Do you find yourself speaking on behalf of your anxious child? Do you constantly respond when they persist in questioning you for reassurance? Do you change family plans because your anxious child won’t leave the house? When your child demands you stay close, do you? Are you hesitant to enforce family rules and expectations because of how it will upset your child?
Do not feel alone. Changes that parents make to their own behaviors to help a child avoid or alleviate anxiety are known as parental accommodations. It is a common parenting response. Why? Because it’s hardwired in all of us as parents to respond when our child is in distress. Think about it- if we didn’t respond to our crying babies, they would not have survived. But over time, and as our child matures and grows, our kids don’t always benefit when a parent steps in when they are in distress. Instead of assisting them, we need to teach our children how to find their own ways to cope with worry, distress or anxiety.
At Anxiety Institute, we know parenting an anxious child is extremely difficult. It’s a lot easier to step in, rescue or change the way we might act, believing we are helping our child. In the short term, this approach feels good for both the child and for us. But in the long term, Anxiety Institute understands that accommodating an anxious child robs them of important opportunities:
– The more a child can be exposed to the anxiety, the more comfortable they become with being uncomfortable. This critical life skill of learning to tolerate their discomfort will help them walk through anxiety-provoking situations on their own as they inch closer to adulthood.
-Children must develop strategic coping mechanisms when faced with anxiety. We can help them build a toolbox of strategies to handle future anxious situations, such as more difficult homework, changing social situations or a constant need for reassurance. By children asking themselves “How can I handle this?” instead of “How can I avoid this?”, they will develop and add more skills to their toolbox.
-When a child uses avoidance to escape an anxiety-provoking situation, they lose the opportunity to test what might really happen vs. the worst-case scenario they are imagining. When a child navigates their way through a difficult situation, they find that the outcome is never as bad as they thought. This critical reinforcement process boosts a child’s sense of competence and confidence.
-Finally, and most importantly, when we step in and rescue our anxious child, we inadvertently send a message that we don’t have confidence in their ability to handle the situation. Parents serve as powerful mirrors to their children. By reflecting a vote of confidence that our child can internalize, we set the stage for building resiliency, a factor that will go a long way to counter future anxiety.
It is very difficult to break this cycle of accommodation on your own. Parents often need help identifying their own behavior patterns to move from a place of accommodation to a place of support. However, when we take on a supportive role, not only do we recognize our child’s anxiety, but we simultaneously demonstrate the belief that the child can manage the situation on their own.
To guide parents through this process, Anxiety Institute is pleased to offer The Parent Strategy Program, a parent-based coaching program that equips caregivers to parent their anxious children effectively and confidently. Participation in the PSP includes 10 video conference sessions of one-on-one parent coaching with weekly check-ins for support and troubleshooting. Parents learn the skills necessary to break the cycle of accommodation and avoidance, improve family dynamics, and foster a more independent, resilient child. Notably, parents who have already participated in the PSP report an increased sense of well-being, increased competence in their parenting skills, and the confidence to enforce boundaries.
If you would like to learn more about the Parent Strategy Program, please email [email protected]. At Anxiety Institute, we are firm believers that while parents are not the problem, they are an important part of the solution.
-Andree Palmgren, Ed.M., M.A., LPC
Director of Parent Services, Anxiety Institute