“Does reassuring my anxious child help?”
The answer to that is no, not in the long term and rarely in the short term.
But this is actually a longer question so I’m going to share the whole version now and of course the much longer answer, too. Here we go: “My son has severe anxiety that manifests in needing constant reassurance that his every ache or stitch is not life threatening. My question is am I making it worse by reassuring him or would it be better to not feed into the OCDness of his questions?”
First of all, let me say my heart goes out to you and your son because I know how challenging and heart breaking and frustrating this can be. Thank you for asking it and I hope my answer will be helpful.
Reassurance is a great example of how parenting an anxious child is different than parenting a child who is not prone to anxiety.
In a non-anxious child — or rather a child who has a typical level of anxiety — reassurance can be helpful. They come to us and say, “My leg hurts, do you think I’m ok?” And we can answer, “Yup, that sounds like growing pains” and they will feel reassured and be able to move on. End of story.
But a child who has more functional impairment, which is to say, whose anxiety gets in the way of their ability to do things, will get stuck. That reassurance only helps for a minute but the anxiety comes back, the distressed feeling continues and so they return for that quick hit of relief that your reassurance offers.
That’s because the issue is NOT the aching leg, it’s the anxiety itself.
One of the things we know about anxious people is that they have an information processing bias, which means that anxious people more likely to see danger in otherwise neutral situations. This can be a very useful trait under some circumstances. If you’re going on a long camping trip, for example, the person with some anxiety is more likely to pack bug repellant, to check that the tent is still waterproof, and to remember to charge the GPS tracker. Being able to scan for potential dangers or roadblocks or problems helps us prepare for them and that’s great.
When the anxiety causes functional interference, that is to say, it stops us from going camping altogether, it’s a sign that the issue is not the camping trip, it’s the anxiety itself.
That anxious person —avoiding the camping trip — hasn’t learned to tolerate the discomfort of not being able to control what might happen. We can pack the bug repellant, we can check that the tent is waterproof, we can charge the GPS tracker but we can’t control every little thing that might go wrong. We need to live with a certain level of unknowingness. We have to give up on being able to control and address every possible outcome.
What we’re really talking about here is an existential crisis. How do we tolerate the big endless not knowing of being alive? How do we learn to exist in a world where bad things happen and might happen to us?
If you’re listening to this, it’s likely you’re a parent so I’m going to share my own experience as a brand new parent and I’m sure that lots of you will be able to relate.
When my son was born I struggled with postpartum anxiety as many, many of us do. I felt undone and overwhelmed by the fact that I was now responsible for this very tiny, very precious being. I had intrusive thoughts — those uninvited, unwelcome thoughts — of harm coming to him and I couldn’t walk into a room without seeing all the potential dangers. I felt like one giant exposed nerve.
Eventually I learned to live with this reality — this reality that I had to cede some level of control to the universe — and some of that learning to live has to do with denial. I learned not to harp on the ways my child might get hurt. I learned to let those intrusive thoughts pass without comment or reaction. I learned to ignore the things I couldn’t control. And, as he grew, I learned and relearned to tolerate the discomfort of watching him step out beyond my supervision and care.
Sometimes this meant literally covering my eyes like at the playground when he would attempt some death defying trick. This kid is now 25, lives in another state where I can’t keep an eye on him, and his hobby is rock climbing. Let me tell you, I still nag him about wearing his helmet but most of the time I just pretend he’s not hanging off of cliffs every weekend. Because that’s what it takes to live my life and to let him live his.
Because I have my own struggles with anxiety, these were skills I needed to learn over and over again in new contexts. But as I learned them in one area of my life I was able to apply them to others.
This is the work that anyone who struggles with anxiety must do.
The anxious child or teen or young adult who is depending on our reassurances is avoiding that existential task of tolerating the unknown.
They ask you to tell them their leg is ok and you do but the question is a cover up for a larger crisis of not knowing. To get deep, and anxiety requires deep work, they are really asking how can I avoid death. How do I live in a world where death and pain and sorrow is unavoidable.
This sounds overdramatic but ultimately an anxiety disorder is learning to live with that reality of death and pain and sorrow.
No wonder it’s so difficult, right?
When we see this big picture, perhaps it will give us permission to stop trying to fix things in the moment. Now I’m not saying to sit your child down and tell them it’s time to face their own mortality. No way. Of course not. Instead we, as parents, can see this big picture struggle so that we are better able to meet the challenges in the moment.
We must learn to accept that we can’t reassure them out of this.
What we are meant to do is help them build their tolerance. Life is uncomfortable because it is unpredictable and ultimately out of our control. And yet we must learn to live with that and to be happy in spite of it.
So what do we do instead of reassuring?
We reassure once, “It sounds like growing pains” and then we stop. We tell them, “I’ve answered that question and I’m not going to anymore.” We say it with empathy and compassion and then we hold to it. That’s it. They may beg and plead but remember, you answered the question and it’s not the answer that will fix the anxiety anyway. The child needs to tolerate their distress, which will eventually feel less distressing. They will either acclimate to the feeling of not being sure or it will pass.
The more we’ve reassured our child, the harder it will be for them to tolerate our unwillingness to answer. This will be hard for us. But I want you to think about how you and your child are having the same experience. They are yearning for you to answer and you are yearning for their calm. Both of you are struggling but both of you can manage this distress.
You can manage yours by recognizing it as your own.
You are catching your child’s urgency, for sure, but your feelings belong to you. I know it seems like your child is causing your discomfort but it’s more complicated than that.
Your feelings are yours — they are your responsibility — and you will need to learn how to manage them. That may be taking your own deep breaths, it may be removing yourself so you can step out of their anxiety loop because again, anxiety is catching. It might be using self-talk — telling yourself it’s ok and that your child will be ok.
As anxiety is catching, so is calm. As you bring more calm to the family and to the interaction, you’re helping. You’re setting an example. You are showing them that it’s possible to tolerate what feels intolerable.
The work of raising and loving an anxious child is ultimately self-work. But then isn’t that the thing about parenting. As I always say, nothing is more triggering than being a parent but in the context of parenting we have such opportunity to heal ourselves.