Parenting an anxious child isn’t easy. Anxious kids tend to have fragile equilibriums — anything can set them off. Whether they’re the type of anxious to withdraw or to explode, sensitive parents get caught up in their child’s emotions and start to follow the same anxiety cycle.
Our anxious feelings are meant to protect us. When we start feeling afraid we know it’s time to remove ourselves from the thing that scares us. This is a terrific coping mechanism if what we’re avoiding is actually dangerous but when it’s merely uncomfortable — public speaking, a playdate, bedtime — we need to learn to cope with those yucky feelings.
Let’s take a 5-year old who refuses to be left alone to play at a friend’s house. Mom knows that this friend’s house is a safe, comfortable place to play. She trusts the other parent and she trusts the other child. But her 5-year old is so upset when she tries to leave that she ends up staying to comfort the child. She figures if she stays that the child will learn that everything’s fine and she’ll get to leave next time.
Sometimes with some kids this works. For anxious children it makes things worse because what mom has inadvertently done is tell the child, “Your fear is justified, which is why I’m staying.”
If mom says, “There’s nothing to be scared of, which is why I will not leave you alone” that’s a contradiction. Her actions are saying, “Yes, it is too scary for you. No, you won’t be able to handle it.”
There is a difference between validating their feelings and validating their fears. We need to acknowledge that they are afraid (“I know staying with a friend for the first time can feel scary”) without sending the message that they should be afraid (“but I also know that you are safe here and that you can handle it”).
Yes, that means leaving them while they’re crying. That may mean asking the friend’s parent to hold them while you leave. It might mean swallowing your own fears, too, especially if we’re afraid that our child really CAN’T handle it.
Learning how to take care of our own anxiety so that we don’t get in the way of our child’s coping is a big part of becoming a family full of anti-anxiety super heroes.