Helping Your Anxious Child: 10 Common Mistakes to Avoid
1. Feeling the need to “rescue” your child from discomfort:
Although it can be heart wrenching to see your child in any kind of pain, teaching them that pain is an inevitable part of life is one of the most critical lessons a parent can impart. Popular culture sends a message that any discomfort is to be quickly and easily ameliorated. However, this type of thinking leads to great suffering when parents see their child in pain, despite the fact that enduring suffering is essential for growth. In fact, children need to be able to sit-with, accept, and push-through discomfort in order to gain the confidence, independence, and feelings of self-efficacy that is required for true success.
For example, if your child puts off doing homework and fails to complete an assignment, it is best to let him/her deal with the consequences of his/her own actions. Although it will feel counter-intuitive to let your child “sink”, the repercussions may serve as an effective life lesson which would be lost if a well-meaning parent felt the need to intervene.
2. Inconsistent discipline:
Consistent discipline is a mainstay in creating a feeling of stability, especially for children who struggle with anxiety. Since children seek to view their parents as reliable, both inconsistent punishment and reinforcement are ineffective, and can be detrimental to a child’s feeling of control over his/her environment. Consequences of such inconsistency may be a loss of trust in the parent, although some children will blame themselves instead, which leads to undue guilt and learned helplessness. Sadly, both of these conclusions tend to exacerbate anxiety.
3. Giving your child too much freedom:
Adopting an overly permissive parenting style can leave a child feeling overwhelmed and lost with too many options to choose from. It is better to give them a chance to practice making their own choices within a limited number of options (“Would you like pasta or pizza” vs. “what should we have for dinner?”). Otherwise, giving a child too much freedom is susceptible to developing a lack of boundaries that may result in a skewed power differential in the family. This dynamic may result in possible feelings of resentment and/or guilt leading to increased anxiety and strained family interactions.
4. Making all the decisions for your child:
Conversely, micro-managing a child communicates that s/he does not have the capacity to function individually. This type of over-involvement often leads to excessive dependency on authority figures, a lack of ability to become personally responsible and, ultimately, they become unable form their own identity.
5. Thinking your child will grow out of it:
Although anxiety waxes and wanes, if left untreated, it generally worsens over time. It is unrealistic to think that a child’s anxiety is simply going to abate. In the meantime, it will most likely have a detrimental effect on learning, social and other developmental skills as well as the child’s self-esteem.
6. Exposing your child to your own anxiety:
Exposing children to excessive fear-based behavior (i.e., consistently cringing at the sight of the dentist’s office, etc.) frequently teaches them to perceive an inaccurate view of reality. Further, this type of interaction models faulty coping skills (avoidance) and removes a much-needed sense of security for a child who is already dealing with high levels of anxiety.
7. Believing that treating your child’s anxiety is the source and solution of all family problems:
No one individual exists within a vacuum. More often than not, anxiety in a child will affect other family members, and negatively impact the family system (each part of a system affects the whole). When a systemic problem occurs, it cannot be “cured” by treating only the child without addressing related issues within the family. Although it may be simpler to perceive the problem as the child or to blame the disease, this mentality will only serve to prolong and exacerbate the anxiety. Therefore, scapegoating will not only serve to worsen the situation by wasting precious time and energy, it will likely exacerbate the circumstances by creating feelings of frustration, resentment, guilt, and shame among family members.
8. Blaming your own parenting skills as contributing to your child’s anxiety:
Even the best parenting techniques can fall short. Many parents may blame themselves rather than take into account and address components of the disease that are based on other environmental factors (a poorly organized classroom) or biological underpinnings (neurochemical imbalances). Also, consider that all children are born with the ability to manipulate their environment, which is an adaptive means for learning and survival. Thus, if you have been consistently modeling healthy behavior and providing appropriate structure for your child, then it may be more beneficial to focus your energy on other factors that may be contributing to your child’s anxiety. Focusing on one’s own shortcomings will only delay symptom improvements.
9. Looking for a “magic cure” or “quick-fix”:
It doesn’t exist!
10. Resisting a diagnosis for fear of a label:
Even today, there still exists a stigma associated with mental illness. This attitude may delay proper diagnosis and treatment, and consequently, allows anxiety to grow and worsen. Furthermore, the lack of a proper diagnosis prevents the much needed relief from understanding that anxiety disorders can be effectively treated and are neither the parent’s nor the child’s fault. However, if left untreated, anxiety disorders often become quite serious affecting both mind and body. In fact, untreated childhood anxiety will likely lead to more serious problems in adulthood such as obesity, addictions, and other self-defeating behaviors that can result in isolation, depression, heart disease and other health conditions, as well as loss of family, career opportunities, or financial success .
There is hope… anxiety disorders are treatable with evidence-based Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), especially when caught in the early stages. Gaining a proper diagnosis and treatment plan, such as Family Systems Based CBT destigmatizes the condition and teaches the child and family that anxiety disorders are not un-common and they are not alone!