Parenting Isn’t Easy
Parenting a child who has anxiety isn’t easy. Certainly parents of anxious children are often overwhelmed and baffled as to how best help their child overcome their fears and handle their anxiety, especially when they’ve tried various things with little to no success. This particular post is geared towards parents, to hopefully give them some tools and strategies to better handle their child’s anxiety.
To put it simply, children better handle their anxiety when their parents and other caregivers encourage and support non-anxious behavior. In fact, research has shown a distinct and very strong correlation between parents who use punishing control for behavior, as well as those who use non-responsiveness to their children, and all levels of child anxiety disorder related behavior. Panic disorder/agoraphobia and generalized anxiety disorder were the areas most strongly correlated with these two types of parental behavior tactics, proving that parents significantly impact their children’s disposition towards anxiety and anxious behaviors.
The Importance of Parenting
The importance of the parents’ role in helping children with anxiety cannot be minimized. A study by psychologist Dr. Ronald Rapee found that when parents of anxious children participated actively in treatment and learned child-management strategies, improvement rates for the children were 84%. However, only 57% of the children whose parents were not included in treatment improved.
Now let’s get into some specific strategies that parents can tweak and adapt to work for their families as they are needed. Psychologist Aureen Pinto Wagner recommends that the first step for parents who wish to increase their effectiveness in handling an anxious child is to increase their self-awareness and insight into their own “parenting style.” They will benefit greatly from honest self-appraisal and a willingness to accept different viewpoints and attempt new approaches. It may also be beneficial to recognize automatic reactions and responses that need to change if the child is to successfully tackle his anxiety. It may require the parents to step outside of their comfort zone in order to change familiar ways of parenting.
Six Areas of Parenting
Psychologist Wagner suggests that parenting behaviors for anxious children fall within six areas:
- Proactive, positive and preventative
- Security, structure and stability
- Appropriate attending
- Teaching by example
Let’s go over these one-by-one. The three P’s, Proactive, Positive and Preventive, set a solid framework for the child. Being proactive, rather than reactive, calls for having an action plan before the crisis develops. This also includes becoming more aware, thinking ahead and being prepared to have helpful responses to the anxious child. It is important to redirect some of the energy and time spent in the child’s negative interactions into positive experiences. Parents must make an effort to develop a more positive self-esteem by providing the child with opportunities to use his good qualities and make him feel more useful. Being preventive involves anticipating and avoiding unnecessary triggers for the child’s anxiety. Implementing this kind of parenting style could possibly help avoid a full-blown crisis.
Parenting with Security, Structure and Stability
The three S’s stand for: Security, Structure and Stability, and they build on the framework to help the child grow, and in doing so, better succeed against anxiety. There is a difference between nurturing the child and nurturing his anxiety. Parents of anxious children could find themselves in situations where they want to relieve their child’s distress; however, anxious children are not easily reassured or calmed. Parents must be careful to remove justifications for their child’s concerns by reaffirming their security and eliminating messages of rejection. Structure pertains to having an organized framework of expectations, rules and routines within which the child and family operate. Structure provides dependability and predictability, which enhance the child’s sense of stability. Parents who wear “kid gloves” around an anxious child need to recognize that rearranging the world to soothe the child is neither realistic nor sustainable long term. Stability is most affected by consistency. Parents lose credibility when they do not keep their word, so a good rule of thumb is: “say it, mean it and do it.”
Too Much Communication?
Children with anxiety may be easily over-aroused, over-reactive and prone to panic. In an effort to soothe or stop a potential meltdown, parents may communicate excessively with their anxious child. They may repeat themselves, give more elaborate explanations than needed, and ramp up their efforts to reason with the child. However, excessive communication with an overly distraught child is discouraged. It’s best to wait until he calms down before engaging in conversation, reasoning or reprimanding. There is nothing positive that can be achieved when the child is overstimulated and upset. In fact, continuing to reason with the child in that state simply adds fuel to the fire. It’s best to wait to talk to the child about any incidents once the child has calmed down a bit and is able to process the information that is given to them.
Appropriate attending refers to the fact that children’s behaviors can be shaped or molded by the attention and feedback they receive from adults. The more attention children receive for their behavior, the more likely they are to repeat it. Parents can take note to recognize and acknowledge any behavior that is in the right direction and ignore undesirable behaviors, instead of responding to every negative behavior.
Children can learn how to cope with anxiety by observing their parents. Children witness the manner in which their parents cope when distressed, overwhelmed, or afraid. In many situations, a child’s anxiety may be a reflection of the parents’ anxiety. Parents who want to be positive examples may first need to increase self-awareness of their own responses to danger and threat, or even daily worries and concerns. They can teach and model normal anxiety and help the child recognize the difference between normal and excessive worry. If stressed or anxious themselves, parents may need to contain and change their own thought, self-talk and behavior patterns before attempting to help their child with his.
Self-Reliance and Resilience
Finally, it’s extremely important to help the child, who is learning how to overcome anxiety, to become more self-reliant and resilient. Ultimately, the most valuable help a parent can give an anxious child is not to help him through the anxiety, but to teach him to help himself. The goal of teaching self-reliance is to help the child build the skills that he or she can draw on whenever they are needed, rather than depend on an adult. Teaching children to take control over their emotions rather than allowing them to control them is a good practice for anxious children. Anxious children should learn how to self-soothe, and also engage in calming activities.
Hang in there, parents. Hopefully, now you’ve got some additional information that will be helpful for your family.
Mellon, R., and Moutavelis, A. (2011). “Parental educational practices in relation to children’s anxiety disorder-related behavior.” Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 25 (6), 829-834.
Wagner, A. (2002). Worried No More: Help and hope for anxious children. Rochester: Lighthouse Press.