I work with many clients who are living with anxiety whether it be related to their personal or professional life, or perhaps both. My job as their clinical therapist is to help the clients understand possible factors/triggers/reasons why they are feeling anxious. Once we work together to figure that out, I help them with possible coping skills to manage their anxiety. Some of my clients are not only addressing their own anxiety, but they also have children who are living with anxiety.
I recently read an article from NPR that touched on this very topic, “For Kids with Anxiety, Parents Learn to Let Them Face their Fears” by author Angus Chen. Chen describes strategies for parents to help their children face their anxiety. In his article, he describes how parents see a therapist once a week to learn coping skills for their child as opposed to the child seeing the therapist. This was through an experimental program through Yale University by Eli Lebowitz who is a psychologist at the Yale School of Medicine.
Below are some key points from Chen’s article.
- Accommodations lead to more anxiety. Lebowitz describes that many times parents want to try to comfort their children when they’re feeling anxious. For example, if their child is anxious while alone in the bathroom, and the parents accommodates their child by saying, “I’m just outside the door,” it actually increases the child’s anxiety. Through those accommodating words, it sends a mixed message to the child that they can’t do the task on their own. They then learn they are unable to deal with stressful situations on their own.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) training. Lebowitz did an experiment where he would teach the parents without the child present about cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) so that the parents could help the child cope with their anxiety. Lebowitz encouraged parents to understand that their child does have anxiety versus the child just wanting to seek attention. Leading with empathy from the parent to the child is the first step in helping the child cope with their anxiety. This looks like having the parent make statements along the lines of, “It must be scary for you to be in the bathroom alone”.
- Tolerating the anxiety. After leading with empathy, the parents then can take the next step in which the parents encourage their child that they can tolerate their anxiety and don’t need to be rescued from it. As in, parents learn to let the child be alone in the bathroom and not to swoop in and save them every time they feel anxious. Through doing this, the child is able to face their fears. Once the child starts to learn to tolerate their fears, it is important to give them reinforcement statements such as, “Wow, you were scared being alone in the bathroom, but you did wonderful the entire time all by yourself!”
- More research to be done. While training the parents about cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) seems to be working, there is still follow up needed. They will need to visit with the families 6 months, 12 months, and several years later to see if the parent training method truly works. It still needs to be tested years down the road to see if the parents teaching the techniques to their children when they are teenagers still works.
If you are currently struggling with your child living with anxiety, it may be a good idea to connect with one of our skilled counselors at Symmetry Counseling today. You can contact them at 312-578-9990 to set up an appointment.