Aid and Abet your child’s attempts to avoid the situation that triggers his fears.
What does this mean? It means that you help your child avoid fearful situations and or that you actually encourage avoidance as a strategy to manage your child’s distress. There are countless ways that a parent can do this and countless ways that a clever child can influence a parent to do so. Why is it counter-productive to help your child avoid these situations? Because it reinforces their fears, of course! Avoidance is typically one of the first strategies that a child or adult will use when confronted with a situation that triggers a fear. Avoidance does, in the short run, alleviate an individual’s fears. In the long run, however, it feeds the person’s fears by teaching that person’s brain (often repeatedly) that the situation is indeed something to be afraid of.
Avoidance breeds more avoidance and can generalize to other situations, rendering a person increasingly fearful. This is what happens in Agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is a type of Panic Disorder, which means that a person has panic attacks and fears having more panic attacks. Panic attacks are often first triggered in a specific situation. The person then avoids that situation for fear that he will have another panic attack because he is in that situation. The situations that the person fears as potential triggers increases, until that person avoids exposure to all situations and becomes house-bound because he feels that it is the only “safe” place to avoid triggering a panic attack. Of course when we treat someone who has Agoraphobia or Panic Disorder, one of the first things we do is to help the person gradually reduce and eventually eliminate avoidance behaviors.
So, parents, if you have an anxious child, do your part by not allowing avoidance and by gradually reducing it if it has started!
Here are a few examples that I see frequently:
*Allow your child to simply not go to specific locations, such as parks, off leash areas of dog parks, movie theaters, grocery stores, etc.
*Physically lift up your child or rush to soothe your child when a situation arises that you know triggers anxiety in your child.
*Serve only foods that your child is comfortable with.
*Frequent only well know, often-visited restaurants.
*Make changes in your child’s schedule to accommodate his fears.
*Allow him to avoid sleepovers, etc. when he has reached an age where most of his friends are doing so.
Use your imagination! If you have an anxious child, you can no doubt add to this list.
Thank you for reading.
Bridget Flynn Walker, Ph.D