A new study at Arizona State University shows that parents of children with anxiety disorders often fall into a “protection trap” that can perpetuate the problem: Parents of Anxious Children Can Avoid the ‘Protection Trap’
Parents may fall into the protection trap in three ways:
- responding to a scared child’s fears and worries with positive attention that reinforces the behavior
- allowing the child to avoid situations that are scary or uncomfortable
- doing things for the child with the result that fears are never faced and overcome
Yale Professor Eli R. Lebowitz, Ph.D., is an expert on childhood and adolescent anxiety at the Child Study Center and co-author of the book, “Treating Childhood and Adolescent Anxiety: A Guide for Caregivers.” In this book, he makes the point that the parental impulse to protect one’s children is a primal instinct and evolutionary dictum that is hard to ignore. When a child fears an object or situation that is not actually dangerous, parental protection is no longer an aid to survival and can become a hindrance. The child with anxiety may draw the lesson that fear itself is dangerous and should be avoided.
The alternative to the protection trap is support. Parents can provide a supportive response to a child’s fear by conveying two distinct but integrated messages:
1. Acceptance – acknowledging that the feeling of fear is real and legitimate.
2 Confidence – expressing faith that the child can cope and is strong enough to face the challenge successfully.
In his book, Eli Lebowitz outlines a program of Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE). This approach is unique in that it is directed at parents, rather than the children with anxiety, many of whom are resistant to treatment. Far from blaming parents, it offers specific guidance and support for dealing with phobias, panic attacks, OCD and school refusal in children who do not engage in or respond to treatment with trained professionals. The Guide can be readily understood and used by parents and professionals alike, and is listed in RtoR’s Resource Collection of Recommended Reading.
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