As a child clinical psychologist and a parent, I understand the complexities of raising children, especially anxiety. Anxiety can be very challenging. Understanding its origins and addressing it effectively can make a significant difference. In this blog post, we will explore a common progression of childhood anxiety and describe a research-based approach to respond to your child’s anxiety to promote their resilience and emotional well-being.
Understanding the Development of Anxiety:
Let’s take a moment to understand how anxiety develops in children. It often begins with a child feeling apprehensive about a normal event, such as going to a new friend’s house for the first time. The child senses distress, and the natural response is to avoid it. If the child successfully convinces their parent to allow them not to go, then the child’s anxiety will go away. The child thus learns to get rid of the uncomfortable feeling of anxiety by avoiding the situation. The next time the child is confronted by an anxiety-provoking situation instead of engaging in it they will try to avoid it and if successful will reinforce the anxiety. As this pattern continues the anxiety grows: more situations are anxiety-provoking, the anxiety lasts longer and may also be more intense.
The development of school refusal works in a similar manner. A child may be anxious about a school test or a teacher they perceive as “mean.” Parents, in an attempt to help, might initially suggest the child call home for reassurance. The next morning the anxiety returns, and the child is not comfortable even with calling home, they want their parent to visit them at school or pick them up early. However, when parents continue to accommodate their child’s anxiety in this way, the anxiety continues to grow. Parents are baffled by this pattern and feel helpless. They thought that by giving in this time the child will see that everything is ok, and it won’t continue but the opposite develops.
Responding to Anxiety
Parents often grapple with how to respond effectively to their child’s anxiety. Common parental responses include trying to minimize the child’s anxiety experience by saying things such as it’s not so bad, you will be fine, encouraging the child to do it anyway forcing them to go, or accommodating the anxiety by allowing them to stay home and avoid the situation. Each of these responses has its own difficulty. When we minimize or force the child to go, they will not feel heard and will often resist with greater strength the next time. If we accommodate a child’s anxiety and allow them to avoid these situations, we inadvertently reinforce their anxiety.
Read closely! This is fascinating:
What happens when we accommodate or give in to our child’s anxiety and fears?
Picture anxiety as a little monster residing in your child’s brain, whispering all the reasons to be scared. When parents accommodate this anxiety (for example, allowing the child to call home from school for encouragement or skipping school), the monster grows because it tells the child, “See, even your parents agree this is scary and you cannot handle this. You are right to be worried.” As it gets bigger, more things trigger anxiety and it becomes more frequent, more intense and may last longer. This pattern can be baffling for parents who expected that one-time encouragement would be enough to conquer their child’s anxiety.
Effective Parental Response
So, how can we respond effectively to our children’s anxiety and prevent it from reinforcing and growing? Child psychologist and researcher, Eli Lebowitz, PhD from the Yale Child Study Center developed a research-based approach called SPACE that consists of two components.
The Two-Step Approach:
- Validation: Acknowledge and accept your child’s distressing emotions without necessarily agreeing with them. Validate their feelings, letting them know that you understand the depth of their struggle. When you validate their emotional experience, your child is more likely to listen to your guidance.
- Encouragement: Assure your child that you believe in their ability to face and overcome their anxiety. Let them know that you recognize the challenge but also their resilience. Sometimes, offering incentives can provide that extra motivation.
Overall, set the expectation that your child will confront their anxiety. Validate how difficult it is and then gently but firmly communicate that they can manage the situation. This expectation, combined with validation and encouragement, forms a powerful trio to tackle anxiety.
A third component of the SPACE program targets identifying and systematically reducing accommodations. This will be described in a future blog.
As parents, it’s natural to want to shield our children from distress. However, by understanding the growth of anxiety and understanding that shielding increases the anxiety, and implementing these research-based strategies—validation, encouragement, and expectation—we can nurture our children’s resilience and help them manage their anxiety effectively. Remember, you are not alone on this journey, and together, we can empower our children to face their fears and thrive.
Feel free to comment below. If you have any questions or would like to learn more about this approach, don’t hesitate to reach out. Aspire Psychological specializes in supportive and effective treatment of anxiety. You do not need to manage this alone. We are professionals with decades of experience. We can help.