Parenting is one of the most complex journeys that an individual can experience in their lifetime. As people begin their parenting journey, they likely have ideas and hopes for what their children will be like and how they will fit into the world. If you are a parent, you can maybe remember a time when you envisioned a certain parenthood experience that you thought you wanted, for yourself and for your child(ren). If you’ve had some experience in the complex world of parenting up to this point, you know that some of your expectations for your journey did not pan out how you thought they would. One of the most difficult things that a parent can experience is seeing their child have a detrimental problem that leaves them feeling helpless. Having a child that has a medical or mental health issue is certainly one of the most difficult things that a parent can face. Mental health issues are prevalent for children of all ages, and childhood anxiety is a common one. If you are a parent and have a child that is struggling with anxiety, this post will highlight potential solutions that may be helpful for you and your family.
In the article For Kids with Anxiety, Parents Learn to Let Them Face Their Fears, Angus Chen reports on one family’s experience in dealing with their son’s worsening anxiety and how they tried a different yet effective method for tackling the mental health issue. The son’s parents signed up for an experiential treatment through a Yale University study. Rather than embarking on a therapeutic treatment that would assumingly involve the family’s son, it actually was the mother of the son that was attending the weekly therapy sessions (the father/husband was also actively involved in the treatment process). This new treatment approach focused on teaching parents new ways of responding to their child’s anxiety, and the effectiveness of this approach is worth discussing and sharing.
What is important to take away from this study, is that “the parent’s own responses are a core and integral part of childhood anxiety”, according to Eli Lebowitz, a psychologist at the Yale School of Medicine, who developed the training of the treatment program. Professionals in the field of psychology often find parents responding to their children’s anxiety in a manner of comforting and “giving into” the anxiety. This type of response is also known as accommodation, and this can actually be counterproductive for kids with anxiety disorders. When parents provide a lot of accommodation, the underlying message to their child is something like “You can’t do this, so I’m going to help you”. This hinders kids from learning how to cope with stressors and uncomfortable feelings on their own.
One of the most important takeaways from this experiential study and treatment program was teaching parents how to interact with their child and the anxiety in a different way. The focus was to coach parents on how to avoid accommodating the anxiety and to create a plan that helps parents make their child feel loved and heard during their distress. The therapists of the program helped parents learn how to develop supportive statements to use in the moments when their child’s anxiety is heightened and distressing. Building up your child through supportive and empathic statements and responses proves to increase confidence and resilience. Comments such as “your fine, stop worrying” will only harm your child and make them more anxious – it will leave them feeling unheard, misunderstood, and stuck. Encouraging and validating statements are key.
If you are a parent that has an anxious child, you should know that your experiences are unique and not fit for being placed into black-and-white categories. However, I encourage you to notice and observe how you and your family respond to your child’s anxiety. If you notice that you and your partner accommodate or dismiss your child’s anxiety, seeking professional help and trying a new approach may be beneficial. Focus on validating your child’s distress but also give them tools for overcoming their stressors. If you need more support to manage your child’s mental health issues, contact Symmetry Counseling today to get set up with one of our talented clinicians! We have many therapists on our team that are trained in working with parenting issues.
Most of the information used for this post was referenced from author Angus Chen’s article, For Kids with Anxiety, Parents Learn to Let Them Face Their Fears.