I recently read this article entitled “The Right Way for Parents to Help Anxious Children.” The article does a very good job of explaining how difficult it can be for parents to know what the right solution is to help their child cope with his or her anxiety. Should you force them to do things that make them afraid? Should you allow them to avoid activities that feel uncomfortable? Mostly, how can you help? Most parents are just trying to find that magical solution that will help their child feel better now and also succeed in their future.
Although the article doesn’t use the scientific term, what it is really explaining is the concept of negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement, simply put, is when a behavior is reinforced by removing an uncomfortable situation or feeling. So, in the case of anxious children, if a child is allowed to avoid participating in an activity because it makes them anxious, they are likely to learn to avoid other activities in the future that make them feel uncomfortable. Thus, by allowing a child to opt out of an activity, behavior, or event, parents sometimes can inadvertently cause an increase in anxious avoidance, simply by trying to help their child feel better in the moment.
Here’s an example – Imagine your child says “Mommy, I don’t want to go on the field trip today because I don’t like going places I’ve never been and I’m not sure my best friend is going and it makes me feel nervous in my tummy.” You think for a while and decide that it’s not going to hurt anything if she misses just one field trip and she seems really upset and you want to reward her for stating her feelings. She stays home. No problem, right?
Most of the time, this would be just fine. This is just one of those hundreds of parenting decisions parents are faced with every day. However, if your child already has a propensity for feeling anxious and already tends to avoid things if she feels she’s not capable or she’s not prepared or the whole thing is just too “scary,” well, then you may have just reinforced her anxiety. You may find her asking to avoid more and more things. And you may find yourself saying yes because you don’t want to make her suffer and you want to be supportive. It is a slippery slope and very difficult to navigate.
The article does a good job of explaining this process and explaining how to help parents change their own parenting behaviors to increase their child’s sense of confidence, mastery, and security in facing their fears. However, the piece I would add is that one article cannot encompass how difficult this process can be for a parent. It is not as easy as simply saying, “Sorry, honey, I know that the field trip makes you nervous, but you have to go anyhow.” Especially when your child may be crying and begging you not to make her go!
This is where a trained therapist can be helpful. It is my job to help you and your child navigate this process of managing anxiety in a comfortable way that doesn’t feel overwhelming to you or your child. Yes, we need to increase your child’s ability to engage in activities that make him nervous, but we can’t overwhelm him by pushing too hard. My job is to help you find that correct balance that allows your child (and you) to feel safe and confident to do things that other kids his age are able to do – even when it makes him nervous!
I like to say, getting help with parenting doesn’t mean you are doing a bad job; it’s just that parenting is a complicated process and there is no “owner’s manual” for your specific child’s needs. It can be helpful to have a trained professional on your team from time to time to help your child learn how to feel confident, secure and happy.