As caregivers, we are hard-wired to want to protect our children from harm and reduce their distress. However, when it comes to child anxiety, this is often not a helpful urge. Knowing how to help without feeding anxiety can be incredibly challenging. Read on to learn more about childhood anxiety, how it functions and what we can do as caregivers to help support and prepare our children to cope more, and feel more confident.
Anxiety is the body’s natural alarm system
Anxiety is the body’s natural alarm system that signals some kind of threat in the environment. It’s an important emotion, and one that has likely ensured our survival. Through evolution, anxiety has served us well- it alerts us to predators, helps us to protect our young, and prepares us for action through the fight, flight and freeze response- when needed. All mammals have some version of this emotion so their young can live on, and their species continues. As humans though, our evolution has also included the growth of the prefrontal cortex- a specialized part of the brain that differentiates us from other mammals. This part of the brain is the home of executive functions which allow humans to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. It is also the part of the brain that helps to predict threats and map out the consequences to our actions before they happen. These predictive and mapping functions give us an added advantage in survival- they allow us to imagine threats and actually avoid danger in advance to keep ourselves safe. Avoidance is the natural and hard-wired urge that goes along with anxiety. Essentially- our anxious brain says “Threat!!! Threat!!! Over there!!” and we react, in kind, by moving towards safety and avoiding the threatening stimulus.
When there is a real threat in the environment
When there is a real threat in the environment- anxiety is the hero. Whether there is a fire in your house, you hear footsteps behind you as you walk down a dark alley or you sniff a piece of old cheese in the fridge to see if it’s still edible- anxiety keeps us safe. No doubt. Here’s the thing though- some of our children are born with more anxious temperaments than others, which means they are more likely to become anxious and scan for threats in the environment. They are- quite simply- born with a more sensitive alarm system. The combination of a sensitive alarm system in the body and the uniquely human ability to imagine threats can lead to a situation in which temperamentally anxious children are signalling distress more frequently and actually moving into fight, flight, or freeze mode- often without the presence of a real threat.
So…what does this mean for us as parents?
A central job of parenting is to protect our children and alleviate distress through soothing. But when our children are anxious, and there is actually no threat in the environment, if we move in to protect and soothe them- what messages are we communicating to them?
Psychologists have coined the term parent accommodation– the tendency to participate in your child’s anxiety or modify the patterns of daily life directly in response to a child’s anxiety. Dr. Eli Lebowtiz, founder of Supportive Parenting for Childhood Anxious Disorders (SPACE), has clearly outlined a cycle of accommodation in which parents tend to change their behaviour in response to their child’s anxiety, and become part of the maintenance cycle of anxiety.
Examples of unhelpful accommodation related to anxiety include providing excessive reassurance to your anxious child, rescuing them from events and activities that make them anxious, speaking up or answering questions for your socially anxious child, and limiting your outings because your child suffers from separation anxiety. When we engage in these acts- intending to help our children- we are, in fact, doing the opposite. With the very best of intentions, we are limiting our child’s potential when we accommodate their anxiety. We don’t allow them to develop and try out their own coping strategies. We remove important opportunities for growth and resilience building. We limit opportunities for corrective learning- for them to realize that their fears are unfounded. We communicate they are fragile and cannot tolerate the same adversity as their same-aged peers.
If you have a child who worries and often presents with anxious distress- read on to these key points for more helpful ways to manage.
- Stay calm- don’t let their anxiety be contagious. I firmly believe that our ability to regulate ourselves is a strong predictor of how our children learn to regulate themselves. Breathe, take a moment, and get into a mindset that will allow your parenting to be guided by knowledge, connection and intention.
- Be supportive- validate their anxiety- it’s part of who they are, and it’s not their fault. Acknowledge the struggle and communicate your confidence in them.
- Reduce accommodations- where possible monitor your own behaviour. It’s always helpful to receive professional support in helping to manage your child’s anxiety, AND there are small ways you can start to reduce accommodation already. For example- limit the airtime talking about worries, reduce statements of reassurance, and try not to alter or modify the structure of daily life because of your child’s anxiety. To some this may seem counterintuitive, and even cold- like you are somehow breaking an unspoken contract that you have with your child about how they cope with anxiety. I would encourage you to reconsider the removal of accommodations as a loving gesture and parental decision to prepare your child for the world- even if, at times, you don’t have their collaboration.
- Keep at it. Removing accommodations can sometimes feel like a game of “whack a mole”- you’ve nailed one, and another pops up. This is the nature of childhood anxiety.
If you are interested in learning more about parenting a child with anxiety, please check out my workshop: Caregiving of Your Anxious child, which you can view on demand. If you are in Ontario, you can also participate in a clinical group therapy 10-week parent intervention for the treatment of child anxiety.