How do I get out of the anxious reassurance loop?

Reassurance is the stickiest and sneakiest pitfall in all of the parenting pitfalls.

Let’s talk some about how reassurance looks. Because some parents don’t even realize that they’re doing it or that they’re stuck. It takes real attention and training ourselves to get out of this one.

Ok, reassurance can look like:

  • A child asking you to weigh in on their decision.
  • A child asking repeatedly if you’re mad at them or is their teacher mad or someone else
  • A child who seems to crave approval
  • A child who needs you to check if their shirt is clean or if the silverware they’re about to use is clean
  • A child who asks you to evaluate how well they’ve done a thing
  • A child who needs you to double check their work whether that’s a chore or homework
  • A child who is unable to move forward without clear directions or who repeatedly consults with you as they progress
  • A child who will say things like, “I’m just stupid” or “I can never get it” knowing you will step in and reassure them
  • A child who needs to confess to you either something they actually did or something they thought of like a bad thought or a mean thought
  • A child who worries that they might do something and needs you to reassure them that they won’t (like the internet)

Parents get stuck in reassurances because they work for non-anxious kids. They ask if things will be ok, you tell them it will be ok and they move on. We may do them without even noticing that we’re doing them. It’s almost a knee jerk, reflexive action.

To get out of the loop, we must first notice how much we are in it. The person who asked this question for the podcast, “How do I get out of the reassurance loop” is noticing at least some of the times they’re doing the reassuring. And when you notice and catch it, you can just stop. And keep noticing. Because likely we’re doing it more often than we realize.

So that’s the first step is noticing. Notice when you reassurance and then stop. It’s ok if you don’t notice until you’ve already done it because we’re just working on noticing and stopping when we notice.

When we do that our child is likely to notice, too. They’ll want us to reassure. They’ll bug us, they’ll beg us. They’ll whine and argue wanting to know. Which means we’re not just going to stop reassuring, we’re going to do something else and that thing is being explicit about not knowing.

“Will my teacher be mad at me?” We answer, “I don’t know. We’ll have to see.”

Our child asks, “If you go out, what if you get hit by a car.” And we state the obvious, “You worry about me when I’m gone.”

Our child says, “I”m so dumb that I’ll probably fail math.” And we offer, “Your anxiety is really being mean to you today.” 

The point here is not just to NOT reassure but also start introducing the idea of getting comfortable with not knowing. Life is uncertain. There are no guarantees and that’s anxiety producing. We know that. It makes us anxious, too. 

Learning to manage our anxiety is learning to manage uncertainty and the discomfort of not knowing for sure.

Once you understand that then your role in NOT reassuring is more clear. It’s not to pretend we’re all knowing or that we can guarantee outcomes, it’s to say, “I”m here with you when you are uncomfortable with the not knowing.”

Now this is a stage for all kids and parents. Over and over again they will need to confront the reality of our humanity, of our inability to control the world and keep them safe and sound and comfortable. It starts when they’re infants and we can’t get the pacifier fast enough. It appears again when they’re toddlers and the blue sappy cup is in the wash so all we have to offer is the red one. It continues when they’re eight and we get them to the birthday party late and when they’re twelve and we embarrass them in front of their friends and on and on and on.

Not reassuring is often uncomfortable for us, too, because most of us like to make our kids happy. We like to comfort and soothe them. We struggle with the uncertainty of the world. We have intrusive thoughts about their safety and happiness and that feels terrible and so we also want the comfort of reassurance. It’s ok to struggle with this but remember our job is not to make our child’s world perfect; it’s to love them while they wrestle with the imperfections of the world. 

One final thought here. I have noticed over and over again how often my relationship with parents will in some ways mimic their relationship with their kids. Not always, but it happens. A parent who is learning how to extricate themselves from the parenting pitfalls and for is leaning on me for reassurance. theyre checking, is this ok. Is my child ok. And I have to make note of that because it’s easy for me to forget to notice that I’m reassuring instead of gently encouraging the parent to lean into the discomfort of uncertainty. 

I want to reassure them that it’ll be fine and that their child won’t always have these struggles with anxiety and when I feel that, I remind myself that this is how the parent feels. This is how we’re all feeling. We all want certainty. Our child, ourselves — me as your friendly neighborhood anti-anxiety support person. We’re all in this together. 

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