How do I change my anxious child?

Our question this week is simplified for the podcast title but it’s part of a longer question. The asker described their situation — they have an anxious child, the child is older elementary age, and the child isn’t interested in dealing with their anxiety often melting down when the parent attempts to talk to them about it. And the parent wants to know, how do I get my child’s buy in. How do I talk them into dealing with their anxiety. How do I make them change.

The short answer is you can’t. We can’t make anyone change. If you get into a power struggle with your child, you have already lost. They are better rested than you and they aren’t going to get distracted by things like needing to pay the mortgage or laundry. So before you try to change your child, give up on changing your child.

But just because you can’t win a power struggle doesn’t mean that you’re not powerful because you are. You are in charge of the environment and you are in charge of yourself and what you choose to do. So those are things you can and you should focus on changing.

At the heart of child anxiety is their relationship with you. That’s where we find the answers in treating their anxiety. You hold the key. And all of the hard work that you’ve done to build a loving, respectful, and responsive relationship is going to pay off when you turn your attention to helping your child meet the challenges of their anxiety. 

This is true for all facets of parenting and there’s a paradox at play here and in fact at play in all of parenting. That is that you are deeply essentially part of your child and they are entirely their own person having their own experience. It’s within this paradox that change happens.

Let me explain.

In parenting, especially in highly attuned and connected parenting, we and our children are sharing experiences. We are catching each other’s moods. We are impacting each other’s functioning. If your child is in a bad mood, you might feel bad and vice versa. If you are worried about something, your child might catch your worry. We are living in the same space. You are choosing fundamental experiences for them like the food they put in their bodies and the clothes they put on their backs. You are choosing where you both live. Whether or not details like open windows, colors of carpet, the presence of pets. You share relationships with other family members and other people outside the family. 

At the same time, you are having entirely separate experiences. You may love the open window and your child might find the sounds coming in from the street annoying or upsetting. You may be struggling with your child’s other parent and they are full of adoration for that other parent. You may serve oatmeal for breakfast and buy them a cozy sweater for chilly days and they may insist on Lucky Charms and choose to wear their favorite tee shirt no matter how cold it is that day.

And you may want them to deal with their anxiety and they are strongly committed to the avoidance that makes their anxiety worse. You can’t change that for them. You can’t change their commitment. You can’t talk them into it. So you will have to change yourself.

One of the most important things you can and should do is realize that your child’s anxiety belongs to them. It is part of their journey as a human being. Your anxiety — even if your anxiety is about them — belongs to you, not them. You have to figure that piece out. I talk to parents who get confused — where does their anxiety leave off and their child’s begin? Or they don’t know how to tease out the differences between them.

This essential separation is at the heart of parenting. It’s the work we’re doing for 18 plus years with an emphasis on the plus. We are dancing the weaning dance all of our parenting careers — figuring out when to step in, when to step away, when to offer support or advice, and when to let it go. Very often any conflict we are feeling in our relationship with our child goes back to this essential work. Either they are wanting more separation or we are wanting more separation and we are constantly pushing and pulling to figure it out.

It’s inevitable that we’re going to make some mistakes and step on each other’s toes. I think there is so much learning in these conflicts. Anytime you’re hitting a point where you are fed up with parenting in general or your child in particular, you can look to see at it’s roots there is this push/pull happening.

This is especially true with anxiety. 

You cannot make your child learn the skills they need to handle their anxious emotions but you can offer them. You can make them part of your family culture in the same way that you have shared your other beliefs, your other expectations, and your other everyday routines. You can show them by internalizing and practicing these skills yourself. You can use them to deal with any anxiety you have about your child’s anxiety. Children learn directly but also through observation. A child who is reluctant or resistant to learning is not going to be happy when you tell them to learn anyway. But if you do the learning yourself, they’re going to pick up on it. 

You can also decide your boundaries. Remember that your child’s experience of anxiety is theirs. But your experience of raising an anxious child is yours and you get to decide how you’d like to manage that. If you are experiencing frustration or unhappiness because your child’s anxiety seems to be demanding particular behavior from you, you can choose whether or not to continue with that behavior, to cease it altogether, or to change it. When you change things — whether it’s your behavior, or the environment — that will change things for your child. 

When we recognize and address the parenting pitfalls of anxiety, and change what we do, that’s how our child changes. 

Child anxiety tends to enmesh parents and children. It gets us all tangled up and forgetting or misunderstanding what belongs to us and what belongs to them. It’s the parental dilemma but on steroids. If you are unsure of where to start, I encourage you to go to that will lead you to my quiz based on the research about how parents get stuck in parenting their anxious kids. Once you’ve taken it if you have questions, please reach out to me. 

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