The question, “How do I motivate my anxious child?” is more complicated than it first seems because it’s showing that we may still need to make that paradigm shift where we need to put the focus on our own behavior first and on our child’s behavior second. If we are waiting for our child to be motivated before we start work on their anxiety then most of us are going to be waiting a very long time.
A lot of our anxious kids — and even anxious adults — aren’t yet in the place where they understand that their anxiety is the issue. A child who is afraid of dogs likely thinks dogs are the issue. A child who feels safest when their mom is around, likely thinks that the problem is that mom isn’t always able or willing to be around.
I think about my own fears as a child around thunder storms. I was terrified of them. And the problem, to my mind, was that thunderstorms existed. The solution my family used was to put me in the living room with headphones on listening to The Wizard of Oz on an 8-track tape. That way I couldn’t really hear the thunder and then I was no longer afraid. That worked just fine until one storm night the electricity went out and I was alone in a pitch dark room. As you can imagine, this did nothing to help me deal with my thunderstorm anxiety.
And this is because my family and I assumed thunderstorms were the problem and so we should avoid thunderstorms when really the problem was my anxiety.
I was not interested in dealing with my anxiety because that was yucky and painful and again, I didn’t think it was a problem in the first place. No the problem seemed to be that the world was scary and I wanted it to be safe.
That’s why we parents need to focus on our motivation and through that make good decisions for helping our children learn to cope with the reality that the world is often scary and not always safe. As our children get better at coping with that reality, we might see more motivation from them. Or if they’re focused on getting access to the things that they’re avoiding, we might see some motivation there, too. That might be a child who really wants to go to a slumber party but is afraid to sleep away from home.
But it’s ok to start before we’ve got their buy in. It’s ok to start with figuring out our own motivation.
Let’s talk about that a little bit.
The best way to understand how to motivate ourselves is to understand why we aren’t motivated. What is stopping us from climbing out of the parenting pitfalls we find ourselves in when parenting our anxious kids. For those of you who are unaware, parenting pitfalls are the things we do that keep us and our kids stuck in patterns of anxiety. An example would be my parents using that 8-track tape. It seems like a solution but it can be a trap especially if they started staying home on days when storms were predicted to stick close to the stereo. Or if — and this did happen — I started clamoring for the headphones at the first sign of wind and rain. If you aren’t sure about parenting pitfalls, you can take my quiz, which you can find at child anxiety support DOT com forward slash quiz and see if and how your family might be stuck.
Anyway, common reasons we aren’t motivated are:
- lack of time
- lack of bandwidth
And I’ll say that both of those things are predictably made worse by the anxiety itself. Because parenting an anxious child is exhausting and time consuming, right? So the traps seem like a way to deal with the anxiety less even though they tend to eat up our functioning.
Another common reason we might not be motivated, is we might have real concerns that our child isn’t capable of handling the demands of facing their fears.
I want to stop and talk about this one for awhile because it mirrors the reason kids stay stuck, too. They also don’t believe they’re capable of handling those demands.
Let’s take two kids who are learning to roller skate. One child isn’t anxious and they know they might fall but they figure they can handle that. The other child is anxious and they also know they might fall but they don’t feel capable of handling it. It’s not necessarily that one is predicting worse outcomes. Both children may have a friend who broke their wrist roller skating. So both might know that is indeed a real risk. But the non-anxious child may not just feel more confident in their abilities, they also may feel more confident in handling a wrist fracture. An anxious child is less optimistic overall. Their self concept — their sense of who they are — may be more negative.
These are the kids who say, “I know I’m going to fall. I can’t do it. It’s too hard.” And we go to reassure them, “You’re going to do great. You’ll be fine. Look, your little sister is doing it so I know you can, too.”
Remember, reassurance is the most common pitfall. And it doesn’t work.
That doesn’t motivate the child because we’re making the mistake that the roller skating is the issue instead of the anxiety. The truth is, they might fall. Anyone on roller skates might fall. But then again, they might not. And if they do, it might not be so bad. And if they break their wrist, well, that’s super lousy but they will survive it.
Even as I say these things, I know that as a parent it can feel somehow irresponsible. Like we’re saying that a broken wrist is no big deal. That they should just blow off their fears. Let me be clear, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that the big picture work of anti-anxiety learning is to figure out how to exist in a reality that is unpredictable and sometimes scary and occasionally even dangerous.
Such big work, I know.
Thunderstorms are usually fine but sometimes people do get hit by lightening, sometimes homes do get destroyed in tornadoes. Sometimes even our wonderful all powerful parents can’t keep us safe.
A hard reality for us as well as for our kids.
So where’s the motivation? It’s in believing that our children can indeed handle it — all of the uncertainty — and can have good lives in spite of the world being scary. We have to hold that belief first so that we can offer it to them.
You know how we talk about co-regulation a lot on social media, in parenting books and classes? This idea that we can bring our own calm to our children? This self concept piece is like that. We believe in them even when they don’t. We believe in their strength even when they feel weak. And this isn’t a suck it up buttercup, stiff upper lip kind of belief. It’s more, I believe you have the ability to grow through this. To learn about your inner strength. To learn that bravery means being afraid but doing it anyway.
We can motivate ourselves and our kids but taking things small. What began my ability to deal with thunderstorms, and this is a memory my dad brings up to me a lot so I know it was meaningful to him as well, was sitting on his lap on our front porch watching the storms roll in. I borrowed his bravery. He showed me how to find the delight in the big noise and uncertainty but it took practice and it took his help. Because he traveled, he couldn’t do that for me every time and my mom, with three kids five and under didn’t have time either. But that’s ok, because I got enough confidence to begin a fairly long journey of dealing with my fear of thunderstorms.
One thing that I think can be helpful is to celebrate your child’s wins big or small. You can announce this beforehand like, “Next time we walk by that barking dog, I will hold your hand but I won’t carry you and after we will celebrate with a sticker or an ice cream cone or big hugs.” Or you can just notice the next time your child has handled something I celebrate it.
This is different than reward charts although those can work, too. I just think we need to be cautious about relying on them too much because they can lose their effectiveness. I’m not against them — extrinsic motivation can lead to intrinsic motivation — but they can’t do the work for us.
My thinking is that once you have a child holding your hand instead of being carried around a scary dog, you might have buy in for a more explicit plan with a whole exposure hierarchy and stair step rewards but it really doesn’t have to be this formal.
If you are interested in figuring out a plan with clear steps and what to do when, I encourage you to check out the Child Anxiety Support program since this is what we do inside the membership.