Sam has been afraid of dogs since he was 2 years old. A dog knocked him over on the playground and he felt scared. Now, 5 years later, he still avoids every dog he sees.
Since you hate for him to feel anxious, you’ve taken the role of “dog-remover” for him. When you bring him for play dates, you request the family put their dog in another room. You ask people to walk their dogs on the other side of the street, so he won’t come into contact with a dog while he is riding his bike.
Even though this feels a little bit ridiculous at times, it’s better than dealing with his crying and panic.
Mom to the rescue?
As parents, we want to protect our kids from things that are dangerous, scary, or uncomfortable. We hate seeing our children overwhelmed by anxiety or worry, so we rush in and rescue them.
We feel good about our rescue because our kids immediately return to their happy selves. Their anxiety is gone!
Unfortunately, this one act may be perpetuating your child’s anxiety. Rescuing your child from their worries seems like a great idea, except that your child never gets the chance to see that anxious feelings fade away on their own!
The anxiety arch.
Think of feeling anxiety as an arch. At first, we’re calm. Life is good. Suddenly, something triggers a feeling of worry. We head up the arch as our anxiety increases. When we reach the top, we may feel sweaty, shaking, have shallow breathing, or feel panic.
But, eventually, we move on. We head down the other side of the arch as our body and brain return to a calm state.
When we see our children suffering, we rush in to rescue them as they are heading up the arch or when they are at the peak of their anxiety. (See the star?) We jump off the arch together and go back to calm, worry-free life.
But, here’s the problem…
Instead of letting our child experience the whole arch of anxiety, we stop them. Our kids then assume that they need to be rescued at the top of the arch.
And, since they haven’t experienced it, they don’t know that they will return to calm on the other side!
What to do instead.
I am not suggesting that we just let our kids suffer through their anxiety on their own. I am suggesting that we prepare them to feel the entire arch of their feelings.
5 steps to help your anxious child experience the whole arch:
- Equip: Create a long list of calming strategies and ideas. And, have calming activities readily available. Hang a list on the fridge, make a pocket-size list for school. Make a small cool-down kit for the car or your child’s backpack.
- Empower: Practice calming skills together when your child is feeling calm. Role play different scenarios, draw or write stories with positive endings, and create phrases to say out-loud or in their head to help them feel calm and confident.
- Experience: Draw a staircase on a piece of paper and work together to create a list of “steps” to try related to the worry. For example: view dogs through a window at the pet store, pet a neighbor’s friendly dog, walk a friendly dog on a leash, etc.
- Empathize: Support your child through big feelings using supportive phrases and empathy. Put their experience into words: “You feel so uncomfortable, you wish that big feeling would go away” or “Feeling worried is no fun. I wish it was over too.”
- Encourage: Remind your child that feelings come and feelings go. And that this feeling will pass. Highlight times when they felt worried and made it through. Give hugs or a reassuring glance. Focus on their efforts to use calming strategies.
It may not be easy.
Breaking the rescuing habit is really hard for parents! You may experience some big emotions as you watch your child struggle. This is normal.
You don’t have to be a cold, uncaring robot while your child is struggling. You can offer warm support and gentle guidance. You can believe that the feeling will pass, when your child cannot.
With time and practice, this strategy will seem less daunting. You will begin to see your child’s anxiety arch shrink. It may not go away completely at first, but the time spent at the top of the arch will decrease.
Some kids feel immediate relief after they accomplish something they felt afraid to do – when they experience the whole arch, even though it was scary. Allowing your child this opportunity builds a strong foundation for managing anxiety or worry in the future.
Sometimes anxiety is too big.
Many children experience anxiety and worries that are much too big for parents to manage on their own. As you begin to implement these steps, observe your child. Do they seem relieved and supported, or does their anxiety seem to be the same or worse? If your child is more anxious or if their worry persists, please seek support from a mental health professional. This person’s knowledge and expertise will be a vital step in helping your child manage feelings of anxiety.
Comments have been turned off to retain the privacy of all families. If you have a question or comment on the topic, you're always welcome to contact me.