Parenting an anxious child can be mentally taxing and it’s easy to become a sour grapefruit in their presence. Family members can develop a bitter mood as the child whines and complains. Anxious complaints can restrict a parent’s movement, demand a great deal of time, and can suck the life right out of the caregiver. No parent chooses to be negative, it just happens as a consequence of the anxious disorder. When I see this taking place in the families I counsel, I review the four toxic parenting beliefs associated with anxious kids. Four strategies are then offered to cleanse the mental wasteland, restoring the home to healthy, happy place to inhabit.
Four Mistaken Beliefs
Vicky Flory** defines four common beliefs mistakenly held by parents of anxious children: seeing the child as hostile, unreasonable, exaggerated with their emotions, and the child not being emotionally dependent upon the parent. Accommodating one or more of these beliefs collapses the emotional bridge between parent and child, leaving the child stranded on an island of anxious fear.
Mistake 1: Hostile
The repetitive thought of seeing the child as hostile interferes with parental support because the parent views the child as mean with intentions motivated by malice. The parent overly focuses on the child’s negative behaviors and misses the distressed emotions fueling them.
Mistake 2: Unreasonable
Reckoning the child as unreasonable, the parent sees the child as beyond help and unable to respond/learn in a normal manner. They increasingly grow ambivalent toward the child, and focus primarily on controlling the child’s behavior through angry verbal and non-verbal responses. The child views himself or herself more negatively and anxious thoughts and behaviors worsen.
Mistake 3: Not Real
Believing the child’s demonstrated emotions are not genuine and exaggerated leads to mistaken assumptions. The parent becomes mistakenly convinced their child is manipulative, dramatic, and cunning. Verbal and non-verbal suggestions of anxious distress by the child are misconstrued by the parent as manipulative. The parent responds with anger, harsh punishments, and withdrawal.
Mistake 4: Independent
The fourth hindering belief that the child is not emotionally dependent upon the parent is inaccurate because the child is solely dependent upon the parent. The child is limited in his or her ability to garner support from adults. Though their attempts may be clumsy, and demonstrated affection and appreciation sparse, the parent is the child’s best chance at getting his or her emotional needs met. Parents need love too! The dilemma for parents is balancing the natural desire for affirmation and affection from their child with the young anxious sufferers inability to express such positive and soothing emotions. The child’s handicap leaves the parent’s love tank empty, cripples their expressions of support, and leads to parental withdrawal.
Summarizing, four common mistaken parental beliefs can weaken the parent-child bond and worsen a child’s anxiety. Maintaining mindfulness is critical to recognize when you’re falling into these negative thinking patterns and responding in a helpful compassionate manner.
Four Ways to Heal the Relationship
Four mental paradigms and techniques can be implemented to heal the relationship and cultivate support.
First, recognize that many of your child’s negative behavioral patterns are rooted in feeling anxious and depressed. The negative expressions are consistent with symptoms of child anxiety and depression. Developing empathy for the sufferer is one of the most effective ways to change your interactive patterns with that person. Sit down with your child and ask them what it feels like when they feel afraid. Patiently encourage them to speak about their inner feelings and what types of things make them upset. You may have to do this a few times for trust to build. Apologize for your past offenses, reaffirm your unconditional love and support, and commit to do better.
Second, work through books and programs designed to treat child anxiety. This can be a great way to gain empathy for your child and show support. An excellent resource is the audio program Turnaround: Turning Fear Into Freedom which invites your child on a ten day camping adventure with six other children who struggles with various types of fears. Unlike any other program available, Turnaround has children lead the lessons while adults take a secondary role. Created by two clinically experienced therapists, the program is professional and based upon the proven treatment methods of cognitive-behavioral therapy and yet, manages to be highly entertaining kid friendly. Parents report it facilitates healthy dialog with their child by giving them a shared language to pull from. For further information, visit www.turnaroundanxiety.com.
3) Fresh Start
Third, offer your child a fresh start, a new day each and every day. Deal with each day’s issue as a separate incident from the past. Cease vexing expressions, repeatedly bringing up the past and stating that nothing ever changes. Vexing comes from the parent feeling despondent and grasping for anything that might change the child’s behavior, even if it’s negative and shaming. Mentally prepare yourself each morning to respond patiently and with support. Exercise, diet, stretching, and any other expressions of self-care has been shown to greatly help. As a sage once said, “You cannot impart what you do not possess.” Do whatever works best for you to fill your love reservoirs so that it can overflow and nourish your anxious child.
4) Encouragement and Hope
Finally, watch your assumptions and slow down your responses. Focus more on their heart, their emotions, rather than just their behavior. Pay attention to their facial expressions. If they look angry and frustrated, chances are they really feel more fearful or depressed. Address their hurt. Give them hope. Give them a vision of what they’ll life will be someday when they are free from their fears. A child who can see a future free from fear, and deeply believes they can achieve it through continuous effort, can move towards it. The fact that his or her parent can see it too makes it all the more believable.
**Flory, V. (2004). A novel clinical intervention for severe childhood depression and anxiety. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry 9(1), 9-23.