell caregivers how you want them to react to your child’s anxiety.
Provide routine. Having a set routine and knowing what to expect can help your child feel more secure. Have set time for homework, meals and television time.
Be supportive. Let your child know that everyone has fears but that you can’t let those fears stop you from enjoying life. Give your child examples of how you have overcome fears in your life. Help your child face fears in an encouraging way without giving in to excessive reassurance.
Help build self-confidence. Make sure you praise your child’s accomplishments and look for activities that will help build self-confidence. Build upon your child’s interests and talents to help him or her feel good.
Don’t expect fears to disappear immediately. Even if you work with a therapist, fears won’t go away right away. Be patient with the process and praise your child for any progress, no matter how small.
Watch for avoidance behaviors. Many people, including children, with anxiety rely on avoidance of the feared object or situation to stop the anxiety. This, however, tends to reinforce fears and make anxiety worse when confronted with the object or situation.
Anxiety in children can interfere with family life and school. It can create social problems and interfere with your child’s ability to make friends. If your child is suffering from anxiety, consider talking with your doctor or asking for a referral to a mental health professional who has experience working with children with anxiety.