How can I make my anxious child feel heard and understood?

NEW ARRIVAL

Now the tricky part is trusting the hard work we’ve done and in the resiliency of the relationship. What I’m saying here is that we need to be prepared to disappoint and even anger our kids.

Dawn Friedman MSEd

This week’s question comes from Facebook. 

“How can I make my anxious child feel heard and understood when she feels anxious about going to schooL. I know that skipping school will actually increase the anxiety AND Exposure to school lessons it but it kills me to nudge her to go when it’s so scary for her.”`

I really appreciate that what we have here is a parent who understands that helping anxious kids means helping them face their fears, which is NOT easy. 

I’ve talked in previous episodes about the difficulty in shifting things in the moment when the child is actively afraid. In those moments we’re helping them cope with that feeling so they will learn that this feeling — as terrible as it is — won’t kill them and it will get better. So much of that work is done when they are NOT anxious. We exercise those coping tools, those calm down tools, when we don’t need them so we have access to them when we do need them.

It’s the same with feeling heard and understood. We help our children feel that way by practicing respectful, thoughtful, compassionate parenting throughout the rest of our days together. We don’t have to do this perfectly, of course, we just need to do it. 

When you ask your child how their day was and really listen, you’re helping them feel heard and understood.

When you remember to get them the kind of squeezie yogurt they like for lunch, you’re helping them feel heard and understood.

In our everyday parenting we are establishing a relationship where heard and understood is a given. It’s just part of the day to day give and take of being with them. 

Now the tricky part is trusting the hard work we’ve done and in the resiliency of the relationship. What I’m saying here is that we need to be prepared to disappoint and even anger our kids.

This is extremely important with anxiety work because our children are tuning into us to get a better picture of what’s safe and what isn’t safe and — importantly — what they’re capable of doing. 

Here’s a story to illustrate this. It’s a version of something I’ve seen in my clinical practice. 

A parent is driving their child to a birthday party. The parent knows that the child is nervous about going because they only know the birthday kid; they don’t know anyone else there. The family has talked about it and the child wants to attend and has been gearing themselves up for it. Perhaps this is what we were working on in therapy, making plans to deal with the discomfort, figuring out how to get out of the car and walk into the party in spite of their fear.

Anyway, the parent pulls up to the venue with the child and the child is sitting there taking deep breaths, preparing to go in. Then the parent says, “Do you want me to walk you up there?”

Boom!  Child melts down. Why? Because without intending to, the parent has just undermined the child. They meant to convey support but the child heard, “I don’t think you can do this.”

It feels sometimes like we can’t win for losing with the anxious child. They want our help but they may also resent our help. That’s just how it is. We help too much and they don’t feel capable. We don’t help and they’re angry that we’re leaving them alone. So let’s give up on the idea that we can parent an anxious child without bumps and bruises to the relationship.  

When we do push them to face their fears, we are saying, “You can do this.” Our children may not like to hear it but they need to hear it. And we need to have faith in them before they are able to have faith in themselves. We are the training wheels on their facing anxiety bicycle.

That doesn’t mean that kids like the nudging; Anxious children like the accommodations because they think they need them. The child’s goal is to avoid the things that make them anxious and accommodations allow them to do that. When we remove the accommodations they aren’t going to like it. They may feel like we’re not hearing them and we’re not understanding them. They may feel that if we WERE hearing and understanding, we would be accommodating. They may even feel betrayed in that moment. 

But we don’t stop accommodating out of the blue. We don’t just launch our children into an exposure without talking to them first. There is a process and a preparation for it. We create a plan not just how we’re going to move forward but how we’re going to come back together afterwards. 

The reason accommodations happen are complicated but generally we may believe our children can’t handle what’s making them anxious without our help or we’re concerned about the damage to the relationship since most anxious kids are pretty free about telling us the many ways they’re disappointed in us when we stop accommodating. They may say things like, “You don’t care, you don’t love me.” Right? That’s hard to hear and it can be scary to hear. Are we doing real damage to the relationship?

I wanted to talk a little about rupture, which is what we’re really describing here. Rupture is what the literature calls the inevitable conflicts between parent and child. 

Rupture is inevitable and it is also necessary. Ruptures in the parent-child relationship are more frequent in times of tremendous growth on the part of the child, which is to say sparring with your toddler is built into your child’s developmental trajectory. You can expect more ruptures whenever your child is growing in complex ways so adolescence or when you’re working on helping your child overcome their anxiety. 

The flip side of rupture is repair. Rupture is when the relationship is torn or damaged in some way and repair is how we come back from that. Every close and meaningful relationship will have rupture as disagreements and conflicts are simply part of intimacy. In the paper Repairing the bond in important relationships published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, the author writes ‘Growth is facilitated when a strong affective bond is established with an important other and the inevitable disruptions of this bond are repaired’ 

Did you hear that first part? Growth is facilitated. What this means is that ruptures are not bad; they are neutral and part of parenting. Repair happens before the rupture in the ways that we establish a base of respect, compassion, empathy and presence and it happens after the rupture, too, in the way we process the conflict.

Back to the original question. Let’s reread it. “How can I make my anxious child feel heard and understood when she feels anxious about going to schooL. I know that skipping school will actually increase the anxiety AND Exposure to school lessons it but it kills me to nudge her to go when it’s so scary for her.”

I feel like what the questioner is yearning for is a way to avoid rupture or to repair in the midst of rupture. Instead let’s shift our goal to creating a culture of repair that can tolerate the inevitable ruptures. Let’s shift our thinking so that we see ruptures as necessary catalysts for growth and know that our relationship with our child can and will withstand the strain and can even grow stronger through it. 

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