Tolerating the distress that an anxious child experiences when his fears are triggered can be challenging. Some parents have particularly low levels of tolerance for the distress of their anxious child and jump in to remedy any distress by any means they can. We have discussed in the previous three blog entries the myriad of ways that parents unintentionally reinforce their child’s fears in their attempts to quell their child’s distress. Aiding and abetting avoidance of feared situations, arguing, reassuring and over-explaining/rationalizing are a few we discussed in detail. If you’ve read previous blog entries, you also know that engaging in these behaviors with your anxious child actually results in feeding his fears rather than helping him conquer them.
Let’s shift our focus from your child’s responses, to yours. Let’s talk about your own responses and fears regarding the distress that your child exhibits in the face of fearful situations. What scares you about Sally’s shaking and crying in the face of being urged to; for example, take medicine that she is afraid to swallow? What scares you about Johnny’s agitation and uncharacteristic serious stance about going to baseball practice in spite of his love of baseball? What distresses you about hearing your child crying to you about her fears that she might not do well on her spelling quiz? Think about it for a few minutes. Ask yourself; “What bothers me about witnessing my child’s distress?” I’d like to hear some actual responses to this question from parents reading this blog entry. Please take the time to send a comment so that I can include it in further discussion and so that parents of anxious children can see that they often share similar fears:
“I am a bad parent if I allow my child to suffer.”
“She will get so upset that it will damage her in some way.”
“It disrupts our routine and causes serious problems for me and other family members.”
“It is incredibly stressful and distressing to see my child so upset.”
“I want to be able to make my child feel better; it is my job to be able to help her.”
“It will just get worse and he will be worse off if I don’t do something.”
”It is embarrassing.”
As a parent myself, I often have the conditioned instinct to step in and do something when I hear a crying baby or distressed child. We are genetically programmed to protect and nurture our offspring. If we were not, we would not have survived in the wilds as humans had to to evolve and continue on this earth as a dominant species. That being said, if you are the parent of an anxious child, you’ve already come to the understanding that your child’s responses to anxiety trigger situations are repetitive and far more extreme than the situation warrants. Furthermore, you know that the situations that trigger the anxiety are far from life threatening or dangerous. The things about which your child worries are simply more extreme and more fixated upon than the average same-aged child would experience in a similar situation.
By learning to manage your own responses to your child’s fears, you can help your child learn to be less afraid. Consider the possibility that your own anxiety about your child’s fears may play a role in influencing your behaviors toward your child. In other words, your own distress about your child’s distress could be compelling you to engage in behaviors that reinforce your child’s fears. Once you identify the role of your own fears, you have the power to change your behaviors so that you are helping your child conquer his fears rather than feeding them.