My previous blog entry focused on the “most important” advice I have for a parent of an anxious child: determine how you are unintentionally reinforcing your child’s fears, and stop doing that. I thought it might be useful to readers if I discussed, in detail, specific ways that parents reinforce their children’s fears. Just as there are “50 ways to leave your lover,” there are at least 50 ways to unintentionally feed your child’s fears. Each week for as long as it seems useful, I plan to discuss a particular way that I have seen a parent feed the fears of his/her child.
Ways a parent feeds a child’s fear: #1 Repeatedly reassure your child. A child with excessive anxiety typically turns to his parents for comfort and safety. Of course, providing safety and comfort are normal aspects of parenting that are generally healthy. When you have determined that your child has extreme, irrational, persistent fears, however, providing reassurance in response to these fears does more harm than good. Why? It reinforces the child’s fear: it sends the child’s brain the message that her particular fear, is indeed something to be worried about and that, without the parent’s reassurance, the child will not be o.k. Though, rationally, as a parent you may feel that you are simply trying to supply information to quell doubts and fears, your frustration is that the information never seems to really sink in and truly quell the fears your child is experiencing. Your anxious child asks the same questions repeatedly and begins to use you as a safety behavior that ultimately feeds his fear.
Here is a list of reassurance-seeking questions that anxious children may ask repeatedly:
* ”Mom, is this cupcake o.k. to eat?”
* “What will happen if…?”
* “Is it o.k. to touch that?”
* “Who do you think used this last?”
* “Is it bad for me if I smell a pesticide?”
* “What are you doing while I’m at school?”
* “What if your car breaks down?”
* “Is the soccer game near the off leash area for dogs?”
* “What are we doing after school?” related to need to review daily schedule repeatedly.
* “I said something mean to Sally at school today: can I tell you what I said so you can tell me it was o.k.?”
In addition to responding to these types of questions with logical explanations (often repeated many times), parents often try quell an anxious child’s fears by supplying such explanations before a child has even asked. This, too is reassurance seeking/providing that is counterproductive to helping a child overcome his fears.
Reassurance-seeking behaviors: Anxious children also seek reassurance through various behaviors. My previous blog discussed an example of a parent who provided reassurance to his daughter without even being asked to do so by his child. That situation involved a dog walking past the girl, who must have feared dogs, since, upon seeing the dog, the father raced to her side and began reassuring the girl that she would be fine, that Daddy was there to protect her. It is very common for anxious children to display extreme distress (crying, hyperventilating, screaming, leaping into parents’ arms). Parents often have a very difficult time tolerating their child’s distress and intervene when a child’s fears are triggered by providing lots of reassurance. Moreover, as exemplified by the above example, parents themselves become conditioned to intervene by providing reassurance because they want their child to avoid getting distressed in the first place.
My next blog entry will discuss another way that parents reinforce their children’s fears: allowing avoidance. Thanks for reading!