How do we know when to push our anxious child and when not to push?

How can we tell between a child’s anxiety about an activity and their genuine dislike for an activity? 

This is such a good question but I’m afraid I”m going to disappoint you with not such a great answer and that is, you might not be able to tell. And in fact, your child might not be able to tell.

And part of that is because if you think about it, we’ve got reason to dislike doing things that scare us. It’s why I’m never going to learn to ski. Going down hill fast is my idea of a terrible time because it scares me. I wear the brakes out on my bike because I keep ‘em on when I’m going down hills.

So I dislike going fast downhill and I dislike it because it scares me; it’s not fun. 

But using my brakes on my bike and not learning to ski doesn’t hamper my life in any way. Now someone who loves to ski might say I’m missing out but it’s a choice I’m perfectly content to make. 

On the other hand, there are other ways I’ve confronted my fears like public speaking. It scares the heck out of me but I’ve also learned to enjoy it. The results are worth it to me. So I have had opportunity to face my fears and learn to cope with my anxiety to access the opportunities I want to access.

With kids it’s harder because they don’t really have the far range thinking to figure out what’s worth it and what’s not. So we have to be part of that decision-making with them, which is really difficult. For one thing, we might have strong feelings about what’s worth it and what’s not.

If I’d grown up in a family where skiing was my parents’ favorite winter sport, maybe I would have conquered that fear because it would have been part of the family functioning to go skiing. I don’t know. Maybe it would have been worth it, right? To not miss out with the family. Or maybe I would have thrown such a fuss that I would have stayed at the lodge sipping cocoa. 

It depends on a lot, doesn’t it?

When you’re trying to figure it out, you’re going to have to look at the big picture. Generally anxious kids have anxiety that shows up in many different places. Figuring out where to address it, where to start, is part of figuring out how to parent a child with anxiety. 

How we make decisions in addressing our child’s worry will depend on how we consider a number of things:

  1. How is our family functioning? Where are we — all of us — struggling most? 
  2. How is our child’s functioning? Where are they feeling most limited or unhappy?
  3. How much time and energy do we have to tackle things right now? Are we ready to dive in and do big work? Or do we need to focus on small wins?
  4. How anxious is our child? Are we talking about every day niggling fears or are we talking about great big disruptive meltdowns?
  5. How motivated is our child? How interested are they in change?
  6. Are there skills we need to address first either in ourselves or our child? Are we able to cope when they’re not able to cope?

It’s a long list and we haven’t really dug into the details involved in each of those decisions. They’re all worth a conversation. 

Choosing where to address our child’s anxiety is intensely person. It depends so much on what we value and what we hope our children will value. If we know our child meltdown when we push, we have to know what’s worth pushing and how to do the pushing so there’s growth. 

We need to be realistic about our kids and their capacity

And we also need to be realistic about ourselves. Learning to parent an anxious child means shifting our perspective as well as changing our behavior. That perspective change is critical and that’s a bigger challenge than remembering to respond with this when our child does that. We need to know why we respond that way and we need to buy into it. 

For some kids and families we need to start super small. We need some easy wins before we head to the big targets. This is especially true for very sensitive children and very sensitive parents. We need time to acclimate and experience ourselves as a family that can do this hard work. 

For super motivated kids and families, we can start with the heavy hitters. We can sprint right to the top and dive into bigger exposures.

As an example, we might have two families with 10-year olds who are still asking parents to stay in their room until they fall asleep and that’s where the parents are hoping to see some change.

But maybe one child is dealing with the recent death of a beloved pet. Or is having a hard time in school. Or has no interest in sleeping alone. And the other child is more motivated. Or has less pressing worries outside of sleep. 

And we can look at the parents. Maybe the parent of one child has been working overtime. Or is worried about budgeting for the holidays. Or gets completely wound up when their child is crying. On the other hand, the other parent has a good friend who has offered to sit with them while they deal with bedtime. Or has a great meditation practice that helps them stay calm. Or is just fed up enough that they’re clear that this is what they want to do.

Any combination of this — a motivated child but a waffling parent or vice versa — makes it a whole unique proposition.

You know you’re pushing too much when you get overwhelmed either with your own emotional reactions or with your child’s. The people who I work with don’t tend to be people who are unreasonable with their kids. I tend to work with people who identify as gentle parents or respectful parents or attachment parents — there are a lot of terms that basically mean highly attuned, thoughtful, sensitive parents who care deeply about their parenting. These parents tend to go much easier on their kids than on themselves. They tend to sacrifice their own well being for the sake of their children in ways that don’t serve the family well. So I am less concerned that they are being too pushy with their anxious children and more concerned that they are pulling back too soon.

Or they are focusing on one area that is less important than another. So they are putting their energy in an anxious area that doesn’t necessarily align with their family values because they are trying to do what they think they ought to do. Parents of anxious kids — especially the ones who act out — are generally dealing with a lot of criticism and concern from others. Sometimes what we need to do is get really honest about what matters to us most. Maybe we don’t care about sitting with a sleep 10-year old but we do really want them to go to soccer practice.

See, those are very personal decisions. 

When you’re trying to figure out when to push and when not to push, I’d say where are you and your child most unhappy? Where is the easiest win? Start with that easy win and build on it. You both need to start experiencing your child as someone who is capable and brave. That can be very tiny. It can be a child who tolerates being alone on one floor of the house for two minutes longer than they used to tolerate it. Celebrate that success and go a little further. When you’ve got a handle in that area, look for where you’d like to take those skills next.

When it comes to parenting anxious kids, it’s a dance we’ll be doing all of our lives together. We’ll always be learning how to support without creating dependency, how to cheer them up even when we ourselves are scared, how to cope with our anxiety as we continue to celebrate their growth.

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