The Dos and Don’ts of Parenting an Anxious Child

6.17.19 - The Do’s and Don’ts of Parenting an Anxious Child - Jenny Welbel.jpg

Imagine that your child comes to you in tears because she is too anxious to take the test that she has been studying weeks for. She tells you that she is unsure if she has studied everything that needs to be studied and wants youto ask the teacher for an extension. What do you do? Do you contact the teacher? Or do you help your child continue to study and face that anxiety?

As parents, we want to keep our children safe and will often do just about anything to alleviate their anxiety. Unfortunately, by constantly preventing our children from feeling anxious, we are inadvertently teaching them that anxiety is scary and bad, and that they can't handle the fear and uncertainty. Instead, Chicago-based psychologist Dr. Caroline Adelman, PhD, and her former colleague Dr. Eli Lebowitz, PhD found that it is more effective to validate and acknowledge your child’s emotions AND express confidence in his or her ability to cope. By doing so, you are acknowledging the unpleasantness of your child’s anxiety but not automatically coming to their rescue.

The Don’ts: Most Common Parenting Behaviors Associated with Anxiety in Children

·       Overcontrol – Intrusive parenting, limiting of independence

·       Overprotection – Limiting child’s exposure to stressful situations

·       Encouragement of avoidance behaviors

·       Parental modeling of anxious and avoidant behaviors

What’s Wrong with These Behaviors?

The problem with the accommodating behaviors above is that, while they temporarily decrease a child’s anxiety, they reinforce the belief that the child is not equipped to cope with distress and anxiety. AND, in the long term, it increases the likelihood that…

·       The child will avoid anxiety-provoking or stressful situations

·       The child has decreased confidence in their ability to manage stressful situations

·       The child will not develop adaptive behaviors for coping with anxiety

·       The child’s anxious thoughts and behaviors are reinforced

The Dos: Positive Parenting Behaviors that Can Help Protect Against Anxiety and Stress

·       Positive reinforcement of coping behaviors

·       Help child break down larger tasks into more manageable chunks (e.g., help the u765child create a study plan for their anxiety-provoking exam)

·       Acknowledge and validate child’s stress and anxiety

·       Show confidence that child can cope with the distressing situations

·       Decrease reassurance seeking

·       Help child lean into anxious situations instead of avoiding them

·       Acknowledge moments when you are anxious or stressed and model effective coping

It is impossible and counterproductive to shield and protect your child from every anxiety-provoking or distressing situation. Instead, as parents, the best thing you can do is to help your child confront their fears and worries and, in turn, build their confidence that they can effectively cope and manage distressing situations.