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How Parenting Instincts Can Go Wrong When it Comes to Raising a Child with Anxiety

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When I was 9 years old, I was playing with friends in my backyard in Minnesota.  I was having a great time until I saw a dog running towards us.  I could see his owner in the distance, but this dog was loose and headed right for us.  To me, he was scary looking. I’d never been afraid of dogs before, but in that moment, my brain told me he was going to attack us.  So I got up and started to run to my house, which was a huge mistake, because he saw me running, thought we were playing and pursued me.  I could feel him getting closer and could hear him barking, and with every step closer to my house, I could feel my fear rising uncontrollably.

Finally, I made it into the house.  My mom hugged me while I stood in fear watching a rabid beast (it was actually the sweetest dog ever) bark and jump in front of the door.  I thought I was in danger; he thought we were playing.

From then on, I was terrified of dogs.  I wouldn’t cross the street if I saw one and tightly held the hand of a parent if one walked by us.  I’d make my parents call my friends’ parents to make sure dogs were locked up if I was to come over, and they constantly reassured me that I was safe and dogs are harmless.

My parents followed their parenting instincts to do things to protect me and shelter me from my fears, yet my fears persisted for over a year.  Then my parents decided to change their parenting strategies, and they bought a dog.  Can you imagine my dismay?  I’ve been terrified for a year and now I was getting a dog?  Turned out to be the best parenting decision they made and I overcame my fear by facing it head on instead of hiding from it.

How Anxiety Works

Anxiety is the feeling of worry or nervousness we have when faced with a situation that has an uncertain outcome.  We all have it. It’s a normal, healthy human emotion.  It protects us from danger by alerting us to potential threats in the environment.  How we talk to ourselves in those moments influences the brain’s response, to either dismiss the threat, or to protect against or flee from it.  The problem is that anxious children tend to respond in anxious and fearful ways, so their brains start believing the situation is dangerous when it’s really safe.  Those reactions cause children to exhibit the following symptoms when faced with situations with uncertain outcomes:

  • seek excessive reassurance
  • clinginess
  • restlessness
  • somatic symptoms (headache, stomach aches)
  • avoidance
  • crying/tantrums
  • inattention, poor focus
  • refusing to go to school
  • agitation

Our normal parenting strategies of comforting our kids when they face these symptoms backfire and actually cause the anxiety to intensify instead of decrease.  Imagine the scenario of being bitten by a mosquito.  At first the bite itches, so in the moment you’ll scratch at it.  But when you stop scratching, the itching gets worse.  So the very thing you’re doing in the moment to make it better, is actually making it worse.

This is exactly how anxiety works.  When our kids feel anxious, they may metaphorically scratch at it by exhibiting those symptoms.  If our response is to comfort and protect, then we’re helping the scratching, too: temporarily getting relief but long term making it worse, and actually teaching a bad coping skill for our kids to rely on.

Our Role as Parents Changes Over Time

When our kids are younger, our job as parents is to be fixers and protectors.  We baby-proof drawers to prevent fingers from getting crushed. We block staircases so kids don’t fall down. We call teachers at school when there’s a situation. We set up play dates, etc.  Our job is to make them comfortable, safe, and happy, and to shelter them from distress.  But the job changes over time and at some point we need to become consultants that help our children come up with solutions for their problems on their own. So eventually, they don’t need to rely on us over time.  Often times, parents remain in fix-it mode when parenting anxious children.

Our Goal is to Help Our Children Tolerate Anxiety Rather than Eliminate It

Imagine jumping into a swimming pool on a hot summer day.  Your decision-making, once you enter, influences your future with the pool.  If feeling the cool water, you instantly react by saying it’s too cold and immediately exit the pool, the chances of jumping back in are minimal.  If, however, you stay in the water, swim around and maybe dunk your head underneath, you’ll adapt to the temperature and remain in there, and look forward to jumping in again later.  The water stayed the same temperature, but you got used to it.  The same is true in our approach to anxiety.

People with anxiety disorders tend to make two fundamental errors when faced with uncertainty.  They overestimate how badly the situation will go and then underestimate their ability to cope with it.  For example, imagine your child is afraid of giving a presentation in front of the class.  She may anticipate days or hours in advance that it will be so hard, she’ll never be able to finish it and it will be catastrophic academically and socially.

We want our children to be brave, face their anxiety, realize they can adapt to it and overcome it on their own, without needing us to intervene or relying on us to help them avoid it.

Effective Parenting Strategies for Anxious Children

Below are examples of healthy parenting strategies compared to “fix-it mode” parenting strategies.

Validate instead of fix or dismiss

“I understand that you are nervous about your test, if I had a test I’d be nervous, too” is a nice way to open a conversation about their feelings, and is far better than “don’t be silly, you’ll do fine on your test.”

Ask neutral but not leading questions

“How are you feeling about your test?” instead of, “Are you nervous about your test?”

Be a collaborator not a fixer

“I have a few ideas of things you can do to feel better in this situation. What are some ideas you have, let’s compare notes;” instead of, “If you’re feeling anxious, go to your room and listen to music, or go watch a video online.”

Help set up positive and realistic expectations

“Try your best on the test, and whatever happens, you will be able to handle it;” instead of, “If you don’t do well on this test, you may have to take it again or do summer school.”

Reinforce efforts to approach anxiety instead of reinforcing avoidance

“I’m so proud of you for doing your presentation in front of the class today, I know you were worried about it;” instead of, “If you’re too anxious to do your presentation today, it’s ok to miss school and you can do it later.”

Hopefully, these strategies will help you communicate and parent more effectively with your anxious child. If symptoms persist, or you have more significant concerns, it’s always better to seek the help of a mental health counselor than to wait it out.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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Author Bio: Jerry Bubrick, PhD, is a senior clinical psychologist in the Anxiety Disorders Center and director of the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Service at the Child Mind Institute. He is a cognitive and behavioral psychologist who specializes in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Widely recognized for developing one of the world’s most intensive pediatric programs for OCD, he is a pioneer in using cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to treat children and teens with OCD and related anxiety disorders. He also co-authored Overcoming Compulsive Hoarding, the first book ever written on the topic.


Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash

The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.

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1 thoughts on “How Parenting Instincts Can Go Wrong When it Comes to Raising a Child with Anxiety

  1. Denise Vestuti LCSW, Resource Specialist says:

    This is one of the best pieces I have read! It captured me immediately. I love the effective parenting strategies for anxious children. I am certain your blog post is a go to piece for us as Resource Specialists to include with resources to parents and family members contacting our site. Thank you Dr. Bubrick. We are grateful.

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